The Bard, The Blues
Hi there! Here we’ve got The Bard, Mr. William Shakespeare, and The Blues, Mr. Willie Dixon, and I’m me, Stephen York, the guy who selects pieces to feature on this blog, but generally likes to stay in the background and let the artists speak for themselves. Well, I did A Thing, so I finally have an excuse to write a post on my own blog!
One fact many of my dance friends may not know about me is that before I spent all my free time on the blues, Shakespearean theater was actually my primary hobby. Thespians like to talk about how they hold “a mirror up to nature” for their audience, but social dance lets every community member embody the nature of the art form, and I find that powerfully compelling. However, Shakespearean theater is much older than blues dance, so it has had a lot more time and academic interest available to think about how it actually works. As I spent more and more of my time dancing, I found I picked up a lot of concepts faster by applying the same kind of approach I was taught to take to Shakespeare on the blues.
Then along came a great event in Minneapolis called LindyCon. They’ve got the silly idea that dancers should actually talk to each other in addition to rocking out to music! So when they put out a call for speakers at this year’s event in January, I volunteered to give a talk about how dancers can learn from thespians, and this, The Bard and The Blues, was the result. Unfortunately, the video of the talk was lost, but that just gave me the motivation to write it up and post it here for all of you!
Proof this happened in real life. I swear I wasn’t fronting a messianic cult asking everyone to step into the light!
When I was running the idea of comparing Shakespeare to the blues, a friend of mine said something that really cut to the heart of the matter:
“They’re both pretty cool, but maybe it’s a little weird how much white people seem to like them?”
Because it is pretty weird when you think about it. I’m a middle class Italian-American kid raised in the suburbs of New Jersey during the 90’s. Shouldn’t I be listening to boy bands or something? How is it that the art of Elizabethan Englishmen centuries ago, or African-American decades ago can speak to me so strongly?
The answer is that at a fundamental level, people are all wired in about the same way, and similar sensory input is going to bring about similar emotions. There’s even research to back this up! Recently scientists have produced maps of how sensory inputs in different parts of our body correspond to emotional states, and the bouba/kiki effect shows how similar association between shapes and sounds can be found across cultures. On a more personal level, if you’ve ever watched a film in a foreign language and been able to understand what the characters were feeling by the way they sounded, you’ve already experienced this phenomenon.
When an entire culture’s worth of people have something on their minds, like African Americans had (and still have) the blues, a lot of art gets produced expressing how it makes them feel, and by an evolutionary process the really great art that communicates their emotions most clearly emerges. Those emotions can come through even to people from different cultures, though the finer shades of meaning will get muddied the less shared experience the two cultures have. If you’re moved by some other culture’s art and really want to learn from it great! But how can you get the most out of it? To know what it meant to the people who created it? Therein lies the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
Cultural Appropriation is a term you may be familiar with from Internet Flame Wars where some dancers tell other dancers they’re Doing It Wrong. Which can make it a touchy subject to discuss, but it’s really not that complicated. I remember my voice and speech professor explaining it quite simply, but since I also wear a systems engineer’s hat as my day job, I’m obligated to explain it to you using diagrams:
To appreciate another culture’s art it’s important to recognize that a very different culture produced the text, be it a song or a play, but performers of the text, whether dancers or actors, can use their understanding of that culture, along with what is universal to all humans to bring the meaning of the text into their new context.
Don’t Do This!
Appropriation happens when people make assumptions about the original culture instead of paying attention to it. Since the assumed context is really something the new performers have made up in their own heads, it really says more about them than the artist who wrote the text, and the entire process becomes a feedback loop of people reinforcing their own assumptions to suit their own purposes.
But why should you care? Worst thing that happens if you appropriate something, intentionally or not, is that you make some bad art, right? Not so much. People from the culture that came up with that art form are probably going to find it offensive that you’re misrepresenting what they, their family, and everyone like them is feeling.
Now, with Shakespeare, that’s actually pretty safe. There just aren’t any Elizabethans left to care. So go ahead and put on the most bombastic, over dramatic version of Romeo and Juliet ever. The worst thing that’ll happen is that I won’t go to see your play. But if the majority of the dancers in our community, who are white, do the same with the blues, they’re part of an ongoing dynamic in this country to stereotype African Americans. So, we run the risk of not only missing an opportunity to learn from some of the greatest music ever made, we can unintentionally make our communities unwelcoming to people of color.
Don’t be a bad Harlem shake video, y’all. If you want to know more about the exact details of how African American art is appropriated in America, and how that can perpetuate racial injustice even if you don’t mean to do so, that’s a subject for another blog post. For now I’m going to assume we all want to avoid cultural appropriation, even if it’s just so you can learn the most from the art you love. But how do we go about that?
Appreciation in Practice
Turns out that over the last few decades the Shakespearean theater community has gone through a revolution, realizing that they were performing in a very appropriative manner, and moving to a more honest appreciation of the text. In the process it’s transformed from having the deserved reputation of being good for nothing but putting high school students to sleep, to a vital form of theater that makes characters come alive on stage. I think there’s a lot we can learn as dancers from how that transformation came about.
Over the centuries since Shakespeare wrote his plays, their interpretation went through a lot of processes where people projected their own cultural assumptions into the words written down on paper. This often took the form of well intentioned editing and correcting “mistakes” in older copies of the text. Sometimes it reflected changing interpretations in British culture of what it meant to be a king, or of changing moral values, like when Bowdler went through and struck out all the parts he thought were inappropriate (giving us the word bowdlerized in the process). Sometimes it was just plain academics trying to obfuscate the text to make themselves look smart.
Whatever the cause, check out the result in Olivier’s 1948 production of Hamlet:
To my eye, it just lacks … soul. From the way he speaks the poetry, it’s clear that Olivier is performing his concept of how a Prince must be Regal; it just doesn’t match the verse, or Hamlet’s notoriously indecisive character. Despite what he says, he’s holding a mirror up to himself, not to nature. This is where all your bad stereotypes of boring, lifeless Shakespearean plays come from.
By the 1980’s this was clearly a major problem, and it was resolved by going back to the original text, or as close as we can get to it in the First Folio, and really looking at it in detail for hints at what the plays were supposed to mean, and what kind of people the characters were. Largely lead by a author named Flatter, thespians stripped away all the editing that had been done and asked themselves what clues they could find in little things like:
- Irregularities in the meter
- Original punctuation placement
- Placement of vowel and consonant sounds
- Cultural interpretation of words like you/thou
- Recreation of the Elizabethan English accent
And it turned out to be an awful lot, especially when combined with acting techniques like the Linklater Method which connect verse with those universal human emotions that get triggered by speech.
The basic premise of the Linklater Method is that the words we say aren’t just logical symbols processed by the rational part of our brains, they’re physical experiences, both in terms of sound, but also in how they literally vibrate our bodies. The lived experience of speech has a lot of impact that can cross language barriers, and you can study how the way someone sounds is actually a bit of a window into their soul. If you study it you’ll spend a lot of time doing exercises like practicing how to feel where different vowels and consonants resonate in your body, how to look for those sounds in written verse, and how to interpret that verse based on how its sounds will make you feel. Here’s an example exercise:
And if you think hip isolations are awkward, try practicing these for an hour in class!
With these textual and vocal tools at their disposal, performers started creating very different interpretations of Shakespeare. Here’s the same scene as before, done by David Tennant in 2009:
It just feels so much more alive than Olivier’s version! Like Hamlet is a real person with his own desires and flaws. Hearing Tennant nail the double consonant when he says “torrent tempest” feels just as awesome as watching a follow swivel real hard in a swing out, if you know what to look for, which reminds me …
Oh yeah, Dancing
I hope from that example you can start to see how I think we should approach African American dancing similar to Elizabethan acting. I thought about doing a side-by side comparison like in the last section, but decided I don’t really want to publicly judge anybody’s dancing, so I’ll just outline the process instead.
If you don’t want your blues or lindy hop to come across like Olivier’s Hamlet, you have to start by learning about the music and what it really has to say. Only instead of analyzing iambic pentameter, can you identify a rock song from a blues song based on its rhythm? How about a blues song from a swing song? How about a swing song good for Lindy vs. one good for Charleston, or a blues song good for struttin’ vs. one good for slow drag? And are you paying attention to what the singer is saying during all of that? There’s a lot of information available to you if you train your ear to listen for it.
Then you need to train your body to move in a way that shows you’ve been paying attention. Just like how the Linklater method deals with sounds being perceived in a similar way by all people, movement can have similar effects. That resonance exercise from before is very similar to a lot of the body isolation exercises we do as dancers, and they’re important for the same reason – teaching us to communicate clearly and precisely. Once you’ve studied the detail, though, you need to let go and let the music move you, just like an actor needs to let the verse flow through them.
However, where Shakespearean actors need to understand an Elizabethan mindset to interpret their text, as blues or swing dancers, we need to understand an African Aesthetic, because that’s what the people who came up with these songs and dances lived. I highly recommend reading the article on it I put below in the references section. If you’ve ever had the feeling that your dancing just wasn’t bluesy or didn’t swing in some way you couldn’t quite put your finger on, it might help you understand a bit of what you’re missing. As they say, “Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
I certainly encourage everyone to take a crack at breaking down their own dancing to see if there are any points along this process they really need to work on. Introspection is fun, and having self-knowledge feels good! Oh, and maybe you’ll learn a whole new perspective on life by coming to understand how people from a completely different background than you dealt with their problems! And maybe you’ll even dance a bit better. You might not become the David Tennant Hamlet of dance … I know I certainly haven’t … but it’s about the journey, not the destination, right? We’re all on it together.
Thanks for reading through all that! I hope it gives you some insight into how we go about interpreting art in the dance community, even if, or perhaps especially, if you’ve never thought of yourself as an artist. People tend to put Art up on a pedestal with Capital Letters, but I prefer to think of it as a really basic skill that everyone uses every day – it’s anything we do to let other people know how we feel. Even if you don’t have a huge audience, if you’re just dancing with one person for three minutes, what you’re doing is really human.
Oh, and I definitely recommend a bit of cross-training in the theater world! It worked for me anyway! I borrow a lot, from body awareness exercises, to improvisational techniques from my prior life as a thespian – both when I’m dancing, and when I’m teaching other people to dance. Maybe you could do the same.
Goodbye for now; hopefully I’ll see you out on the dance floor!
The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms
Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice
Acting From Shakespeare’s First Folio
Bodily Maps of Emotions
The Bouba/Kiki Effect