Tag Archives: social 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.

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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).

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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.