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.

red rum … Red Rum … Red SHOES!

The story of a blues musician selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads is such classic imagery, I’m surprised nobody has thought to make a piece like this before!  As always, Julie nails her interpretation of her theme through dance.  When I look back over the series of dances she’s choreographed, I’m really impressed with the versatility of her movement – it’s always so different, but always exactly what is needed at the moment.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

For a little while now, I’ve been playing with the idea of being not-in-control of my movement and with movement that doesn’t look controlled.  I started exploring that in my last solo piece, “Blue Midnight,” where I danced as a drunk character, and “Red Shoes” continues that exploration with a character whose shoes possess her & make her dance awesomely but not in ways she controls. The title and very basic concept came from the ballet titled “the red shoes,” which I saw when I was younger. I also thought a piece focusing on foot and legwork would fun and different for me.


Why did you choose the song for the piece?
I had started choreographing this to Memphis Minnie’s “Bad Luck Wiman” because I liked the rhythms, and Memphis Minnie is a boss. But around the same time, I was somewhere where Jenny Sowden DJed “Who Will Be Next” by Howlin Wolf, which I thought was really awesome and also had some great rhythm to play with (thank you, Jenny!). The Howlin Wolf song also had a darker and I guess more demonic feel to it, so it seemed appropriate for a piece that involved possession.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?
While talking about the concept, I got pointed to a cool LXD video called “Elliot’s Shoes,” which is basically the same concept. That piece have me a lot of ideas for the beginning of my piece. I also watched A LOT of James Brown and Michael Jackson clips, as well as my usual dose of looking at cool hip hop & breaking floor work videos.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?
Creating this piece was really fun but also extremely challenging. It involved a lot of fun experimentation to create the movements–lots of rolling on the floor, and a lot of “what else can I do with my feet?,” “how can I make this movement look like my feet are generating it?”. That was really fun. There were many challenging aspects thought too. It was physically challenging in many parts to get the look I wanted, and also challenging in terms of the dramatic arc of the piece–the song has a structure that’s repetitive and, other than the climactic instrumental section, there’s not a large change in the song that would indicate some change in the character, which I wanted to have for plot/interest reasons. I also went back and forth a lot with the balance of comedy vs fear/darkness in the tone if the piece, feeling out how my character reacted to the possession at different points in the piece; something I might play with in later performances. The last challenge was to physically execute some of the stuff while still playing a character & expressing how I’m reacting to the possession. If I’m able to perform this again, I’ll definitely be working on that.

Cuttin’ Choreography

Well, it’s high time I start posting interviews from my favorite choreographed pieces that debuted at BluesSHOUT! this year!

Let’s start with this one, which is a direct response to Dexter’s I Prefer You piece from last year.  It’s always a special moment when an artistic community becomes self-referential, isn’t it?  Actually, poking fun at your competitors has a long history in dances with an African aesthetic, and it’s great to see that expressed here.  I particularly like reading how Jenn and Julie worked to make sure this piece had bite, but still remained respectful.  I also wish you all could have been there to see Dexter’s reaction when it was performed!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Julie: This one was all Jenn’s idea, and I was her happy accomplice. We wanted to cut Dexter & Heriberto’s piece from last year, pushing the concept that they had danced over into the range of clearly-comedic, while also poking fun at/paying homage to Dexter.
Jenn:  I can’t take full credit for it, actually. While working on my puppet piece last year, Jonathan Pechon suggested that I do a routine where I dance like Dexter. I found the idea intriguing, but at the same time, I like to tell a story and/or bring something new to the blues table with my pieces. Going out and dancing like a second-rate Dexter just wasn’t enough. And then Shout happened. After Dexter and Heriberto performed, I found Julie as fast as I could because I knew she would be the perfect partner-in-crime.


Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Julie: We tried out 2 different Etta James songs, since we wanted a similar sound, but not identical to the original piece. We ulitmately chose “You Can Leave Your Hat On” because right from the beginning of the song, the guitar sound is very over the top bow-chika-wow-wow, which helps people understand right away that the piece is comedic. Also when we were dancing to the song, we were already cracking ourselves up.
Jenn: The song choice really did make us establish our priorities. The other Etta James tune had a more similar feel to I Prefer You. We went back and forth between the two for most of our first meeting, unsure of which one would make the cut funnier. Words failed us, so we got up, danced, and ridiculousness won.


What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Julie: Obviously, we drew most of the inspiration from Dexter & Heriberto’s “I Prefer You,” but we also drew on many other of Dexter’s pieces & piece’s he’s been in. There are direct references to “Even Swingers Get the Blues,” “Hound Dog,” and probably a few others I’m forgetting. And I’m also only half-ashamed to admit that we watched a few Chippendale’s and Magic Mike videos for inspiration as well.
Jenn: We also watched videos of some of his class summaries. “In a Groovy Solo Blues Mood” was a particularly big inspiration for me, and we looked to his masculine movement classes to help with styling. There’s even something we saw him do at Steel City Blues. I like to think of the result as a bit of a game: how many Dexter references can you spot? As for our other sources… the Chippendale videos were a bit of bust, but I feel no shame in what we stole from Magic Mike. We wanted to be as a ridiculous as possible, after all.


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

Julie: We knew we were walking a fine line with this: we wanted to be comedic and poke some fun, but we didn’t want to be mean or hurtful. We also definitely wanted to display good dancing in an interesting choreography. To accomplish our goals, we made sure to get ridiculous and do some silly moves, as well as take a few moves & ideas from “I Prefer You,” but then make them more over-the-top. To ensure quality, we studied Dexter’s movements and tried to recreate the style as much as we could. We spent a lot of time on movement quality and making sure we looked good, again to ensure that our comedy was backed up by actually-good dancing
Jenn: The original piece was used to block out the structure and flow of ours. We picked out the statement moves from it to include in our own. Patterns can be found in anyone’s movement, so we tried to identify and use some of Dexter’s. And, for proper cuttin’s sake, we took a few parts of the routine and tried to make them even cooler. To meet the submission deadline we had to divide up the first 1:45 or so and choreograph them separately, and we each choreographed our own solos. There was a lot of geeking out and analyzing what makes Dexter’s style so unique. A lot. I even grabbed Julie during Steel City’s Blues Clinic just for this purpose. And, naturally, we had to include the underwear toss. It had to be bigger though, closer to a shower. So, we leaked the piece to a few friends and asked them to, um, participate. The thrown shoes, however, were not our doing.

Dexter’s Black Beauty

 I love this piece.  Like all of Dexter’s performances, I get a strong impression that he’s not just showing me the attitude he’s trying to evoke with his dancing, he’s actually living it.  But there’s more to it than that.  Here we’ve got a dance that blurs the lines between jazz and blues solo movement, managing to simultaneously be both.  And it looks so effortless!  However, Dexter’s interview makes it clear just how much research and forethought it takes to make something so complex seem so easy.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

A lightheartedness expressed through dance. Simple but expressive movements that complement the music. The song has an effortlessness to it in the sense that it isn’t too heavy on the emotional spectrum. I wanted to convey an uplifting and inspired energy in my performance. My reaction to Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty” (the 1960 version from the Unknown Sessions album) was that if felt like a “stroll.” There’s also a narrative quality to it if you listen to the instrumentation as well as the chord and melody changes. It’s as if Duke Ellington and his band are taking us on an adventure, with the different instruments telling us various anecdotes. With all that in mind, my interpretation of this was a Sunday stroll and on the way being inspired by my surroundings, by watching people, by life, and eventually by meeting my muse, the “Black Beauty.”

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I was in Toronto, Canada for a workshop I was teaching in November of 2013. During that time, the annual Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret was also happening. My friend Brooke Filsinger (who organized my workshop and who’s also involved with the Toronto Lindy Hop scene) asked if I wanted to perform my Hound Dog Blues routine, a last-minute addition to the cabaret’s performing roster. I told Brooke that I wanted to perform something new. But I only had a few days to come up with a new performance piece.

I went through my music collection and, being a fan of Duke Ellington’s music, found something that inspired me. I chose “Black Beauty” primarily because of its feeling. I’ve mentioned this before in prior interviews, but I also choose songs based on their performance quality. I sensed a story in this song and it inspired me to come up with a story of a guy on a stroll…and something wonderful happens to him! I should also mention that since I was being introduced as a Blues dance instructor and performer at a Lindy Hop cabaret, I wanted a song where I could apply some Blues movement using a jazz song. I thought “Black Beauty” would be a good bridge for that.

In researching the history of this song, I found that “Black Beauty” is not without reference to the Blues. The song itself is described as having a “bluesy, somber sound.” Despite the lighthearted feeling of the music, “Black Beauty” is actually Duke Ellington’s elegy for Florence Mills, an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian who became well-known and loved in vaudeville and Broadway performances in the 1920s. She received international success and acclaim for the show Blackbirds, but died at the early age of 32 from tuberculosis and other complications, a result of her exhaustion from performing the show more than 250 times. Listening to the song, you can sense that it is Duke’s touching tribute to the life of the lovely wide-eyed performer and entertainer who inspired and brought happiness to her audiences.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

At the time I was choreographing this piece, I was thinking about my character. Having the idea for a “stroll,” I wanted a character whose movements would fit well with the story and the music. I’ve always been inspired by Gene Kelly’s dancing – the way he engages his audience as he moves across the stage in a carefree and expressive way. So, I decided I wanted to have that quality to my character and performance.

Here’s something that’s also interesting. Upon seeing my performance, my friend Jody Glanzer from Ottawa mentioned that the “seated sequence” of my choreography (where I’m just dancing with my feet) reminded her of Charlie Chaplin’s “Oceana Roll” dance from his 1925 silent film, The Gold Rush. In this film, Charlie Chaplin’s character is entertaining a group of ladies at the dinner table by sticking forks into bread rolls and pretending to use them as feet as he performs a playful and humorous dance. It’s a very entertaining clip from the movie and I’m very pleased to see the similarity and how I’ve unintentionally paid it homage in a way.

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

The choreography was born out of necessity (but not taken on without much enthusiasm). In this case, I needed to have a choreographed piece to perform at the Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret in just a few days time. Considering the audience and the event I was to perform in, I also wanted to choreograph something new outside of what people usually see me in as far as Blues dance performances are concerned. Something a bit more classy than gritty. Once I chose the song “Black Beauty,” everything else started falling into place. I let myself be inspired by the song, it’s emotion, and the story that unfolded in my mind. Once I had an idea for a character and a setting for the story, it was then about creating the dance – a Jazz performance with a Blues sensitivity.

For this piece, I integrated some Blues vocabulary as well as movements that had a “bluesy” feeling. The performance has movements that develop as they are repeated and which also travel across the floor depicting a stroll. The most enjoyable parts I had choreographing were the breaks and the accents! Sometimes, I have an idea of what to do with them first before anything else. Listening to the song, you can hear so much if it from the way the piano and the trumpet is played. There are so many opportunities to express so many things!

In cabaret fashion, I integrated the use of a chair as a prop where the dance would start and end. This reminds me how I later came across a YouTube video of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (his co-star in Singin’ In The Rain) doing a tap dance while seated to a medley of musical numbers. I was pleased to see how Gene Kelly, my influence for my character in Black Beautyhad done something like that. It goes to show that nothing that we do today in dance is entirely original. At some time, someone, somewhere has done it before you did. I think that performances of the past are not only things we appreciate, but also serve to inspire us and provide us with opportunities to innovate through our art.

Black Beauty, a performance of a guy who is inspired by beauty, dance, and life in the moment, has been performed in the cities of Toronto, Rochester, Seattle, and Seoul. It’s one of my favorite choreographies. I hope you enjoy it!

The Bard and The Blues

The Bard, The Blues

The Bard, The Blues

Introductions

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!

Proof this happened in real life. I swear I wasn’t fronting a messianic cult asking everyone to step into the light!

Cross-Cultural Art

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:

Appreciation

Do This!

Do This!

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.

Appropriation

Don't Do This!

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!

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.

Valedictory

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!

 

References

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