Friday, February 27, 2009

ABDC Finals: Hip Hop Decathlon

Its the next-to-the-last episode of America's Best Dance Crew. This week the final three groups were challenged to a decathlon of hip hop styles and steps. They each had to incorporate house and crump style while performing waves, threading, and tutting. Since I know so little about hip hop history, I personally found this challenge illuminating.

Beat Freaks opened with an excellent routine: tight synchrony, great formations, dynamic changes. Unfortunately, once Quest Crew finished dancing, it was all over.

This was some of the best contemporary dance choreography I’ve ever seen and QC performed to perfection. It finished with one dancer doing a back flip from sitting to standing! No hands! It was astonishing. Even their final number, OrQuestra, which featured head spins on the top of a grand piano while another dancer played it, was brilliant. Congratulations, Quest Crew. Right from the beginning, you stood above the other groups. Heck, I’ve been cheering for Hoc since his first appearance on SYTYCD!

Tune in next week for the big finale. They’re bring all the crews back.

Postscript: I can never resist passing on these cultural nuggets: Shane Sparks was complementary of Beat Freaks “King Tut” section. Stacked in one ascending line front to back, they wave the arms on either side creating the look of a multi-armed goddess. But the image is not Egyptian; it is decidedly Hindu. I pulled out my reference books and could only find one, six- to eight-armed Hindu goddess: Durga. She’s an insubordinate warrior goddess, protectress of the cosmos, slaughtering demons and answering to no man, human or god. Her potency is not for nurturing but for doing battle. She’s a perfect model for hip hop women. They should name the step after her.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Daring to dance for joy

In the last 5 years, Americans have witnessed an unprecedented increase in dance activities in film, television, and on the internet. This of course reveals a huge increase in personal involvement and commitment to the art. Why, I wonder, has this passion for dancing arisen now? Why do we collectively need to dance more? How is it serving us?

Barbara Ehrenreich argues that dance is an evolutionary trait creating a group synchrony designed to help the group face threats to either the group or its individuals. If so, then it should not come as a surprise that we are turning back to dancing. The threats inflicted by the Bush administration on our society and on our person are serious: loss of jobs, inflation-recession-depression, wars with unimagined human rights violations, failing banks, and a crippled constitution. In response, to save our own lives, we soothe our wounds through kinesthetic reunion: we dance.

In dancing—and watching dancing—we resist socio-economic pressures. We replace our grief with camaraderie, physical pleasure, and spiritual joy. In dancing, we stand up on a stage and shout “Look at me! I’m still here. I’m still alive.” As long as we dance, as long as we dance together, we can take anything they throw at us.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My SITA: Chapter 1. Improvisation in Uncertain Times

I’m a 57 year-old woman and have been unemployed for the better part of two years. So when I revisited the idea of performing a solo, improvised bellydance, I thought, Hell, if not now, when? And I resolved to dance in public to an audience of my friends before I turn 58.

My past experiences with improvised dance are not among my fondest memories. In the 1980s, I was a modern dancer training in some old school forms (Graham, Humphrey, Limon). Within the modern dance community, I explored improvisational dance and performed for a time with Truda Kaschmann, a student of the German expressionist dance. Generally, I found improv uncomfortable; sometimes I just plain hated it. I liked my dance steps to be predictable, the way I liked my life.

But that was eons ago and I am in a very different reality today. I can no longer imagine my own future. My body has morphed, my career plans busted, and the entire world economy is in free-fall. I have no idea what might happen next and no way to plan. So it seems appropriate that I want to reflect all that uncertainty in dance. Part of my desire to perform SITA is to learn to trust and embrace that unknown.

SITA stands for Solo Improvised dance grounded in Torso Articulations. It was coined by Iranian dance scholar Anthony Shay to designate a genre of dance widely practiced throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean which emphasizes the skillful articulation of the torso—the shoulders, chest, belly, and pelvis.

Unlike the abstract improvisations of the 80s, SITA is grounded in specific steps, movements, and styles. It provides a basic vocabulary from which to draw for choreography or improv. Both require rehearsal, in one case to memorize and in the other to be open to discovery.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beat Freaks rip the floor

Gender was also foregrounded on last week’s episode of America’s Best Dance Crew. In the Battle of the Sexes Challenge, the final four consisted of two all-girl crews—Beat Freaks and Fly Khiks—and two all-boy crews—Quest Crew and Strikers All Stars. They were challenged to perform to a male or female singer. Unfortunately, two of the choices were recently scandalized Chris Brown and Rhianna. I suspect there was no time to remedy this as it would have been unfair to Quest Crew and Beat Freaks who drew the tabloid couple and who had only a week to choreograph their sets.

But it didn’t matter. The winner was overwhelmingly clear. Beat Freaks “ripped the floor!” as judge Shane Sparks exclaimed. I can’t entirely put my finger on it, but this performance was far more powerful than any of the women steppers I saw in Stomping on the Yard (see my blog “Stepping on Gender”.) Their choreography and performance were completely convincing. They owned the movement and won the moment.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stepping on Gender

The 2008 Stomping On The Yard stepping competition was recently televised on CBS College Sports Network.

If you are not familiar with stepping, I strongly recommend that you rent the movie, Stomp The Yard, for an excellent portrait of stepping and some of the best movie dancing ever. For more complete historical and cultural analysis, read Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance by Jacqui Malone. Minimally, you need to know that stepping was developed in traditionally Black college fraternities and sororities. Emerging in the 1960s, stepping has its roots in black marching bands, tap, and a host of other African American dance forms. As a competitive form, it is purely Africanist. Malone argues that “competitive interaction” is at the heart of African American social forms from jazz to playing the dozens to tap and break dancing battles.

Here’s what else I learned from the CBS broadcast:

Stepping is not a goal in itself: Stepping is about becoming a man. It’s a tool to help young black men develop leadership skills. By working as a team in both stepping practices and in community service, they learn about the power of cooperation, about brotherhood, fraternity. They train local kids to step in an effort to inspire them, to help them imagine themselves as college students. They show respect for their churches demonstrating that god, community, and dance are integrated into one whole lifestyle.

Warrior themes are common in men’s choreography: from Star Wars storm troopers to Roman warriors to American military. Other crews wear suits, representing modern leadership positions. Precision, synchronized hamboning and stomping is paired with theatrical and athletic tricks, and always accompanied by fierce facial expressions.

Black sororities also have stepping teams who compete for the women’s title at SOTY. They also serve their communities, teaching step to children, and sponsoring pageants for the girls. But their overall mission does not seem as clear as it is for the men: and their choreography, which doesn’t seem to be fully developed, reflects this. Leadership, with its symbolic representation in the Warrior, is the issue Black men contend with in their step. Black women’s issues must be different. How might those issues change stepping for women? I would love to hear comments on this subject.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Judging the judges on ABDC

Last week on America’s Best Dance Crew, Lil’ Mama reprimanded the studio audience for hissing at judge JC’s comments about Quest Crew’s performance. “Sometimes ya’ll just need to like quiet down so they [the dancers] can get the message that he’s trying to give these young men up here,” she said. “Because they might be able to use that next week to help them out…You’re crowding our words of wisdom that can shed light onto these crews.”

And these judges—award-winning choreographer Shane Sparks, boy-group phenom JC Chasez, and hip-hop choreographer and singer Lil Mama—obviously have some wisdom to impart. Listen closely to what they are telling these dancers. In addition to specific comments on the dance, they express surprising sentimentality towards family, friends, and the art of dance marking them as the highest priorities in life. They espouse a clear set of ethics including cooperation and peaceful resolution to conflict. And they believe it the power of dance to impart these values.

Most dancers never have a chance to be critiqued by professionals, let alone by critics with a civil tongue. ABDC’s judges always offer constructive commentary on the choreography, performance, and the degree to which the task was satisfied. They compliment the performers when they honor their dance traditions and ancestors as well as when they demonstrate fresh innovations.

Its clear that the competitors themselves appreciate and respond to the judges’ commentary. Indeed, the increasingly high levels of professionalism, creative choreography, and personal expression in the dancers may be attributed to the judges commentary. So listen up, audience. You might learn something too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sense memories of a lost childhood in New England

I have a life-long condition called depression: clinical and chronic, I cannot remember a time without it. As a girl in the 1950s, a time when depression was barely recognized as an adult condition, my suffering was mostly misunderstood by everyone except my mother, from whom I inherited the tendency.

Depression creates a dark gloss or veil over all normal emotions. Typically, all emotions would quickly convert to either despair, self-loathing, or rage. As a consequence, my childhood memories have not been altogether pleasant. I remember once when I was a teenager, I looked back over my life and could see nothing but tears.

I am 57 now and my depression is under control through medications and wisdom. In my long struggle to come to terms with a lost childhood, I discovered something surprising. Lurking below the dark gloss were sense memories of childhood play. And by focusing on those senses, I have reclaimed some of my childhood memories of growing up in New England.

I can recall the delight of playing hide-and-seek in the grass maze the older kids created down in the field
the thrill of spinning and rocking the tilt-a-whirl
Riding my bicycle home from a friends house after dark
Or playing kick-the-can on summer evenings with neighbors and cousins
Playing until the sun was long set and our parents had to called us in
(I miss playing outside after dark)

I remember the sheer joy of running around in a summer downpour, splashing barefoot in puddles, squishing soft mud through my toes
Of listening to the babble of a brook edged in ferns, lily of the valley, and skunk cabbage
Of discovering a patch of wild violets or a lone, rare lady slipper
The sweet/sour taste of wild grapes ripening on the vine
I remember lying on the edge of the lawn for the pungent smell of a freshly tarred road or to pop asphalt bubbles on a hot summer day

I can recall the smells and colors of autumn in New England
The way the colors become fluorescent after a rain
The golden color cast on them by the setting sun
Throwing myself into a pile of dried leaves smelling of dust and spice
Picking pussy willows and cattails
Roaming freely through the small woods and fields

I remember the quiet peacefulness of ice-skating on the small streams that ran through The Woods and marshes
The wonder of watching water flow below the surface of the ice

The magic of racing through the snow maze in Brattleboro, VT that was deeper than I was tall
The pleasure and pain of the nose-freezing walks along snowy paths to reach the ski jump where my cousins competed
Of hopping on a sled or toboggan or piece of waxed cardboard and sailing down a bank of snow
And I still recall the crazy taste sensation of sugar-on-snow (hot maple syrup drizzled on clean snow turning it into sticky candy) served with a dill pickle and plain donut at the winter festival

All these sensory experiences existed simultaneously with my depression. They were real. And with a breath, I can remember and enjoy them today.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My SITA Introduction: Moods and Motivations

Here I go again. The more I dance, the more I must dance. So I can never get enough, can never feel satisfied for more than a moment. There is always the promise of the next dance, a new dance, a new kinetic experience. It is an irresistible force.

I remember when I was a modern dancer in Hartford, Connecticut in the 80s. I worked a full time job as a proofreader and attended classes, rehearsals, and performances six days a week. At one point, I was a member of three dance companies at one time, one of them a three hour round-trip commute. I was jealous of every choreography that did not include me. I was driven and greedy. That was when I realized that I was powerless over that drive to dance…and that maybe that wasn’t such a good thing. Finally, fatigue and injury forced me to put my modern days to rest.

When I began bellydancing in 2001, I deliberately shied away from performance opportunities, beyond a community parade or two. I didn’t want to be involved in the politics of dance, its egos and jealousies, let alone the grueling rehearsals. I’d done that before and I knew I would be happier if I remained neutral. I just wanted to be in a classroom learning to do this new dance for its own sake. For my own sake, for that kinesthetic challenge that I can’t live without. And for the sisterhood that can evolve from dance studio life. Nothing more.

But as I learned how to perform bellydance, I naturally wanted to show that off. I wanted to perform again. I had discovered by then that this performance community was much more forgiving than the modern one I had belonged to in Hartford. At bellydance events, rank beginners are welcomed on to the same stages as the experienced dancers (admittedly, a mixed blessing). So when Helene asked me to perform with her company Sisters of the Desert Sky, I thought, Sure, that’s harmless. Just a few performances in non-competitive contexts. How can I say no to that performance at the senior center? That’s not much. Oh, Just one more workshop. I’ll be careful. Plus, I’ve got all these great costumes; I really ought to use them.

So here I am again. Suddenly inspired (perhaps by the Obama aura), I began to ratchet up my dance activities. I signed up for classes with Janelle; then Sahar; threw in a few veil classes with Helené. Audrey and I choreographed some new pieces, which, along with our group improvisation (American Tribal Style), we are scheduled to perform in early March. I am trying to find the courage to commit to performing a solo improvisation at a monthly showcase. My head says yes, go for it but my joints are screaming “NO MORE!”

But as a dancer I still have more challenges that I want to face. I want to find out who I am when I’m dancing; I want to trust that. I want to express, reveal, and share what wisdom I may have gained in 50 years of dancing. I sense that I am getting closer to understanding something about what it is to be a dancer. So, dearest body, just this one more challenge before I retire. Again. I promise.