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!

We Prefer Them

Here we’ve got for you my other favorite piece from BluesSHOUT this year!  I really appreciate that Dexter wanted to show that solo dancing isn’t just for the ladies.  And also, he did a fantastic job of matching the attitude of the dance to the attitude of the music – and you can tell from the video that it drives the crowd wild!  However, you can tell from his in depth interview that his artistic success came, not only from inspiration, but from a lot of hard work and thought about his craft.

And thinking of the crowd, this time there are some bonus questions that Dexter answers for us!  They address some issues I heard people talking about after the performance at BluesSHOUT.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

The choreography in this piece expresses a lot of attitude, confidence, and a good amount of sass I would say. For our first collaboration, Heriberto and I also just wanted to perform a solo Blues piece that was fun and entertaining to watch. I think we succeeded on all counts. 🙂 In choreographing this piece, I wanted the movements to be simple but dynamic, each movement having a purpose and strong relation to the music. For entertainment value, we added some parts in the choreography to “tease” the audience but still held it to the intentions we had for our movements. The first thing people would say is that it’s sexy, but I think the sexiness is a result of us moving confidently. When I first communicated with Heriberto about this I wanted to be very clear that we weren’t just doing the movements for the sake of being sexy, but that the movements had to come from a place of skill and prowess and which were purposeful to the music. From our initial conversation and knowing Heriberto’s professionalism and skill, I knew that we were on the same page for this performance. We also knew the reaction we would get teaming up for this performance which made this collaboration exciting for us.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I was listening to my Pandora station one day and “I Prefer You” by the late and great Etta James came up. Immediately, I knew that I had song I could use for my performance with Heriberto. I chose this song because it has a strong performance quality and simply because it has a “fun” vibe to it. Immediately, the music comes out strong and confident and is layered with strong brass and percussive elements topped with Etta’s brazen singing which made for a fun and inspiring time choreographing. In this song, Etta sings about qualities that she prefers in a man and that’s where I had this idea for Heriberto and I vying for Etta’s attention as we danced. Who does she prefer? Heriberto or me? 😉

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

This performance piece was mostly inspired by the song, so I couldn’t say that other dances influenced this one. But in putting this together, I incorporated movement ideas I saw in other performances by The Temptations, Bruno Mars, and a group called Purple Haze led by Darius Crenshaw.

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

Heriberto and I had talked about performing together for the past two years. Prior to this, we’ve been hearing about each other through the “news feeds” and through other people who have been comparing our movements. Occasionally, we would meet at dance events and eventually began our friendship. I have much respect for what he does in the Latin dance scene and admire his own movement. Plus, he’s a very nice and down-to-earth guy. And so we talked about performing together. Once we had the song and concept for the performance, it was just a matter of choosing a date/event to perform it at, then scheduling choreography and practice a few months before. We were planning on performing it for bluesSHOUT last year (in St. Louis), but Heriberto had a conflicting gig that same weekend. Fortunately, there were no conflicts during this year’s bluesSHOUT in Chicago.

For this performance piece, I choreographed most of it with Heriberto choreographing his own movements in the beginning where we trade off and at the end where we do a “free-for-all.” I started choreographing in March in between the teaching and traveling I was doing. I went about choreographing the song sporadically and out of order, choreographing the points in the song that stood out strongly to me and then filling out the rest later. Once I had finished the choreography, I sent Heriberto a private YouTube link for him to practice and review which was followed by scheduled practices via Skype. He was a good sport in my critiquing his movements and getting him to change (or at least tone down) the “Latin” in his movement and making it more “Blues.” 🙂

As for the blocking for this performance, I found myself having to continually move forward in my choreography which, in the context of how performances are typically presented (with the audience in front), made this piece challenging and exciting at the same time. Immediately, I was hit with the idea of dancing up and down a “catwalk” which, in the spirit of the song, only enhanced the theme of Heriberto and I “vying” for Etta (and everyone’s) preference. I went ahead with the “catwalk” blocking of this piece thinking that I could change it later if it wasn’t possible in the venue or if it would be too much trouble to move people around. Fortunately, Sara Cherny (bluesSHOUT head organizer) supported this idea and with the help of Kelsey Nadine Ballance (the MC) managing the crowd, made it possible for us to perform it the way I had envisioned it. I’m really happy about how easily this was accomplished. And as far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time that a Blues dance performance has been presented this way.

Having performed this twice (at bluesSHOUT Chicago 2014 and Toronto’s Blues Battle 2014), several people have commented that it was refreshing to see more examples of masculine movement in Blues Dance performances, an area which is currently dominated by female performers and female groups. It pleases me to hear this as I have always believed that knowing how to solo dance (whether you are male or female) makes you a better partner dancer and an all-around stronger and capable dancer in general. But ultimately, I hope that this performance inspires men to do more solo Blues, feel confident in their own dancing, and not feel limited in their movement because of “labels” (feminine or masculine) that are traditionally applied to movements. I’ve often argued that people who are able to do smooth and sharp, angled and curved, and fast and slow movements in their dancing show a mastery of the movement in their bodies in spite of the traditional “feminine” or “masculine” labels. If you ever get a chance, take my “Masculine and Feminine Movement” class with Heidi where we try to address these issues and show you how to change the character in your dancing.

BONUS QUESTIONS:

Beyond being some great dancing and a clever use of the audience’s space, there is one thing I and some other people I’ve talked to were wondering … is there a little bit of self-parody here – consciously poking some fun at people who objectify you as “That Hot Dancing Dude” through exaggeration? It’s hard for us to tell, because either way, you’re clearly dancing really honestly in the piece.

The self-parody was not intentional and it’s interesting to hear that impression. One thing that I immediately realized (and perhaps Heriberto as well) was that we had to keep a straight face and remain focused with all the screaming and wild reaction we got from the crowd. So, maybe it looked like we were parodying ourselves in our attempt to remain focused and cool. Honestly, the choreography was inspired because of the energy of the song and of Etta James’ spirited singing. I heard it and said, “This is the song to my next choreography piece!” After this performance, I’m now telling people that my next one will be a more “emotive” piece. I’ve got to stretch out my performance muscles, you know?

Another question I’ve heard asked – was the panty toss at the end planned or spontaneous? Or would you rather let it be a mystery?

It’s not something we planned. That would just sound too egotistical of us to have that planned as part of our performance. Heidi Fite knew that I was putting together a performance with Heriberto and, just like most of the female audience, was excited about seeing our performance. While catching us discreetly practicing in Chicago, Heidi (in her own “devious” way) hinted that she was going to bring “something” to our performance later that night. Knowing her, I trusted it wasn’t something that would deter our performance. It’s funny that people in the audience were screaming at us to “take it off.” Eventually, someone did take it off and it was Heidi. 🙂

More Masculine Movement

Video

This week we have a choreographer that we haven’t posted before: Dexter Santos! We were looking for some good examples of masculine movement to post, and Dexter and this piece of his are certainly a fine example. After you take a look at how he’s moving, take a look at what he’s saying. He clearly knows what his influences are, what he wants to express, and how he goes about finding the right way to make it happen.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

For this piece, I wanted to reflect the contrast of human emotion between the feeling of despair and the feeling of joy – the range of Blues expression in the body. I feel that we achieve this contrast with the way we move our bodies as the song changes in feeling and tempo. I wanted to convey how our spirits are revived as we rise from our “blues,” how we celebrate life and feel on top of the world. But then also convey how our happiness, at any given moment, can be quickly taken away from us. You can see how our characters progress from feeling low, a sense of loss, and despair to feeling cool, confident, and high and back again.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I always want to choreograph a song that has a strong dance performance quality to it, something that also provides a setting for characters and a story. Ultimately, I wanted a song that I felt strongly about. I’m a big fan of Duke Ellington music and when I listened to my music collection with the intent of choreographing to it, I found “The Swingers Get The Blues Too” to be just the perfect song as it had the right feeling and performance quality that I was looking for. And with a title like that, I couldn’t help but feel inspired!

It’s interesting to me how this song cycles from “sad blues” to “happy blues” then back to “sad blues” again. The upbeat part of the song (where the rhythm comes in) has a sort of a “swinger-esque” feel to it – that part in a movie where the boys band together and walk confidently in a scene (the bass line lends to that feeling). I think I remember Damon saying that this would be the “soundtrack” to cruising cooly down the boulevard (or something like that). The part at the end where the rhythm stops and you hear the lonely trombone solo is where the “rug gets pulled from underneath us” and we are back to where we started. We then gather our dignity and what’s left of us, dust ourselves off, and start all over again. This song, I feel, is a great example of the balance between light and dark, the yin and yang, the high and lows. I was listening to the song in a loop as I wrote this and it’s interesting to see how the end ties in with the beginning. A perfect example of the circle of life.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

I have always been inspired by performances that are very expressive, emotive and have dynamic movement – anything from solo jazz to hip hop to ballet. I remember watching a lot of YouTube videos to get ideas and inspiration for my choreography. For this specific piece, I drew inspiration from my own learned blues movement vocabulary, African dance, and Michael Jackson’s movements which you can see an influence of in the sharper movements and poses in this piece. By the way, the fedoras we are wearing are a literal tip of the hat to MJ’s “Smooth Criminal” music video. For the format of the “3 Man Blues Routine” as well as the look of our costumes, I got the idea from a YouTube video I saw of a group called Purple Haze led by Darius Crenshaw performing a rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” The quality of their movement is so amazing and entertaining: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UPGWvAzRJA

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

I wanted to do a Solo Blues performance for a group of men as I hadn’t seen it in a performance setting at any Blues dance event prior to this. I knew that if I were to choreograph something, I wanted to perform it with dancers that I respected and admired. Damon Stone and -topher Howard immediately came to mind. Before any choreography was created, I e-mailed them the song so they could get an idea of the feeling for the piece. To my delight, they both responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation and idea.

While I did most of the choreography for this piece, Damon helped fill in a few parts where I was having some difficulty. There were also short segments of the song that provided opportunities for each of us to have personalized choreography which I left to both Damon and -topher to choreograph on their own. The structure of the song was ideal for each of us to do this. You can see that in the beginning and middle, of the song where each of us take turns in the spotlight. At the end, while moving together, we acted in different ways dusting and straightening ourselves. At the time, Damon was still living in the Bay Area and we were able to meet a couple of times to practice the choreography. But since -topher lived outside of California, he had to learn it through video that I provided and, eventually, was able to rehearse the choreography with me when he arrived. Finally, all three of us were able to rehearse together in one space just a few hours before Down Home Blues 2009 started. The video you see is the only time we ever performed this piece.