Tag Archives: hip-hop dance

“This Is America” Review: The G.O.A.T of Dance Art?

Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) “This is America” is one of the most genius works of contemporary art in the history of music videos. The piece’s balance between ambiguity, clarity and entertainment throughout its historic commentary on blackness in the United States is unrivaled.

tia3I have been seeing multiple responses to the video about how the dance is used to distract the audience from the “real issues” being portrayed. Claims have been as drastic as calling for an ignoring of the dance component altogether. Frankly, I have been perturbed by this separation of dance from serious issues. It shows the magnitude of disregard our society has towards the body’s capability to reflect and respond to these very issues that we face as a nation.

tia5
David Pilgram: Owner of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, MI

Even within the African-American community where dance is such a vibrant part of the culture, we have leaders minimizing dance by segregating it from issues in our society. An article from the Huffington Post [1] was recently published about David Pilgram, the owner of the Jim Crow museum, belittling dance through his interpretation of the “This Is America” music video, “You see children dying, parishioners dying, then we pause and go back to dancing,” as though dance is a lesser choice than any other response to the witnessing of death. Pilgram goes on to say, “…it seems to me that, from the minstrel period to the present, both the people being hurt and the people doing the hurting have often ignored the hurt by dancing.” The fact that we have an African-American historian dismissing the crucial intersectionality of hurt and dance is an exemplar of our society’s general lack of understanding when it comes to the body’s socio-political value.

There has been opposition to these commentaries from choreographers Sherrie Silver (This Is America) and Camille A. Brown (Jesus Christ Superstar). Silver, in a Pigeons and Planes [2] interview, has labeled the dance-as-distraction notion as “interesting,” suggesting that the dance was rather more of a contrast. Brown, in an interview with DANCE Magazine [3], has followed up by claiming, “If you ignore the movement, then you ignore the commentary in its entirety.” Both have spoken to the complexity of the viral dance phrases by offering an alternate suggestion that the movement was to foreground black joy in the midst of turmoil (I will provide my own suggestion in my next post, stay tuned).

tia6
Choreographer: Sherrie Silver (middle)

I respect both of these ladies for showing opposition to the dance-is-distraction theory. I desire to add on to their analysis by using Gambino’s work to serve as a moment of education for all you people who don’t see dance beyond the 5-6-7-8 and Gwara Gwara. As an African-American-Latino male dance professional and hip-hop scholar, I continuously study the significance of dance within the black and brown communities of the United States. As such, I feel a yearning to discuss how “This is America” is a dance piece, maybe the greatest mainstream dance pieces of all time.

The discussion must begin with the question, what is dance? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, dance is to move one’s body rhythmically, usually to music. However, as a dance professional— choreographer, videographer, scholar, performer, teacher— I feel that the definition misses key elements. I took the liberty of restructuring it a bit- dance is the art of using one’s body to express oneself, many times in conversation with music. I believe Merriam-Webster’s definition is what we often see within a typical music video; however, my definition is what creates a dance piece— a work of art that foregrounds the moving body as the primary source of content to make claims about our world.

tia4“This Is America” is human beings expressing themselves through their bodies in relation to music in order to frame the condition of blackness in America. Sometimes that looks like the viral dance move that we so often associate with the word “dance”. However, I encourage us to broaden our view and recognize, too, the dancing of the person who jumps off the balcony, the church choir, and the rioting individuals scattered throughout the piece. Gambino uses these people to kinesthetically and rhythmically emote with each other, the music, the concrete warehouse, the video camera, and more. tia7Ultimately, this creates a cohesive portrayal of Gambino’s messages through an intersectionality of art forms with dance as the center. It is worth noting that the video fails to exist without the use of expressive moving bodies. The dance aids in the reenactment of American history while simultaneously commenting on that history, all without saying a word (watch the video in silence and the video loses very little cultural relevance). Therefore, even if dance-as-distraction is a part of the video’s narrative, it is simply a piece to a greater puzzle.

In the next post, I want to use the viral dance scenes that the dance-as-distraction theory is based upon to showcase how much deeper the dance goes beyond the fifteen 8-counts shared between Childish and the children. Thanks for reading!

Referenced Articles
1. Huffington Post Article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-glover-this-is-america-jim-crow-history_us_5af31588e4b00a3224efcc40?utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=hp_fb_pages&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000047&utm_source=bv_fb


2. Pigeons and Planes Interview: https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/05/childish-gambino-this-is-america-dance-choreographer-sherrie-silver-interview

3. DANCE Magazine Interview: https://www.dancemagazine.com/this-is-america-dance-2567663747.amp.html?__twitter_impression=true

Dance Debate: 3 Reasons Why Grooving Is A Technique

About a month ago a dance acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook, “Grooving is suppose to be natural, it’s not a technique. Listen to the music.” When she posted it, I don’t believe she thought it would ignite a significant debate amongst dance practitioners, but that is exactly what it did. The foundation of the debate was predicated on the question of, “is grooving itself a technique?”

dance technique 2I believe this is an important topic that needs more discussion amongst social dance practitioners, specifically because dance practitioners within ballet, modern, theatrical jazz, etc. often use the word technique to describe valuable characteristics solely within their own genres; thus, marginalizing the valuable techniques within forms outside of the euro-centric paradigm (I just went to an audition where the choreographer said, “We’re going to learn hip-hop and some technique”…WHAT!?) 

 

In regards to vernacular/street dance, notions of “ease” and “anyone can do it” from inside-and-outside the community create a fallacy that technique is non-existent within these genres (I talked about this before in a previous post, The Technical Dancer: Perception of Beauty Through the World of Dance).

dance technique 3As a result of this false ownership over the word technique (the T-word for short), I speculate that there is a repulsion towards the T-word from vernacular dance practitioners within the United States, especially amongst hip-hoppers. We as a community have subconsciously associated the T-word with euro-centrism, and thus exiled it from our vocabulary. What have we come up with instead? The G-word— groove. Groove seems to be the antonym of technique, the yin to technique’s yang. Since euro-centric dance forms want to claim technique, we claim groove. Here are some quotes from that debate I had with dancers on Facebook:

“the groove itself is just a feeling… there’s 0 techniques to just groove”

“you can do the exact same everything as another person, but you will look different, because of your body structure, natural energy level, rhythmic anticipation, etc. Such factors are too subjective and inconsistent to be considered technique… Groove is just not technical, that’s all.” Note that “body structure, energy level, rhythmic anticipation” are used here to describe idiosyncrasies of an individual that inform their groove, and thus their groove cannot be technical.

dance techniqueMany within the culture have established that groove and technique are two completely different things. However, it’s more complicated than that. In our attempt to dichotomize groove and technique, we perpetuate the euro-centric ownership over the latter. It’s important for hip-hop practitioners, and vernacular dance practitioners in general, to take ownership of the T-word as we legitimize our own art forms within our society.dance technique 4 You know what, forget legitimization. We deserve to take ownership of the word because we have worked our asses off for it. We know what we do isn’t easy. We understand the hours-upon-hours of sessioning, cyphering, practicing alone, taking classes, battling, sweating, crying, bleeding, bruising, and all the other “-ing’s”. We’ve put the work in just like any other form to say that what we do is technical. Show up and own that!

So, is grooving natural and/or is grooving technical? To me, the answer is yes to both. Here are some definitions from Mirriam-Webster and three reasons why:

Groove: a pronounced enjoyable rhythm; an established routine or habit

Natural: coming instinctively to a person

Technique: a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.

1. Something that is natural can also be technical

I feel like this is obvious, but still needs to be mentioned. We walk. It’s natural… now. There was a certain time it wasn’t, but we learned techniques in order to accomplish walking. If you want to walk backwards, you’re going to walk toe-to-heel instead of heel-to-toe. Walking regular, backwards, sideways, or on your hands may feel more natural than it is for others, but that doesn’t expel the fact that there is still a technique to it.

2. We are unique, but we’re also the same

Scientists have established that on a molecular level human beings are 99% the same. As unique and precious as you are, you’re also very much the same as everyone else.

I believe the spiritual nature of groove is completely unique. However the way it manifests is unique on a level, and then it’s also shared on another level because of the similar DNA that resides in each of us. That shared commonality, again, is the technical aspect to me.

In hip-hop social dance, the shared commonality is the bounce of the body. Each individual’s unique characteristics falls underneath a certain type of bounce. If you’re finding your natural groove, but not finding a bounce within your dance, then you’re not carrying out the communal technique.

2b. Case and Point: Babies

Grooving to music is a feeling, a natural response to the auditory impulses that converse with one’s soul. The most quintessential groove exists within babies (for your viewing entertainment, here’s a great compilation of dancing babies…). Every baby has their own unique synchronicity with the music they’re listening to.

Each baby also has technique. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that there are similarities in the way each of these miniature human beings accomplish the task of interacting with the music. The groove and the technique are both present, and both are natural.

My last thought is that hip-hop culture has a tendency to glorify the individual above all else. As beautiful as this mindset is, hip-hop will never reach it’s fullest potential with it. The glorification of groove over technique is the foregrounding of the individual over the community. It is not until we embrace our technique— our shared experiences of accomplishing things— that we will unlock the true impact we can have on each other and our world.

The Hip-hop Generation Gap: How Black Creations Lose Their Black Face

I think that we, as the African-American men in hip-hop, have a greater responsibility because we have the ears of so many millions of our young people. And they listenin’.”- Steve Harvey

I truly believe that hip-hop dance culture is at a critical juncture in this day in time. As Steve Harvey said, hip-hop has a massive influence on young African-Americans. However, in addition to the ears, we also have the eyes. The dance is arguably an equal contributor to hip-hop’s influence on the younger generation.

The responsibility to make that influence as positive as possible falls upon every individual in the community— it takes a community to raise a child, as they say. Additionally, the responsibility lies upon the pioneers of hip-hop dance culture the most.

Dance Fusion Japan
Dance Fusion 2017 Japan with NYC OG’s

Pioneers are now in there 40’s- 60’s, and have numerous generations of hip-hop practitioners behind them. Thus, they are the elders of our community who have gone through the gamut of experiences from the birth of hip-hop to its existence as a global phenomenon. They understand first-hand the magic of the block parties where all of the elements existed in a blast of black and brown expression. Recognition of their creation from mainstream America through media-hype set them on a high of celebrity lifestyle. They quickly felt the fall of a labeled “irrelevant has-been” as the same industry stripped them from their creation in order to create its own money-making machine. The pioneers have witnessed the birth and evolution of 40-plus years of black and brown movement: b-boying, popping, locking, house, vogue, waacking, hip-hop social dance, lite feet, jitting, jookin, flexin, krump, and more. I can go on for a while, but the point is these pioneers are filled with knowledge and experiences that, if shared, can educate younger generations on how to navigate our world as a hip-hop dance practitioner; ultimately, creating a stronger foundation for hip-hop dance to stand on and grow from.

 

taiwan tony 3
Dance Class w/NYC OG Tony McGregor in Taiwan

Have the pioneers been living up to their responsibility? Is the wisdom being passed down? It’s hard to say. I’m thinking of a way to measure that. One thing I can say with more certainty is that the knowledge passed down to African-Americans in the states pales in comparison to the knowledge that Asians and Europeans are experiencing. In my own experience, after a year of consistently attending a NYC institutional hip-hop hub in Exile Professional Gym (EXPG), my interaction with NYC pioneers (OG’s as we call them) has been minimal. That is the admission of a 26-year old who is hungry for the knowledge that the OG’s have to offer.

The black and brown adolescents— the heirs to the hip-hop throne—are not. Why would they be hungry for the knowledge of absent elders? Why would a child obey their father when he has been previously obsolete in their lives? I empathize with the young hip-hop generation, and saddened for the culture, when they express complete ignorance about their predecessors. It’s no surprise considering the elders are still busy trailblazing around the world providing their crucial kinesthetic and philosophical knowledge to hip-hop dance practitioners within other countries.

21317455_10203211811733995_1805522149549747448_n
Dream Works Dance Japan 2017 with NYC OG Cebo Terry Carr 

I am not claiming that there is something wrong with sharing information outside of New York City or the United States. I also understand that the pioneers have to make their own living, which I will leave for another post. My point is that the issue lies in the magnitude of the imbalance. It is strange to me that black and brown hip-hoppers from New York City are sharing knowledge within foreign lands such as Japan and countries in Europe, yet the only hip-hop centric dance studio in all of New York City— the birthplace of hip-hop— is run by a Japanese company.

That is why we are at a critical juncture. I do believe Steve Harvey’s quote still holds true— the young African Americans ARE still listening. There is still hope and time to connect the gap between what was and what is, but that time is shortening. Unless OG’s understand that they must filter their knowledge to their own people as much as they do abroad, hip-hop will be no different than jazz and rock’n’roll—the future will once again have Caucasian-Americans, Europeans, or Asians as the face of a beautiful black creation.