2015 in review

Wow, people have read this blog about 2700 times from 55 different countries this year; that certainly does seem to make the effort I put into it worthwhile!

It’s also been great watching the quality of performances coming out of the blues community improve from year to year … I can’t wait to find out what you all have in store for 2016!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 45 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Noir Blues

Here’s another great example of where the quality of the performance really makes the piece.  I’ve seen a lot of performances which try to use a blank or neutral look to seem mysterious or thought provoking, but really not have the depth to pull it off.  Here Shawn, Julie and Natalya take that attitude and use it consistently and creatively in a way that really draws me in!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Natalya: We wanted this piece to have a “Film Noir” feel and experiment with lots of interesting, tangley 3-person shapes and partnering.  We started with the idea of us playing the roles of typical film noir characters – the detective, the secretary and the femme fatale – and we thought of the song as being narrated by the detective, expressing his heartbreak at having found a letter left behind by a lover who has gone.  

We did most of the choreographing with just these inspirations, and then later worked out the specifics of the story.  The plot line we had in mind was that the secretary (Julie), was the detective’s ex lover who he was not over when he started being involved with the femme fatale (Natalya).  So the detective is being pulled away from the femme fatale by memories of the secretary.  In the end, the femme fatale leaves him too, leaving behind the letter saying “there’s no use you lookin’, or ever hoping to get me back”, and the detective is left alllll alone :(.  

We thought of the piece as him remembering back to what happened like a day dream – that’s the mental image that probably resulted in the neutral affect we ended up having.  We didn’t want to spell this plot out for the audience though – we wanted the audience to be able to get the feel of the piece and leave the specifics of the plot up for interpretation.  I think this was achieved given the feedback we got!  

Julie: Also, when choosing the roles of the secretary and femme fatale in our “plot,” we purposefully chose the secretary to be the one drawing the detective away from the femme fatale. We wanted to be careful with that choice a) to not be too predictable or fall into tropes, and b) to avoid reinforcing any messages about your man/person being “drawn away” by someone more attractive/sexy.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Natalya: Julie picked the song, and again, it all stemmed from the Film Noir theme.  The song itself has the right dark, dramatic feel and the lyrics describe a typical film noir plot.

Julie: The 3 of us wanted to do a piece together, so I offered up a few songs + concepts, and this was the one we decided to do. For me, it had a good dramatic feel, and as Natalya said, felt like a Film Noir. I think it’s those horns in the beginning and the cymbal tap…Seems Noir-y.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Julie: We didn’t draw too much on other dances/dancers for this. I looked at a bunch of Chicago-style Steppin trio dancing videos for inspiration for the parts where all 3 of us partnered together, but I don’t know if we ended up using anything from that.

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

Natalya: We choreographed the first half of the piece remotely, when Shawn and I were in New York and Julie was in Boston.  Julie would send Shawn and I a few written ideas, Shawn and I would work out the details and fill in the blanks and send a video to Julie for feedback.  Our early videos even featured guest artists such as Josh Fialkoff in the role of Julie Brown.  

Then we met all together for a couple of long sessions when we were all together in the same room to set the tangley bits that finish the piece.  Our process there was to throw out a series of rather ridiculous ideas (e.g. “what if we both just jump on Shawn now?  hahaha”), try them out and see what worked.  There was a lot of playful “what if…” and “yes and…”, which made the choreographic process super fun.

Shawn: Yeah!  It was an incredibly fun process.  Natalya and Julie are both a fountain of good ideas.

Julie: Yeah, the whole process was really fun! It was cool to do the remote-choreographing thing–I give an outline/some ideas, and Natalya & Shawn bring it to life! And choreographing the 3-person parts was particularly fun! Lots of silly ideas, trying things…I still can’t believe that 3-person lift worked out, but it’s awesome!

Triple Heart Breakers

Here’s another choreography that was performed at North Star Blues this year!   What really strikes me about it is how good Megan, Feonix, and Erin are at always being present in the piece, even when they’re not in the spotlight.  It’s not just a matter of the moves they’re doing, they’re always actively engaging the audience and each other, which keeps me engaged in the piece overall.  Aspiring choreographers take note: this is one of the most frequent notes that comes up during Sweet Molasses that separates good performances from great ones!

They’ve also been working together to teach a class in DC to make a dance to another Ray Charles song … and have even considered doing a whole Ray Charles Cycle.  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see that!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

In this choreography we expressed three different versions of a heartbreaker–hence the coordination in color. One was the sweet girl-next-door (you’ll hear that Ray talks about a bobby soxer in the song), another was the classic femme fatale, and the third was the intelligent powerful woman (although we were thinking more about the badass, sexy PhD candidate rather than the sexy librarian stereotype). As the piece progresses we move into staggered unison movement to indicate the lines between each character blurring – they each become a different facet of the same person. Overall we were hoping to reclaim the negative voice Ray uses to describe a woman as heartbreaker by dancing as happy, sassy, empowered women having fun and owning it.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

We chose the story about the three versions of a heartbreaker after we chose the song. We listened to a lot of music and went with the song that had plenty of instrumental variation to play with, fun lyrics, and clearly defined sections that inspired each of us. This piece was a true collaboration between the three of us, so often it involved bringing back ideas we’d come up with, running them by the other women, massaging each section until we were satisfied, and then working through transitions. We loved this piece because it had each of us go outside our normal way of dancing–it required each of us learn the others’ styles. I’d never thought about how many variations there are on a camel walks or a tabby the cat, but each of us did our moves very differently.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

I always loved the choreography to New Orleans Bump at Lindy Focus. I’d also done some work with my own girl’s group in New York called the Sugar Foot Follies. Sharon Davis had a solo class and we took a lot of thoughts about variations of movement (especially pimp walks) and blues aesthetic from her.

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

The songs we initially considered were all very different, so the theme and story line came after our decision to go with Heartbreaker. Similar to the New Orleans Bump piece, we created a lot of shapes together–in particular in what we call the “tableau section” that starts at 1:40. The heart of the piece is the feeling of collaboration itself and the playful moments we had while putting it together. The concept is important but secondary to the energy of the music and our friendship. We were really focused on finding different ways to break apart and come back together, both with staging and timing.

Recommendations for other choreographers: We had some amazing rehearsals where all we did was watch one person do her solos, or two people perform the piece. These were our first “performances” of Heartbreaker and we all saw drastic improvement in quality of movement and facial expressions, as well as more creativity with styling. Feonix, Erin, and I trust each other and are all open to constructive criticism. That’s part of what makes us a powerful team. We had a great working relationship in terms of boundaries; it was easy to let the person with the most enthusiasm and powerful vision take lead from moment to moment. We were also very clear about expectations from one practice to the next and supported each other in accomplishing these intermediary goals.

My favorite secret about this piece: A lot of Heartbreaker was choreographed at Erin’s work gym where national security employees go to work out. One of my favorite moments was rehearsing as a guy sprinted on the treadmill behind us with a gas mask on. I don’t know who was more entertained–him or us!

Pleasure & Pop

Today we get something really special!  Carsie Blanton is a super talented musician and dancer; maybe you’ve even met her, especially if you’re from Philly or New Orleans.  Some of her music is good for swing dancers, some of it is good for blues dancers, and some of it is just plain great to listen to!

Right now, she’s going to tell us about a song she wrote, My Baby Can Dance, which is one of the biggest Lindy Hop hits I’ve seen come out of a modern musician.  My laptop may know how many times I’ve DJed it, but I’ve certainly lost count!  If you already know the song, I hope you appreciate the insight into how it was made, and if you don’t, go listen to it already!

Carsie’s last project was an album of jazz covers, many of which are great dance songs.  Here’s another good one.  Right now she could use your help to fund her latest project “The Radical Magic of Pleasure and Pop” which is shaping up to be a really fun album … I’ve already gone to Kickstarter and backed it, so I’d certainly recommend that you do too!

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?
 
To me, this song is about the joy and physicality of dance (and, less directly, sex), and how that joy can short-circuit the rational part of one’s brain. I want the listener to be so full of joy that they are totally convinced that this is a good thing. I want the reaction to be “oh well, who needs rationality?!”
The lyric communicates these ideas fairly directly, but I’ve also used the age-old tools of rhythm and melody to get people moving and feeling (and not just thinking).

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?
 
Well, the song itself is music from the past at this point (I wrote it ten years ago, and recorded it in 2008), so unfortunately I’m having a hard time remembering! But I know we used Slim & Slam’s “Tutti Frutti” as a reference track in the studio, because it was one of my favorite songs to dance to at the time. We tried to imitate that extremely tight rhythm guitar paired with a slightly looser snare drum shuffle (and then added even looser claps). So it swings with this tight little cute pocket – that makes me really want to dance.
 
We also referenced Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say Part II” for the vocal call-and-response part. That’s one of my top-5 favorite recordings of all time, in any genre, and it seemed like the time to try and rip it off (just a little).
 
What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?
 
I wrote it on my friend Danielle’s bathroom floor, in about 2006, the morning after a dance in San Francisco. I had just got off the phone with my mom, and was lamenting this terrible dance crush I had, on this guy who I found totally unappealing – except for when I was dancing with him, at which point I found him incredibly appealing. (I was just learning how to dance, so it was one of my first experiences of the “dance crush” phenomenon.) My mom actually gave me the refrain; she said she’d always thought someone should write a song about a guy who’s a total geek and maybe even a fuckup, but then the song would go “my baby can dance!” and it was all OK.
 
And I thought, I know at least twelve guys like that.
 
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?
 
Well, my favorite thing about Lindy has always been the levity and connection of it. I love to see people really making each other laugh, and doing sweet simple things in a connected way. I don’t particularly care about style or technique, except as it allows people to communicate better within the dance. I love to see people who are full of joy, and sharing that with their partner.

A Dance About Us!

I love this dance, but it’s not just about the dancing.  So often in our community I feel like we are dancing other people’s stories … the stories of musicians and a people from a far different time and place than the average attendee of a blues dance exchange.  We really mature as artists when we start creating pieces about our own lives instead of mirroring others’.

This piece really hits that on the head.  Joey took a really powerful experience of their own and has turned it into a performance that all the dancers I’ve talked to relate to because it portrays the kind of friendships, hopes, and loss that we’ve all had.  Sharing who we are with each other; it’s what art’s about.

What did you want to express with this choreography?
Joey: A few years ago, my best friend died unexpectedly due to complications with the flu. For the first long while, I would see her everywhere. Any one with even a slightly similar body or hair style would trigger all of the bits of my brain that were associated with her. I’d think about everything I had to tell her about what had happened since we’d last met. Of course, it was never her, and I knew that. So the stories would hang in my mind, and the realization that she wasn’t really there would sink in and hit me like a brick in the chest.

I wanted to honor that pain and in honoring that pain, the impact of her life on mine. I also wanted to highlight the importance of non-romantic relationships, and how they can be as uplifting and essential to our lives.

Laney: Joey really provided the concept for the piece, but while we were working on it we talked a lot about what kinds of movement gave the impression of a friend-type relationship vs. a romantic relationship. We also talked about expressing not just the “everything is wonderful!” part of being friends, but also the “life is really hard right now and I need support” part of those kinds of relationships.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?
Laney: Joey picked the song, so I’ll defer to their answer on this one.

Joey: I spent three years thinking about this piece before a song was ever picked. I never had any more details in mind, and at first it was too fresh. I was introduced to Albanie and Her Fellas by Mike Roberts in a class at Swing Out New Hampshire in 2014, and was all too stoked to throw the band my money. I had listened to the album maybe a dozen times (it’s reeeeeally good, guys. Like so good) before I was hit with December Song hard one day. I don’t know what made that listen different, but it threw me under the bus that day.

The lyrics are about just bumping into an old friend, and catching up, but there’s something wistful underneath it. The last lines of the song drive that home, “But now, once again it’s December. You know that time, really does move too fast”.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?
Joey: I feel really weird saying this, but none specifically. I’m sure others’ staging choices and framings did subconsciously influenced Laney and I while we were working on this, because we’ve definitely both watched our fair share of dance choreographies. But while we were working, we just jammed in our own bodies, and then experimented together, and went from there.

Laney: Agreed. It was pretty organic, we didn’t really draw inspiration from any specific piece or pieces. Workshopping it at Sweet Molasses was really helpful – it got us thinking about our blocking in a new way, and gave us lots of ideas for development going forward and how to make the story more clear.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?
Joey: I guess I started to answer that a bit before. I asked Laney if she might want to work with me in…late April? I had been sitting on the idea for so long that I knew I would just not get anywhere without someone to be accountable to. So Laney and I both listened to the song independently in our separate cities, and worked on it and thought about it. Then we got together during LindyCON and spent a few hours jamming on stuff together. Living in different cities has presented some odd challenges to finishing and polishing the piece. We got some great feedback at Sweet Molasses, and had a little bit of time to work before North Star to make one more change that we thought would benefit the quality of the dance. We went back and forth about how much hint to give that there was something off, but in the end, I still feel like the shock value of Laney’s dismissal is more powerful and more like what I felt than something that had more foreshadowing.

Laney: Yeah, it was interesting doing long-distance choreography. I do think that made us use the time we had together efficiently though. For me, especially initially, there was a lot of just listening to the piece over and over and over again and messing around solo. After we met the first time and had a better idea of the arc of the piece, we split things up a little – Joey would work on this section, I would work on that section. Then we came back together and put those together and finessed transitions/beginnings/endings. Toward the end we talked *a lot* about how to make the ending less abrupt, or…ease the audience into it somehow? We still might change some things and perform it again, but I do like the punch-in-the-gut feeling it currently has.

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.  🙂

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.