november 6, 1997
world dance forms
personal dance heritage
i never considered it broadly before this assignment, but i have developed a rich personal relationship to dance and movement. it spans many relationships, locations, social scenes that have been important in my life.being somehow a tenuous member of the chicago aristocracy, i was enlisted into ballroom dancing classes in early high school, or even middle school; i don't quite recall when. for a few weekends, i dressed in my formal finest and did the box step and perhaps the charlston with my female white gloved blonde haired counterparts from the wealthy north side suburbs.
a child's choreography in nebraska
starting when i was seven, i visited my grandparents in nebraska for two weeks or so every summer. one of these times, i couldn't have been older than 10, i had a cassette player in the guestbedroom with me, and a copy of one of my first records on tape - the beatles "yellow submarine." after listening to the song "index.html" a few times, i decided to choreograph a solo performance. i listened to it some more, and made up some movements, i think wholly upperbody writhing with my arms and maybe a shimmy or two, in front of the mirror. when i thought i had it together, after about ten minutes, i took my cassette player out to the kitchen and performed it for my grandma, who i think i recall was a little taken aback by it all. she said it was nice. i felt a little shy afterwards.
aside from archery and fishing, there was dancing at camp, where the boy's camp would come to the girl's camp and as the greatest hits of every recent decade played, we were expected to pick some fair maiden from across the room and enact together the never ending step together step while trying to figure out where it was okay for your hands to go. we couldn't have been more than 12.
well i was frustrated with that (two hours of two steppin'? - ug), and while i was not really able to dance much alone, i would basically dance alone with a partner. i remember how excitied i was when i figured out that i could spin - whirl a full circle fast on the floor and come back dancin' on the beat. i managed to convince my mom to buy me a pair of electric blue canvas shoes in the off season, which i called blue suede, since i didn't know what suede really looked like, and who else does at that age? and then i would dance some with whichever young girlie wasn't totally embarrassed by my gyrations, until the youngest person's dance was over, and they'd take us back to boy's camp, and i'd run up to the older camper's dance, which was happening at the same time, but for longer; there was an older girl there who liked the way i danced and i'd rush in late and cut a rug and even do some snuggled up two steppin' with her.
middle school: fast wild and alone.
in middle school, after fifth grade, kids at my school began to have parties at bars for birthdays. they'd rent out the floor of some nightclub and we'd go there in the late afternoon, listen to cheesy music and eat pizza, dance and entertain ourselves with the intrigue of the hormonally challenged.
i loved to dance. i loved to move fast and wild and alone. i couldn't really hack it so well doing anything with someone for so long. even if i had a girl, and we were sweet on each other, i couldn't really stay long in coordination with her. slow songs were fine - i could grab waist and do the two step as well as the next couple, but my instinct was to relish the uptempo pieces as chances to whirl jump and get lost in my movement.
as serious middle school set in i was invited to an enormous number of bar and bat mitzvahs. at these parties there were more bands and djs, and more opportunities to loose a little control physically. unfortunately, these parties often entailed formal attire, and with many old grandmothers in attendence, there was more of an expectation of formality of dance - ie, slow numbers and partners. as well, i found that live music, of the "greatest all-time hits family celebration cover bands play" didn't do it for me like a little billy idol, or even bob seger's old time rock and roll, which for a while would just set me off. whoo boy.
my favourite there was the "lindy" (probably the jitterbug) - i loved to grab folks and swing around back and forth and twirl. things moved fast enough that footwork was not as important as ultimate body placement.
this ultimately climaxed in the "fortnightly" dances, the high school time to bring together the upper crusty dance trained kids to socialize and prepare for debutant balls or polite socialization. though we were all ostensibly gathered as well-mannered ballroom dancing graduates, the focii of these fortnightly evenings were definitely on drunk suburban teens avoiding coiffured chaperones, and moshing as the cheesy band covered nirvana. they might have played some slower numbers, but we sat those out. i remember turning to introduce myself to one young woman during a quiet interlude, and having her begin violently throwing up the reddish alcohol she'd overconsumed. my favourite thing to do was point across the room and tell my startled proximal "there's a black person!" (of course there was none).
there was no recapitulation of the ballroom experience, and as i've grown older, i wish i'd had a better chance to bodily-integrate those steps, for two reasons:
one, i've had the chance since to dance in a formal, ballroom dancing partners setting, and i would like to be an informed participant. those dances seem to me now nice because of their evocation of another time, and as a pleasant change of pace after some of the other dance forms that have emerged more prevalent in my life. i went to a swing dance, and had a good time because i could coax up a little of my lindy training. if you know the steps, and especially the spins, the lindy can be some seriously sweaty fun. it's a good way to dance with a partner
i was at a wedding recently with my family, and someone urged me to invite my mom to dance. i didn't get a chance to, and i was sort of glad - i was reluctant to partner her across the floor in the typical two-step-sway. i want to be a formal swinger!
recently i have been seized by the desire to dance ballroom-style with my beloved, amy.
the other reason to know these steps is that they inform so much of dance, being the dance text of this century, and even centuries preceeding, and so to participate in future dance would be well aided by an understanding and memory of these steps. at least for my own choreography and informal dancing, to throw in old forms would be fun form and evocative.
dance discipline demands deference
in high school, tenth grade perhaps, i attended the birthday party of an african american classmate. there was some records being played, people were talking or dancing. i strutted my high energy for some time, and turned at some point to notice a pair of young african american men who had riveted the attention of the crowd as they rose and fell on the dance floor in perfect synchronization. their astonishing movements and fluid formality put me instantly to shame - i stopped moving and stepped to the side to give them more room to dominate the small dance floor.
i found myself unable to dance loosely after that - my steps struck me as inarticulate. i was just flailing, and i didn't have the coordination they had, or i hadn't practiced like they did, and until i had, it was not worth it embarrassing myself in front of other dancing people.
at the same time in high school, the number of dance parties fell off sharply. with far fewer families throwing parties directed towards dance, the opportunity to get down with a disk jockey would have been provided mostly by bars and clubs, which were definitely mostly out of the question. there were only rare chances for dances - a band here or a wedding there. even if there was music at someone's house, the idea by then was to enter an altered state and yak all night or flirt aggressively with girls. dancing was not a social activity by then.
i did perform in every high school musical that i could get a part in. since my school had an open cast policy, i was often the 107th member of the chorus, on stage for two scaffolding shaking numbers where i was expected to do a stripped down charlston and sing at the same time. doing highly structured steps in time with short phrases of music, singing and moving in coordination with 20 other people was more than i could handle - i felt dumb, especially cuz most of the other people seemed to have their feet together. for me, it was like patting my head and rubbing my stomach - i couldn't get out of my mind to make it happen too well.
in 1991, one summer job brought me in contact with popular social dancing that revitalized my spirit of movement. at kanbay international, a small company importing indian computer code, a coworker of mine, sonja, was thoroughly excited about the rave scene in chicago. one night after work we met up and travelled to the congress theater on miluakee avenue for a "mindride" rave. the venue was magic; to begin with, there was a functioning movie theater, grand in the old style, running mexican movies with the volume off. the dance floor was the lobby, a large room with extremely high ceilings and gorgeous chandeliers. everything was dark, and everywhere was sweat and movement and whistles and costumes and nobody cared about anything they couldn't see in front of them and everything moved so fast that nothing ever mattered that much. hidden djs turned out fast-firing music with bass that shook my guts. in the midst of this, with some encouragement from sonja, i found myself quickly cut loose shaking and dancing and gyrating and alone with my body part of a community in a room full of crazy ecstatic people and just covered in sweat and bone tired and so full of happy to be alive. i had no second thoughts. i was intoxicated sober.
since eighth grade i'd been attending grateful dead concerts, which were for me another great chance to cut loose. in this case my familiarity with the music leant the concerts the necessary magic - being part of a chorus of 12,000 devoted deadheads was enough to unloosen me that i would rock intensely standing up in my little asile. as i opened up more, later on in high school, i saught out broader places to dance, where seeing the band was secondary to free moving. each concert had an extended jam interlude, "drums and space," with long drum solos and abstract noise; most folks took this as a time to pee and get nachos, maybe smoke a bowl or three - i loved the rapid rhythms and even more conceptual movement to the abstract sounds. plus, i had more space since most folks had sat down by this point.
later on, as i attended more dead shows, and a phish show or two, now at college, and now in many different states around the country, i found myself not even bothering with my seats, but i would seek out the spinners - the most ecstatic of the dancers. they would stand where the sound was best, and where there was plenty of space, in indoor arenas, often near the entraces to the auditorium itself, where they would spin and twirl beyond nausea, or hop around speaking alien sign languages. here there was no inhibition, and no stopping to the dancing. i didn't know anyone, except people i recognized from other shows and smiled at, and i could just take off my sandles and do my thing with two dozen other lost souls. that truly put me in an altered state, and i found myself communicating strange things to people with my movements. i watched one man at the shoreline amphitheatre lead the spinners to higher and higher heights of ecstacy by hopping around us and gesturing with his hands - it was some kind of wild magic.
the height of my grateful dead experience came at a concert at cal expo, in sacremento. it was an outdoor arena, which had wonderful connotations, but unfortunately the band's playing had just been tired. they were seriously old by this point, and seemed to be on their last legs. people's expectations were not meeting the energy output of the guys on stage. but there was one moment, towards the very end, when i was standing outside the seating area, with my girlfriend at the time, chandra, who i was trying to introduce to the joys of the dead, when they hit it. they somehow got their wet finger in the cosmic socket and we all lit up with a holy light - to look out across the crowd was to see humanity dirty and dancing, from the ages of 3 to 70, everybody up and down and bobbing in beautiful unison and time and smiles and like the whole thing was glowing. for two minutes. and then it was over. but for that two minutes, it was as though the assembled had been dancing to the rhythm of the universe! it was so transcendent; i was suffused with joy.
summer of 1994, after my freshman year at swarthmore, i moved to san francisco to work for wired magazine. the rave scene there had a few more years and definitely better, and more, drugs behind it. it was still kicking, but the massive raw young energy that i'd seen at my best experience in chicago was here being channelled into more professional raving - dudes with beepers and many parties under their belt had businesses putting together raves each one promising to be larger and more phat than the last. more and more of the parties i went to were in bars, where they could serve drinks and make money. fortunately, there were vestiges of less commercial dancing, now people identifying themselves as purists, or old-schoolers. particularly the "friends and family" raves in san francisco, where hundreds of people crammed themselves into the club komotion, unfit for their numbers, every few weeks. the inevitable size crunch resulted in a pure sweatbath, where your free flowing fluids comingled with the sweat of hundreds of other folk, there was sweat on the walls, all clothes were soaked, everyone saught refuge in the ante-chamber: the only place with a fan.
this community enjoyed several more offbeat venues. the attitude was "look for a cool locale, carry a big sound system." i danced to rave music at solstice sunrise on a san francisco beach, all night at a remote dusty racetrack, for three days in the middle of the nevada baseflat desert. that last party, the infamous yearly "burning man" festival, involved articulated techno-pagan/religious themes, the entire occasional coalescing around an enormous man constructed of wood and neon lights which was ritually torched after three days of rave music, home made banging on can and drums, and wondering sunburnt in the desert.
both burning man, and that solstice rave typify the catch-all spirituality of the rave scene. invitations to these parties often featured purple day-glo hindu dieties or technology buddhas. they were billed as the beginning of some kind of technology utopia, where we might finally know what the promised lond will look like, suffused with human harmony, good pot and phat beats. at it's best these parties offered an access to ecstatic dance, with or without drugs. there was freedom of motion here and an encouragement to indulge. for me that meant shaking until i was sweaty and couldn't quite stand. to be in a community of relative weirdos doing the same thing has some still resonant magic.
dancing was always available in san francisco. you might have to pay, or suffer bad music, but if you wanted to move, it was up to you. this i contrast with chicago, where i was loath to find so many places boasting interesting milieus for rump-shaking (but then again, your hometown can be the most least exciting place, no matter where you come from). relatively little of the dancing in san francisco coalesced around drinking and overt mating rituals; for me this meant a more creative atmosphere in which to move.
my best dances often happened by accident, in other words, i didn't make a career of dancing. though i danced extremely energetically when it was presented to me, i didn't go out every night like so many of the people i'd meet on the buses coming home late from the otherwise dark deserted downtown.
both at these raves, and just all over the city, i met a lot of people serious about this scene. they heavily invested themselves in it, and found literally "friends and family" therein. many drew on their personal heritage, dancing covered in flourescent-clay sculpted hebrew letters or with a salsa-esque sway. many were paid by clubs to show up in costume. it wasn't a pick up scene for these folks, it was like a weekly carnival, and a community that they kept up with online (the "SFRaves" mailing list).
the music can be great, deliberately geared to get you groovin'. other times it just seems too programmed, too technological, too machinistic, like i was supposed to be a dance robot.
drugs and dance
as well, at many of these san francisco parties, drugs were present. actually, each of the dance scenes i've mentioned here, after i passed the bar mitzvah age, involved at least drinking, if not acid or ecstacy. each of these drugs impacts movement differently, in my case i've found the drug high to ultimately distract me from the movement i enjoy. i can really push myself into a frenzy and feel drained and out of it and woozy, but if i have been drinking alcohol, i can't reach that limit. i can sway and perform non-committal personal dance with a more superficial fluidity, but if i want to simultaineously lose control and have total control, i can only imbibe a very small amount of alcohol.
ecstacy makes me want to rub young women, i didn't take it to dance. many of the parties i went to in san francisco involved talented young djs spinning for rooms full of people completely happy about everything, some lying around on pillows and stroking each other, some dancing maniacly.
acid was an entire other experience. usually i was dancing on this drug at a grateful dead show, where the entire experience was designed to complement if not induce an acid trip. perhaps some of my spiritual, or more conceptual experience with dance stems from this drug use and dancing. i found myself on this drug able to dance endlessly for hours and stare at the abstract patterns i was tracing in the air or seeing in my mind's eye. the side effects became too much for me, for recreational use, though i must say a grateful dead show can be the best place to do this rather mindbludgeoning drug. sitting around in an apartment watching the walls bleed can lose its appeal and lead to deep ennui; joining 15,000 people trying to dance with the universe can be transformative.
while i've labelled this social dance, that could be misleading (or a good topic of future research: "are raves social dances?"). their "atomic?" nature: each person primarily dances by themselves, only being near other people, perhaps interacting with them, but with few physical or choreographical ties. to watch someone dance is to be aware of yourself as watchable, and i find often in those dance situations it's more liberating to disregard the potential or obligatory gazes and advance into your own monologue.
but this is all the moreso for my in a singles dancing scene, where the eye is a hunter and it can be very hard to stay focused on the movement. at least in the rave "social" context, you can think about the intersections of technology and paganism, or just lose your mind and not think at all and just dance because you're not expected to participate in datable aesthetic form.
at some point i took the form of these communal dances and the confidence therefrom and began to dance alone at home. i can remember tough times late in high school when i would use my parents underutilized stereo to blast jane's addiction at untoward volumes and pretend i was at all the concerts i'd never seen with all the space i ever wanted to really move with huge gestures and gut wrenching snarls and leaps and slashes and all the anger that manifested itself most strong in unconstrained physicality.
when i finally did get a chance to see them in concert, at lollapalooza in 1991, i danced in a violent and excited fashion, and was dragged back by security guards.
some of the anger has left, but the urge to move as one only can in private, with space or at least mindspace of privacy continues. at each of my jobs, hotwired and electric minds, i enjoyed the opportunity to seize the space late at night to wiggle and bound about.
in terms of enthusiastic, physical dance, i believe i met my match in the mosh pit. bands less popular than jane's addiction; ska bands, fishbone, bad religion, they played at smaller venues and the crowds there would break you if you tried to dance with the truly aggressive, and you weren't watching yourself. i chipped a noticeable chunk off my left front tooth body surfing at fishbone. at bad religion, groups of skinheads formed a line with their bodies held together at the shoulders behind the crowd, they would yell and rush the stage, severely cramming everyone between them and the band. people cried, people bled. it was unnerving to see this violence - it was like the extreme form of the behaviour i'd saved for myself in my home when people weren't around. i never felt confident or driven enough to engage in serious moshing; my scrawny butt saw fit to withdraw for the edges,
unless of course the band was jane's addiction or one of it's offshoots, porno for pyros for example, in which case i would gladly accept an elbow to the face since i was likely so ecstatic i wouldn't notice. and generally people at these shows are so turned on and keyed into the performance they have not the mind to coordinate or execute synchronized or sustained deliberate maliciousness. there's an enormous amount of reckless enthusiasm, the type that painfully mashes your foot with a combat boot and then solidly apologizes with a gap toothed grin.
for a year during college i dated chandra, a young woman with an intense inner life; one of her favourite things to do was dance by herself. occasionally i'd quietly enter on one of these scenes, or she'd perform in front of me. her style was distinctly her own in that she moved flowingly, bent dramatically. she covered a lot of ground, in a way that i did not.
when we would dance together in clubs or at parties, i was inevitably thinking in spiritual/astrological terms - she was dancing flowing like water, i twitching like fire. mostly we danced best together when we had a lot of space and could invoke our collective flair for drama and smile and laugh and get serious and move around each other and stalk and slow and slither and get close and far away.
when i was alone after that time i found myself invoking her presence in my dance, trying to move slower and flow.
we also went to see robert johnson do a solo performance, she had seen him before and was moved by his movement. it was the first time i'd ever been to a dance performance, in a small theatre, where the emphasis was on dance. sure, i'd been to see the nutcracker ballet a few times growing up in chicago, but that was certainly not directed exactly at dance - for me it was more about tradition and tchaikovsky. with robert johnson, i was old enough to appreciate this man's movement as such. i was by this time old enough to appreciate dance as something that might be learned and performed, not just independent gesticulations on a smoky dance floor.
when i had the chance, at college, i chose to take a few movement directed classes. these influenced my steps:
i studied yoga and tai chi during my time here at swat - these inspired me to extend my motions slowly and to assume positions that engage my body on a more drawn out basis than jerking to rhythm. when i'm dancing and i think of these movement styles i lengthen my muscles and stretch out my body and do i feel good.when i went to honduras, i danced a little punta with some garifuna kids. the african steps were strikingly similar, except the garifuna/puna footwork was intense, man. whew. rapid movin' feets, like i never learned at school. but i had the hips and chest going appropriately.
african dance, with mary attah, from ghana. many of the steps i learned here were based on movements in nature - this formalized my understanding of dance as potentially reflective of the entire swath of experience. since the class i have incorporated into my dancing my own animal observations, and also some of the swaying chestal-convulsions, hip swaggerin' and toe-steppin' that i learned there. i love pumping my chest in and out, such a vital proud gesture. i don't know that i'd done it consciously prior to this class. also african dance encouraged me to work with short phrases repeated; to get away from constantly trying to move in a sequence of new motions.
after i danced with the kids in pueblo neuvo, i went back to batalla, where i was staying, and danced some with the big kids. being a stranger in a social dance context is always a little weird. here i had to decide how much of my own moves to use, and how much (more) attention to draw to myself as the only white guy. i decided for whole hog and danced my butt off and found younger kids the best dance partners cuz they had the most energy and the desire to teach me stuff and they didn't care much about whether i was trying to pick them up or what not.
during my time at swarthmore i dated another dancer, ayla. she had worked intensely with dance during her high school days, perhaps even younger. she had a dancer's body, lean and well-muscled; she was a lot more "in her body" than i was. dancing was the way she looked at a lot of the world. but she was not majoring in dance in college, rather she'd chosen to come to swarthmore and study religion. engaging her intellectually, and talking with her about dance gave me an entry to the discipline. i hadn't thought about it before as a means to articulate personal vision, not in the context of anyone i knew; she danced and felt invested in it, and that it was her primary means of expression, as writing was mine. she choreographed in and outside of classes; i tried out for some of her pieces and movement informal workshops.
ayla doing her own work in part inspired me to try an interpretive dance final project for my technology self and society class, as an alternative, non-verbal means of expressing my relationship with computers and networks. i'm excited by the opportunity to incorporate costume, music, movement, what's important to me, and an audience.
one drunk new york clubgoin' woman said, "you've got acid latin style"my primary informal movement style now,
my feet largely planted, lifting, or shifting but not moving much around the floor. my chest caves in, my shoulders shimmying or shifting, my arms and hands weaving. from a base of my thighs i twitch and shimmy, with varying rapidity.
occasionally when i have the space and the appropriate energy infusion from the performers or peers, i launch into a kind of jumping or running, even a charlston-type kick step with my hands in the air.
often my hands are in the air, and i'm bending under them, in an ecstatic style not unlike dancing at the grateful dead.
often i like to assume characters or emotions; swaggering male, tai chi practicioner, drunk, angry, constrained, upset, straining, old, careful, jester, mimic:
looking out across the floor and picking up on other styles and doing them or overdoing them.
times when the hours stretch before me, i move within my own drama. samurais pose and draw their swords against feeding chickens (i play all parts).
i still prefer to dance alone, i think too much and don't know what to do with my face with most people. i have fun with people who play a lot on the dance floor.
ecstac photo by wilson kello, october '97