by Chris Randle
Part of my excitement over this blog’s inception came from the possibility of writing about unfamiliar subjects, topics that nobody would pay a rube to opine on. One that I had in mind was dance, a medium I know almost nothing about, including how to do it very well. So I’m starting TEACH ME HOW TO BOOGIE, an ongoing and irregular series exploring its many permutations: European folk styles, regional dance rap hits, the footwork recorded on myriad dancefloors. Sometimes I’ll just post a clip and write about it; sometimes there will be extended discussions of a particular form or phenomenon with people who know how to move. There may eventually be video demonstrations if Margaux has the time and I have the excess dignity. Please welcome, then, Amelia Ehrhardt (real name), a student in York University’s dance program. We talked about bounce, breakdancing and several tangents on Gchat before I condensed the resulting massive chatlog into this.
Chris: OK, so, the first (sub)genre I had in mind is bounce, a regional music/dance style from New Orleans – let’s see how that goes?
Chris: Here’s my first clip:
Amelia: Holy shit this is amazing
Amelia: What is it exactly you want me to talk about?
Chris: Anything, really – one notable thing about bounce is that almost all such beats are based on samples from a handful of songs
Chris: Which appeals to me since I was the kind of dorky teenager who tried to write sestina poems. Formal constraints!
Amelia: Well I guess the first thing I’m noticing is of course choreography – hard to escape as a dancer – it’s really footwork heavy and they use a lot of gesture.
Amelia: I mean there’s also some pretty “classical” elements of hip hop, there’s popping and locking – footwork too is a mainstay of breaking/hip hop. Formal constraints, totally.
Chris: Is that kind of dancing studied in the academy at all now?
Amelia: Hip-hop? Depending where you go. There is only one program in Ontario, maybe Canada, where hip-hop is on the curriculum, it’s at George Brown, the commercial dance program.
Amelia: What I find interesting about the formal constraints thing in hip-hop is how quickly they change. I mean, it’s pretty much a given for a form like this one, firstly it’s contemporary and surprise, contemporary humans get bored fast
Amelia: But in other dance forms change tends to be reeeealllyyyy slow, like, classical ballet has been around for a little over 200 years and it took maybe fifty years for it to even come to any sort of format, as in, for it to really peak
Amelia: And come up with a system that was like THIS IS THE WAY WE WILL ALWAYS DO CLASSICAL BALLET
Amelia: Of course that got changed, but formatting changes faster than technique and I think hip-hop is the only form I know of where technique seems to evolve faster than format.
Chris: The level of social acceptance seems to vary as well – people still freak out about grinding or daggering, but even when it was relatively new breakdancing was endorsed by the Reagan Administration.
Amelia: Well breakdancing is pretty nonsexual
Chris: I once saw an unintentionally hilarious old editorial from National Review where they talked about how wholesome it was
Amelia: …Just watching this clip again, I am finding it interesting how…cartoonish they are
Amelia: It seems to be a lot more caricature-based than a lot of hip-hop I have seen
Chris: In a very self-aware way, I think
Amelia: Yes exactly, it is self-aware…Usually every hip-hop dancer has an extremely individual form, but this seems more than just individuality, it’s like a hyper-performative version of themselves.
Amelia: Ha ha, the song just went “na na na na na, FUCK YOU”
Chris: Even the invective or disses in bounce songs seem to be intentionally over-the-top
Chris: I was reading through this earlier: http://www.wheretheyatnola.com
Amelia: “[Mama’s Hurtin’] comes from a friend. One of our friends, she lost a baby. We was like, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine.’ We just took it and put it into our own feelings. You know what I’m saying? We just put ourself in her shoes. We were just only speaking from the heart. That is what ‘Mama’s Hurtin’ is about.”
Amelia: People never talk about their art that honestly
Amelia: I don’t want to get all The Other about this but truly, I can’t remember the last time I read an artistic statement or interview that was just like “I felt X so I did that.”
Amelia: Anyhow. Bounce. Good stuff
Chris: What are the main styles/elements/theories of dance you’ve studied in school?
Amelia: Theory-wise I haven’t delved specifically into any one thing yet but mostly I have studied context I guess – the place of dance in culture, culture’s place for dance
Amelia: How it gets there/why it isn’t there etc
Amelia: Also York University is really into things like “a multicultural perspective” and “the effect of globalization” so I’ve looked at a lot of that stuff, I danced with a classical Indian dance company for a while.
Chris: Is that the same as what you’d see in a Bollywood movie?
Amelia: No, not at all really – Bollywood is like Indian hip-hop, it’s everywhere, it sort of takes influence from the classical forms
Amelia: I danced with a Bharatanatyam company
Amelia: It is similar to Western dance in that – for instance on So You Think You Can Dance, all these bastardized versions of classical dance, or contemporary jazz forms that take a lot of tricks from classical ballet, you can tell who has done a lot of classical ballet, and been “properly” trained. Similarly with Bharatanatyan, there is more control.
Chris: So you haven’t done any hip hop dancing in school?
Amelia: The odd workshop…I have taken a lot of jazz, which has some vaguely hip hop elements, and yes, workshops all over the place. But it isn’t really a priority anywhere, although to be honest that should change, so much contemporary dance has hip hop elements in it. And how are you supposed to understand popping and locking/all that complicated isolation work if you’ve been doing ballet your whole life? Insane.
Amelia: Hip hop is still sort of treated as contemporary folk dance.
Chris: Oh, can you go on about the hip-hop elements in contemporary dance? Do you mean the more avant-garde stuff, or…
Amelia: Oh yeah sure
Amelia: Hmm avant-garde? Maybe
Amelia: What I mean is current contemporary dance, derived from western modern dance – sure, let’s call it avant garde, but not so avant garde that it’s not dancing anymore
Amelia: For instance ImPulsTanz, the Vienna international dance festival, has hip hop classes now. I mean, there’s everything at Impulse, it’s huge, but it’s pretty notable that hip hop is in there, it’s the youngest form at the festival for sure, or the youngest non-European-derived form.
Chris: Would this be people like…Which people should I look up?
Amelia: In terms of people who have used elements of hip hop or in general?
Chris: Both, I guess, although I should probably only include the former in this post
Amelia: Wellllll as for choreographers who have used elements of hip hop, I can’t speak for the international scene very well, but locally Valerie Calam is a big one
Amelia: Alias Dance Co.
Amelia: Tanya Crowder lately
Chris: Thanks! I’ll look all of those upppppp
Chris: Oh yeah, here’s another video I wanted to show you, it’s a “sissy bounce” clip:
Amelia: This is amazing!!!
Amelia: I will be right back to talk about this, it’s awesome
[maddening series of disconnections]
Chris: Okay I rebooted my browser after cursing at it
Amelia: Let me remember what I was going to say
Amelia: Well the first thing I find I have to comment on is the major difference between women in hip hop and men in hip hop…Is this bounce too?
Amelia: Oh nevermind there go the men
Chris: Yeah, some people believe it’s a subgenre of bounce and some people believe it’s the same thing. It’s basically bounce music performed by gay men and trans/queer/sometimes straight women, performed in a hypersexual way
Amelia: Well it’s so sexual there aren’t any bones about it. Like with some hip-hop or other sexualized dance there’s at least some mystery to it
Amelia: I have seen backup dancers for a drag queen do this, this dancer I knew named Luis.
Amelia: He was amazing, they did this style of hip-hop called tipping
Chris: It’s almost abstract in a way
Amelia: The thing about dance is that it’s all abstract in essence, because movement doesn’t have a language, or rather is its own language, and so stuff like this is so blatant that yes, I see what you mean, it starts becoming abstract.
Chris: Oh, that’s true – it’s emotional aggregates rather than an alphabetic language.
Amelia: Like when you think about a word too much and it loses all meaning. Drawer – drawer – DRAA-WEERR, what was that word anyway?
Chris: Another thing about sissy bounce is that they’re dancing in such an incredibly sexual way at club nights full of women, gay men and drag queens, or people who are otherwise androgynous
Chris: From what I’ve read and seen straight men seem to be (relatively) rare
Amelia: Where would straight men fit into this behaviour? Not to overgeneralize but straight men tend to not have the same public displays of sexuality that women do, women or gay/trans/queer men.
Chris: Yeah, that’s true
Amelia: It’s an interesting thing about humans vs. every other animal
Chris: I suppose a lot of straight men are often insecure or uncomfortable about being someone else’s object of sexualization
Chris: Here’s another one:
Amelia: God I love Youtube
Amelia: You almost never see their faces
Amelia: Those were two separate thoughts
Amelia: Toys R Us! Wow.
Chris: Yeah, I like the weird, incongruous settings. It plays into the abstract aspect I guess
Amelia: Yeah exactly, it’s not about sex it’s just dancing
Amelia: Well truthfully this looks a lot more like a lot of African dance forms than contemporary hip hop to me
Amelia: I don’t know enough about African dance forms to specify which, I think it is one of the West African forms
Amelia: But that might be bullshit
Chris: How is uh “social” dancing studied in universities? As opposed to dance qua dance, formal performances watched by passive audiences?
Amelia: Social dance is a pretty big area of study. Like, you can take social dance classes – studio classes. A lot of nonmajors take them.
Amelia: There is a lot of talk about social dance vs. codified dance forms and how social dance fits into our lives now, there is less of a place for it. It has become really codified too. Or not a lot of talk, this is just how I feel anyway: that in codifying it, it makes it inaccessible.
Amelia: I feel like that might be a big part of why dance isn’t in people’s lives, that there are so many specific rules around it that to be “A Dancer” becomes a very big thing
Chris: Is [literalism] common with social dancing, regardless of the music being played or the milieu?
Amelia: I wouldn’t say so, most social dance is basically just moving your feet. Very minimal use of the body at all, especially Western social dance: Foxtrot, waltz etc. Hardly social, and not even very performative.
Amelia: This work is much more of both of those things, and in a way is sort of reminiscent of the kind of dance traditions that have existed forever – a circle of people and one dancer at a time entering the middle
Amelia: In particular that first video made me think of that, all the dancers working to outdo each other. It is hardly a new concept, it almost reminds me of a really standard classical ballet, where there are endless variations (solos), and then a grande pas de deux where the man and woman just do variations after each other
Amelia: For instance in Sleeping Beauty, the worst/best for that, in the first fifteen minutes there are six fairies with six variations. Never mind how vapid the whole idea of a slew of fairies is
Amelia: Basically I think the extreme posturing of this whole bounce thing – the first video you showed me in particular – speaks to a real primal sort of idea, and I am sick, I am so sick of people talking about dance, especially hip hop, as being “primal” becuase let’s be real, it’s offensive, but I don’t mean aesthetically I mean format-wise.
Chris: Competition, you mean?
Amelia: Yes exactly.