Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: An American Dancer

I heard the news when, on the elimination show of SYTYCD, Nigel Lithgow announced the deaths this week of three American icons: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. We expected the passing of McMahon (from age) and Fawcett (from cancer), but not Michael Jackson. When I finally had a chance to flip over to the news, they were focusing on the confusing eccentricities of Jackson’s later life. Since I really detest celebrity gossip, I switched over to MTV where we all discovered the enormity of this man’s talents.
"It wasn’t only his dancing we loved,
but the power of his music to make us dance"

MTV is showing Jackson’s impressive catalog of videos, not just clips but the whole unedited versions.  What a joy it is to see this collection one after another. If ever I had doubts about his dancing talent, they were put finally to rest when I watched the long version of Bad with its lengthy group choreography worthy of Broadway. In Beat It the choreography paid tribute to Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story rumble scene. With his slightly shortened pants and stark white socks he remembers Fred Astaire, who was evidently a fan of Jackson’s. And, like Astaire, his dedication and respect for dance is evident in how his videos where shot: with the whole dancer, the whole choreography unmediated by tricky camera shots or sliced up by over-zealous editors.

But, of course it wasn’t only his dancing we loved, but the power of his music to make us dance. In Black and White we are treated to dancers from Africa, India, Native America, and Russia performing to his song. His moves are a part of the world dance vocabulary now. The choreography from Thriller and Beat It are the most well known pieces in the history of dance. I suspect all of us can recall at least one movement from Thriller.  Boys from across the globe learned and performed these choreographies at weddings, parties, in the streets. It a way, Jackson helped make it possible for men to dance with pride and freedom, the effects of which we see today on shows like SYTYCD and America’s Best Dance Crew.

He was generous with his music which never failed to make us feel its power. Whether it was for sheer enjoyment, as in Jam in which he attempts to teach Michael Jordan to moonwalk, or for global healing as in We Are the World, for which even Musak paused its programming. And how can we forget his tender voice in his tribute video for Ryan White. That song, Gone Too Soon, expresses what many of us feel today. What a tragedy that we will not hear from the mature Michael, who was in rehearsal for a new concert tour.

This is the Michael Jackson I morn today; the American artist, the American genius. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SYTYCD and the American Dance Renaissance

The new season of So You think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) has started (FOX Wed. nights 8:00, competition; Thur. nights 9:00, results). They are thru with the auditions and have selected the final 20: 10 girls and 10 boys (from this point forward the dancers work almost exclusively in mixed-gendered couples). As always, they have selected a range of dancers, some with already established skills, others with great artistic potential. And naturally, I didn’t always agree with their choices. In fact, they threw out almost everyone I was rooting for. Still, I anticipate an exciting season of dance. How could I not? Even the dancers who were cut demonstrated a level of talent that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented in dance history.

I have been out of touch with mainstream dance for several decades now so I was unaware of the developments in American dance training. How is it that so many dancers—male and female—can sustain multiple spins, acrobatic flips, and extreme splits? In my day it wasn’t even thot physiologically possible for most men to attain a full leg split…how wrong we were. Without doing any deep research (which I may do at some point), I am guessing that the increased strength, flexibility, and coordination of today’s studio-trained dancers is in part due to the increase in scientific knowledge about the human body in motion.  

Janelle Rodriquez, one of my bellydance sisters, once commented that bellydancers of the 1970s-80s demonstrated only a surface understanding of the movement rather than a deeply embodied one. After the fitness crazes of the 1990s, however, a deeper knowledge of the workings of the body in motion produced approaches to dance that require a more sophisticated somatic sensitivity. Suhaila Salimpour, Janelle’s case in point, is a product of this era and developed a technique that goes to the “core” of the movements, deep inside to the musculature.

I observed this teaching style in the gothic dancers as well. Since Salimpour and Gothic techniques require isolating and articulating joints and muscles, pedagogy focuses on contracting and releasing fractions of movement. Kinesiology courses, which address the science of motion, are sometimes required in serious dance training programs. In addition, teachers encourage cross-training in other dance genres as well as in stretch-and-strengthening programs like yoga and pilates which are now offered in dance studios. The results of these approaches is evident in the levels of strength and flexibility of today’s dancers.

The sheer numbers of talented dancers must also be attributed to our current dance-friendly environment. Borrowing from Anthony Shay, we could argue that America is undergoing widespread choreophilia: a love of dance.* There is also a vibrant circuit of dance competitions which challenge dancers to ever higher aspirations and afford teachers and choreographers with national exposure.  Show business ventures from the music industry, television, and touring dance companies provide dancers with real career opportunities.

In short, scientific knowledge, a choreophilic society, and economic opportunities are driving our dance renaissance. So, tune in to SYTYCD and let me know what you think.

* Anthony Shay coined the term “choreophobia” to refer to societies where dance “carries highly negative connotations.” Anthony Shay Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World 1999.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My SITA Chapter 8: Teaching and learning improvisation from Sahar

Suspecting that there was much more going on in solo improvisation than I understood, I decided that I needed more training in SITA. I turned to local performer and teacher Sahar. I have long admired Sahar’s solo improvisations with live music. They are sheer delight: refined, elegant, and humerous. In addition, Sahar and I had spoken about her teaching philosophy and goals and I knew they were in keeping with my current interests. As I believe its always best to start at the beginning with a new teacher, I signed up for her 6-week beginners course.

Sahar teaches beladi, the traditional folk dance and core rhythm of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and many other cultures of the region. Raks al Beladi (Dance of the Country) was traditionally learned and performed in the home by and for women, passing organically from mother to daughter. Movements extend up from the feet and hips giving it a grounded, domestic sensibility. It is distinguished from Raks al Sharki (Dance of the Orient), a variant of beladi that developed in urban and more public settings. Sharki drew influences from India, Persia, Turkey, and eventually from the West. It lifts out of the hips, reaching elegantly into space. Today, American dancers are likely to blend the urban and rural Egyptian varieties with our own social and classical traditions. Based on Wendy Buonaventura’s[i] descriptions of the traditional Egyptian forms, Sahar seems to be teaching a hybrid of beladi and sharki.

Sahar maintains the relaxed and inclusive spirit of the original beladi dance. Her goal, she tells us, is to give to us a vocabulary of movements (drawn primarily from Egyptian, but also from Brazilian and American dances) from which to make our own dances, expressing our own lives and not the lives of some timeless Egyptian dancer (my words, not hers). She provides us with a supportive environment in which to discover our personal expression of the musical rhythms and melodies. Sahar encourages us to leave aside our reluctance to move, to shed our emotional inhibitions so that we can discover how we uniquely express this vocabulary.

When Sahar teaches a technique, she also teaches the emotional, or spiritual, content it is meant to convey. For example, she tells us that the shoulder shimmy is celebratory and should be high and joyous. To demonstrate, she remarks on the exceptionally warm weather—“I can’t believe its January”— and performs a rapid shoulder shimmy. Emphasizing the importance of hands, she tells us that they should project energy and joy. Arm and hand gestures should say, “I’m so happy to be here!” Stylistically, hip lifts can be big and free or small and percussive. The latter “save” the energy for ourselves by pulling it in; the former gives it out by bold movements.


It is uncanny how Sahar directs our attentions to issues I have been consciously exploring at home. Learning to listen to the music and respond to it thru movement is a case in point. (See my blogs My SITA Ch. 4 First Try and Ch 7. Cypress Raks.) In her intermediate class, Sahar has us just stand, listen, and ask ourselves “Where do you feel the drum in your body? In the hips? In the shoulders?” Then she asks us to practice letting that impulse, our own impulse, move us.

Working towards a studio performance in June, Sahar has constructed a piece that alternates choreographed and improvised sections. We stand in a semi-circular chorus and learn a simple 8-count pattern of stepping towards one diagonal, opening our arms to frame, and dropping the hip for 4 counts. We then step to the other diagonal and repeat. Once we drilled that sequence enuff so that we didn’t have to think about it, Sahar asks us to perform it while concentrating our hearing on the drum patterns that play over the basic rhythms. Finally, we take turns stepping out of the chorus and improvising to those patterns.

I was just beginning to be able to do that…but here’s where my story ends, at least temporarily. Upcoming shoulder surgery will prevent me from performing until late summer and I have had to drop out of the class. In the meantime, I will practice conscious listening in anticipation of my return.

[i] Buonaventura, Wendy.  Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, (Interlink Books, Brooklyn, New York, 1998)