Flouer Does the Suzie-Q

So, I’ve really loved watching Flouer make her name in the blues dance community over the last few years, and I’m super happy that the final BluesSHOUT! performance interview from this year is her’s!

I asked her to write a bit about what it was like to get into blues dancing and figure out what it’s about as someone who came to it with a lot of experience in other dance styles, and what she writes at the end is really inspiring – it gets to the heart of having soul.  Discovering the music in your self, and your own sense of confidence.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

In short… I wanted to be a badass old man in a jam circle.

The kind of jam that starts when you’re just sitting, smoking your pipe, watching all the young whippersnappers jump and strut and tire themselves out showing one another up.  Finally there is a lull and everyone points at you.  They start calling your name, hoping that you will get up and dance just one song for the masses.  So you put down your pipe and get your old bones on up from that chair, creakin’ and a poppin’ like they do these days.  A good wink and a nod at Miss Suzie over there.  She’s a pretty little thing and you always knew she wanted to dance with you back in the day.……

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

The song sort-of chose me.  I love Lightnin’ Hopkins, he is my introverted happy place. With only his voice and a guitar he creates whole worlds around you, enveloping you in a cocoon of music to play in.  There is so much intrinsic rhythm that pours out of him.  It doesn’t come from a metronome.  It comes from his gut.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

— Awhile ago I saw an old clip of a “bucking” jam from an old black & white movie.  Something about the casual, yet self-confident way the men were dancing captured my imagination.

— Looking at old pictures of Lightnin’ Hopkins from his album covers… the way he sits in a chair is so interesting!

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

So here’s the story…

Since January I have been working with new images based off some applied anatomy classes I was taking and a free writing session I did on what I thought of as my “Blues Dancing Body”.  (I highly recommend writing about your own Blues Dancing Body.  Its a fascinating practice!)

I wrote about how I imagine my flesh dripping off me, sinking into the floor.
I thought about my spine as this energetic column of power at the center of my being, my organs and other body bits falling into place rotating around it in various ways.

Then, I brought the wrong kind socks to rehearsal!  They were far too slippery for the funk-blues music material that I was working on, and it was a mess.  So instead I put on my go-to chill-out happy-place Lightnin’ Hopkins album and just danced, playing around.

During that little improv session “Suzie Q” just sort of happened… the old man developed from the sinking flesh, the lyrics of the song, and envisioning Lightnin’ himself.  The ideas of internal rotation fell into place around the Suzie Q & Corkscrew movements.  I was watching videos of James Brown from working on the funk-blues material, and his old man antics fit right in with the rest of what was developing.

My choreographic process for this piece was different than it has been for my blues works in the past.  I spent a whole lot of time thinking about who this person was onstage and the movement that person would create, and much less time putting together the actual choreography.

So I was asked to speak towards the “Blues Aesthetic” of this piece…

Hilariously, I showed my “groundbreaking” choreography to my mother and her reaction was “Oh, that looks like some of the stuff you were doing 10 years ago!”

Which made me laugh, because its true.  From the beginning, this piece has felt like I’m cycling back to an old/new way of moving and creating.  I may be working from a new angle, but this dance has always been there.
I will say that if anyone would have told me that I had to make a dance that was super “blues-y”, I would never have let this piece slide out of my body the way it did.

We as a community put a lot of emphasis in our speech about what is “not blues” in order to define our dance form.  We spend a lot of time imitating movements from the outside in, and have difficulty finding the depth of internal understanding or the weight of cultural associations behind them.  They have become “moves” and not “ways of moving”.

But we are a community that refuses to go the easy route and define our dance by the basic steps.  Blues is defined by how you do something, and not what you do.  How you do something begins from the inside out.

So if you think I may have “cracked the code” on “being blues-y”  …  well, I don’t think I have, I’m just listening to my body in new/old ways.  I could give you a thousand academic reasons why this piece seems more authentically blues, from structure to subject matter, etc… , but mostly I just stopped caring if everyone thought I was blues-y or not.  🙂

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The Downtown Shimmy Works

It’s been a while since I’ve had an interview with a musician to post, but this one is worth the wait!  Joshua Fialkoff is one of the most in demand musicians in the blues dance community today, playing with both the Fried Bananas and The Downtown Shimmy at many of the best dance weekends going, and here he gives us a really in depth look at how he approaches presenting a jazz standard to us.

A lot of blues dancers have been talking about cultural appropriation lately and how we can really respect the music we love to dance to.  I think what Josh has here is an excellent example of how to go about that.

It’s also one heck of a good song.  Go listen to it on The Downtown Shimmy’s Bandcamp page, and then read his interview!

The Downtown Shimmy

1) What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

Though the version we play is an original arrangement, the actual song and lyrics were written by Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr. Here it is in its original form. Here it is a little later with Oscar Brown Jr. adding vocals. This song was written post-slavery but is clearly a reference to the work songs slaves would sing to help pass the time. Thanks to folks like Alan Lomax, we can still listen to many of these: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/.

2) What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?

Adderley’s interpretation of Work Song is upbeat and optimistic. Brown’s is slightly less so but, much like its predecessors, has the feeling of a song meant for helping the day go by. My arrangement is not these things. I wanted this version to speak of pain and hopelessness. I like to think that this message is clear but, if I had to point out specific elements that communicate these feelings, I would first point to the bass line. This is the first thing you hear when listening to the song, and its droning repeats tirelessly throughout. I would point next to the vocals. They linger behind the beat as though they’re being dragged through the song. And, when we arrive at the climax, the vocals carry the full weight of the silence as the most of the band drops out.

Our performing this song skirts the line with appropriation. Every time we play it, I wonder if we are justified in doing so. That said, I continue to perform it because it speaks to my soul exactly as I want it to – about pain and loss, anger and hopelessness. I also believe that, for those who are truly listening, this song serves as a much needed reminder that blues music is a stolen art form from an oppressed culture. There’s no giving it back at this point though. Blues is too tightly interwoven into the fabric of American music. I’m of the mind that we use it as a tool to remind ourselves of a tragic history, and to honor the struggles of its inventors.

3) What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?

Original songs and arrangements often feel like great reservoirs held back by weak dams. You poke at it, and maybe yank out a brick or two to see what’s behind. Eventually, the dam lets loose and everything comes pouring out. My best songs seem to come out this way. Sometimes though, it’s as though a song is hiding or scared. These ones need to be dragged out, or coerced. Some may take years to be fully realized. Some may never make it to the stage.

The original arrangement of this song (pre-Downtown Shimmy) came together pretty quickly. Once the bassline presented itself, the rest fell into place. The arrangement that you hear on the Downtown Shimmy album is no longer just mine though. It has evolved overtime, incorporating suggestions from my bandmates, or “perfect” mistakes we decided to keep. And this is how songs are truly written. Generally, though they’re conceived by the songwriter, they are children raised by a community, and one in which creativity and inspiration abounds. I’m lucky to have such amazing musicians with me, and much of this song’s credit, any many others we perform, go to them.

4) We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

Respect the song. I don’t think that translates to specific movement, but I can easily think of movements that turn our collaboration (your dance, our music) into a clear example of appropriation. I can also think of clear examples of our collaboration that honor the past, and show appreciation.

I find it helpful to put myself in a proper headspace before I start the song: calm, heart-open, somber. Being in that space, it feels easier to honor the song – to allow myself the memory of a tragic past, and a struggling present. Perhaps you’ll consider doing the same thing the next time you dance to a piece of music. You might ask yourself: What is this song about? How does it want to be danced to? While questions like these might not make you the best dancer on the floor, I feel strongly that they will push you in that direction. They will enhance your musicality and, more importantly, help bring consciousness and intentionality to your movement.

 

Damon on Appreciation vs. Appropriation

Since I was just writing about cultural appropriation in the theater and dance worlds, I want to show you all this article that Damon Stone just wrote  about what the meanings of cultural appropriation and appreciation are, and how they play out in our blues dancing community:

http://damonstone.dance/articles/appreciation-versus-appropriation/

I agree 100% with his view that, as white people in America, we need to be respectful of the African American experience that created the blues, but if we are we can take part in its living tradition.