Friday, January 9, 2009

“Hey! That’s not dance. I know dance when I see it…or do I?”

SuperStars of Dance (a preposterous idea to begin with) exposes a number of interesting issues concerning dance, including the nature of dance itself.

We might define dance as a patterned sequence of movements, gracefully executed, and intended to express something in performance to music. Except that I can think of several dance forms that contradict that: Merce Cunningham’s chance choreographies are a major case in point as is Contact Improvisation. The category of “dance” itself is an ambiguous category which may not be applicable everywhere at all times. So how can we make sense of the variety of structured movement systems on display in SuperStars of Dance?

There are personal and political stakes in classifying movements as “dance,” or as “martial art,” “sport,” or “prayer”. When, for example, the “Whirling Dervishes” perform for Americans they are often advertised as dancers. The “Dervishes” (a term they don’t like) are proponents of a Sufi order, Mevlevi. Because Irani leaders are averse to dancing as a social activity (they are what Anthony Shay calls “choreophobic”), it is dangerous to call the rhythmic, synchronized whirling of these Sufis “dance.” To do so is to open them up to charges of heresy: whirling is a prayer activity. It’s the difference between sacred and secular.

As a second example, after China’s Cultural Revolution, social dancing was forbidden. In order to dissociate disco dancing (which became very popular in China) from the bourgeois West, it was reconfigured as a public, group exercise activity — like tai chi — thus fitting it into an on-going Chinese movement tradition. When the producers of SSD accepted Shaolin martial arts masters into their dance competition, they simultaneously acknowledged them as dancers.

Complicating the matter even further, dance itself constantly merges with other movement systems making its boundaries indistinct. We have seen dance combine with martial arts, as in the Brazilian capoeira/samba complex. We have also witnessed martial arts movements become dance. The “ginga,” which is the basic step of capoeira, was adopted by NYC hip-hoppers who saw it performed in the parks. These exchanges are not only a modern phenomena. In the late 16th century, South Indian kathakali dancers used the training techniques of the 12th century martial art, Kalaripayattu.

There is precedent for dance entering the world of competitive sports. Olympic synchronized swimming can be directly traced to the mid-century choreographies of Busby Berkeley. Some years ago, DanceSport, formerly called Competitive Ballroom Dancing, attempted to enter the Olympic arena. I don’t think they were successful. But ice dancing is an Olympic event. Aside from the ice skates, how is the choreography for an ice-dancing pair different from the choreography performed by the South African Latin ballroom team? The woman spent most of the time in the air doing balancing tricks. They were great at that but what happened to all the leg work that has always been an essential element of ballroom dancing? In addition to these instances of dance becoming sport, there are many examples of dancers competing for prize or pride without losing their identities as dancers: ballet, hip hop, Irish step, African-American stepping, tap…you get the idea.

In Monday nights episode of SSD, the Shaolin soloist with weapons was criticized for having too few pure dance “elements” (lets think about dance elements next time we watch…can you determine which elements are dance?). The judges were also troubled by the Argentinian Gaucho trio’s interpretive dance with bolos. The Chinese duet were acrobats from Red Apple circus. I was wowed the girls ability to balance on the shoulder of her partner on pointe shoe, that most iconic of dance shoes. Still wasn’t dance, though, was it?

What ideologies or aesthetic criterion should we use to distinguish between ice-skating pairs and Latin ballroom pairs? Is there room in the Western category of “dance” for sport dance or martial dance as well as art or social dance? Is “dance” a collection of specialized steps and movements intentionally performed? Or is it an experience of the moving self in a particular social, cultural, and historical context? Is it dance if the people performing it say it is and what might their motives be in so defining a their activity?

In actual practice, categories of human movement are flexible and context-dependent. And there is no real answer to the question What is dance (although I do love to play around its edges). In this global movement environment, we should expect to see more juggling of movement systems and remember that these reclassifications will surely be contested.

Here are some more comments on Monday nights performances.

USA tap solo. This woman met and worked with Gregory Hines and Savion Glover on set of “Tap” and that ain’t no fooling around. That girl could dance! A gold medal performance if ever there was one. It had charm, grace, humor, and skill. What did those judges see? This was a 10, easy. A clear case of BBI: betrayed by idiots! What an insult to this virtuosic dancer. (I wonder, what DID those judges see and through what cultural lens?)

Russian Cossak group. Good but I saw better in Yul Brenner’s Tarus Bulba.

Indian bhangra harvest dance group. Well done. Bawdy and gaudy as it should be. But was it the best bhangra? Shouldn’t we judge a performance of bhangra against other bhangra performances? Or with other Indian dances or other harvest dances?

South African fusion solo. I was electrified by it (my husband was cross-eyed). Her screams and body shivers, the mix of African and modern dance appealed to me. She seemed to be performing in the traditions of Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Alvin Ailey bringing traditional African themes and styles onto a modern stage.

Irish step pairs. Ok Renee, I said to myself, be open to it. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Irish dance. It just doesn’t move me. But I really enjoyed this performance. The couple are well suited to each other stylistically and technically and they had chemistry. I was taken in completely by their choreography and their performances. The white wedding dress on black tights lent dignity to what often seems to me an inelegant form of dance. I was happily surprised.

Australian contemporary solo. A mix of athletics and pure dance, this was an excellent example of the form. I’m an old timer: I come out of the Modern dance era--Martha Graham, Judson Theater, and the like. But I’ve been out of the scene for a long while. I first encountered Contemporary dance on SYTYCD. It has very different qualities from old-school modern. I think I’m beginning to identify some of its features: it appears free flowing, direct, intense. I should study this more. It’s a reflection of a generation about which I know little. What might I discover?

USA hip hop group. Well, ya can’t beat US hip hoppers. Apparently, the judges agreed with me. Upbeat, democratic…very American. Group/team hip hop is another 21st century dance development that I’ve been watching on America’s Best Dance Crew.

All in all, SuperStars of Dance should have had a much higher quality of dance. It feels like the producers just wanted to capitalize as quickly as possible on their previous successes. Their standards are uneven, their definition of dance overly broad even by the standards of today’s creolized movement forms, the solos are too short for the dancer to develop any kind of narrative. I see much better performances locally (but I live in the San Francisco/Santa Cruz area which is rich in ethnic dance. Just attend one of the annual SF Ethnic Dance Festival weekends for proof). I hate to complain. It isn’t often that world dance is featured in primetime. But so far…feh. SSD does not live up to the level of excellent shows Nigel Lithgow and Simon Cowell have previously produced.

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