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Teach Me How to Boogie Guest Post: Beyonce vs De Keersmaeker

by Amelia Ehrhardt

In October of 2011, more than a dozen of my Facebook friends posted a video called “Split Screen Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Beyonce Knowles”, a video highlighting the similarities between Beyonce’s video for “Countdown” and many of de Keersmaeker’s films. I typically fall into the internet outrage trap easily, and this was an extreme example. I’d studied this film in university – de Keersmaeker is a well-known dance choreographer – and while I initially hesitated about how much Beyonce could have stolen, I realized pretty immediately that the answer was “pretty much everything.”

Rosas Danst Rosas was first choreographed for stage in 1983, when de Keersmaeker was only 23 years old. It was one of de Keersmaeker’s earliest choreographies, one that is still performed by the company. The piece was created in close collaboration with the musicians Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch, and, like much of her earlier work, deals explicitly with female sexuality and experience without necessarily being about feminism. The film version, directed and shot in 1996 (also by Theirry de Mey) expands on the original piece’s choreography and concept. I spent about five minutes while watching it just trying to figure out how the dancers were counting one section of choreography (I finally figured it out as four, five, four, three, five: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS_kWttptS4).

That same meticulousness exists in the editing: the repeated cutting between shots manages not to be overwhelming or muddy, as the specific movements are matched up frame by frame – each shot follows the one before it, until right after the film’s courtyard scene. The precision that had existed before, in all elements of the work, breaks down here to make space for a surprisingly stark ending.

The work presents a take on women that was striking and risky at the time of its creation. Viewed now, and perhaps even in 1996 when the film was shot, many of its feminist stances could seem kitschy or demoralizing, but the repeated gesture of taking off the shirt, exposing the shoulders, and putting it back on again describes what is to me an important problem in dance around women and women’s bodies. In a field vastly dominated by women, men still hold the majority of leadership positions and are more likely to receive funding: in 2005, the Dancer Transition Resource Centre reported that 71% of professional dancers in Canada were female, yet 10 out of the group’s 15 associated companies were under male artistic directorship. Dance Theatre Workshop in the States notes that “in 2000, of the 18 modern dance choreographers who received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, 13 were men”. The men received a total of $200 000 with a typical grant of ten grand, and the women received a total of $45 000 with a typical grant of five thousand dollars.

The life and work of a dancer is taxing and difficult, and the problems around the female body in dance are numerous and notorious. With so many men running the show, I have to wonder how much longer we can ignore these issues. Skimpy costumes on women and rampant eating disorders, coupled with lower rates of pay for the same work, paint a depressing picture of women’s complicated place in the dance community, and yet in 1983 de Keersmaeker was presenting work, as a young female choreographer, where women exposed themselves, “exploited” themselves. Suddenly this gesture of exposing the shoulder seems to me pretty radical. This work predates Madonna and riot grrrl, and though it comes after two “waves” of feminism and a number of strong women asserting themselves and their sexuality – Wendy O. Williams and Sylvia Robinson come to mind – not many of the women who took a more aggressive stance reached the point of critical acclaim that Rosas did.

The film version’s resemblance to a music video stands out for me now – I have tried to learn some of the choreography and remembered sections of it in a vocabulary that almost seems more commercial, more hip-hop than anything else. It’s a rare instance in dance when I feel like an all-female cast is a specific choice to say something meaningful about female sexuality or the place of women in the professional dance community, as opposed to just a reflection of available collaborators. Grabbing their own breast, taking off the shoulder of their shirts, and writhing slightly all fit into the larger vocabulary of pedestrian movement, released arms, and a mind-bogglingly precise relaxation. Complicated floorwork and athletic throws are juxtaposed with flirtatious looks from the women.

Despite the commentary the work makes, it isn’t just about gender and sexuality for me. My first reaction to the piece was actually that it must be about anxiety or obsession, based on the preoccupation that seems to have a hold on the dancers throughout. Finding out that this film version was shot and edited by a man, I have to admit, changed things a bit for me, however much I’m keeping myself satisfied by believing that de May, as a longtime collaborator of de Keersmaeker’s, worked with and understands her vision for the work. There’s also, I think, a difference between this male gaze, and the one that follows contemporary female pop singers.

Contemporary pop stars like Beyonce. In 2011, her music video for “Countdown” was released to an immediate fury of online sharing. It didn’t take long for dance nerds everywhere to notice the obvious lifting of choreography, costumes, set, and timing (so pretty much everything) from de Keersmaeker’s work. Beyonce is not new to plagiarism charges – earlier in the same year she was accused of stealing some moves from Lorella Cuccarrini at the Billboard Music Awards. The director of the video for “Countdown,” Adria Petty, claims to have brought different “inspirational sources” to Beyonce to use in the video, and, in her words, “believe it or not, many of them were German modern dance references”.

The distinction between Germany and Belgium notwithstanding, there’s a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism that anybody on the Internet is familiar with. Any 14-year-old with a Mac and Photobooth is capable of creating Warhols. Webcomic creators everywhere are plagued with random Internet users taking frames from strips and using them as Facebook profile pictures, showing how much they identify with the sentiment of “clean all the things”. A million memes of Sgt. Pike pepper-spraying some kids are now floating around the aether, with no sense of who the original creator might be. Does anybody know who created LOLcats?

In this sense, it’s hard to accuse Beyonce of plagiarism – after all, this wonderful modern world makes it easy to “plagiarize” anything. In December 2011 I screened de Keersmaeker’s film with no permission to do so. If you want a copy of the DVD you can download it, just like I did. There’s even evidence to suggest that “borrowing” in dance work is just the reality of what we do – the neurological activity of watching and performing movement is identical, which, coupled with the fact that learned movements patterns are stored in the long-term memory, suggests the possibility of kinesthetic memory triggering at any given moment.

This problem of originality is a sort of obsession for me. I’ve had the call for “original movement vocabulary” shoved down my throat so much in my training as a choreographer that when I actually started reading neurocognitive studies on movement creation and found that “muscle memory” is a real thing, I was thrilled to be free from the burden of making unique stuff. But this doesn’t mean, in my mind, that we can now run around stealing other people’s choreography because our somatic mindbody memory made us do it. Rather, I think of this as more of a call to dance artists everywhere for academic honesty – let’s just acknowledge our training, our prior collaborators, and choreographers we’ve worked for as being the source for all our own movement. Beyonce’s video may be a poor example of this. Somatic mindbody memory doesn’t force you to copy someone’s costumes and sets.

It’s not just the one film that Beyonce ripped here, either. The entire movement vocabulary in “Countdown” is a lift from something else. When asked about the clip, Beyonce is quoted as saying: “Clearly, the ballet Rosas danst Rosas was one of many references for my video ‘Countdown.’ It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life…I was also paying tribute to the film Funny Face with the legendary Audrey Hepburn .” She later added: “My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross…I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.”

My own perspective on the matter of lifting and inspiration is muddy. I don’t particularly care about originality, and I’m not bothered when I see dance work whose movement vocabulary shows clear influence from another choreographer. I actually think that rules. I draw the line around this when a work of art that’s seminal in its field but little-known outside of it is lifted without any credit or sourcing, in a product that will make someone who is already incredibly successful that much more wealthy. It would’ve been pretty exciting to me if this video had gently referenced de Keersmaeker, or given the occasional subtle nod to Rosas Danst Rosas. I have personally done the exact same thing, with the exact same piece of choreography – I find it hard not to, given its importance. I also know that sampling is integral to the realm of music Beyonce is working in, and often practiced without any reference, citation, or recognition. To be honest, I don’t know how to reconcile that: after all, this video is just another sample.

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B2TW’s 100,000th Word Party: Guests Announced!

Last month, we announced an overdue launch party for B2TW. It’s happening on March 23, at Double Double Land; $5 will get you in the door. And now we can reveal the interesting locals who’ll be meeting for the first time onstage:

Ryan Kamstra and Alex Lukashevsky will talk about writing songs not like a man.

Jon McCurley and Michael McManus will talk about acting.

Shary Boyle and Jordan Tannahill will talk about fantasy lands (on Earth or elsewhere).

All this plus drinks, chatting, dancing (courtesy of DJ Daniel Vila) and five-minute choreographic lessons from Amelia Ehrhardt. (Topics, lines and motives of conversation are up to you.) Chris will be the host, but what will our 100,000th word be? Come and find out!

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Event: B2TW’s 100,000th Word Party! (March 23)

When Chris, Margaux and Carl started Back to the World last summer, we talked about having a launch party but were too busy launching the site actually to do it.

Now there are nearly 100,000 words on this damn thing and it seems like about time to have a party. We’ve calculated that 100,000th word (to be announced!) will arrive somewhere around March 23, so that’s when we’re having our little mixer, at our spiritual second home, Double Double Land, down the alley at 209 Augusta Ave. in Toronto.

Please come! It’s only $5. Doors at 8:30, eventful stuff at about 9, hangs after that. The roster of activities will include:

* On-stage words between interesting Torontonians (human names to be announced) who we think should meet and discuss something. (They may or may not be “famous.”)
* Off-stage words among interesting Torontonians, including you. (You may or may not be “famous.”)
* Also offstage: drinks and dancing led by DJ Daniel Vila. Sing along if you know the words.
* Informal dance-floor dance lessons from Chris’s “Teach Me How to Boogie” dialogue partner, choreographer Amelia Ehrhardt. Words not necessary.

What will our 100,000th word be? We hope it’s as good as James Joyce’s.

PS – March 23 is also Joan Crawford’s birthday!

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Teach Me How to Boogie #5: DJ Chipman

by Chris Randle

My family’s elderly dog died this week, which hasn’t allowed me much time to post, so here’s a brief edition of Teach Me How to Boogie. The music in the clip above was made by DJ Chipman, a Florida producer I know almost nothing about beyond the fact that he’s working in a booty-laden Miami bass context.

I like the wall of speakers and the kid who coyly shoves his pants in his pockets before getting down, but the most interesting thing about this style is how little the dancers’ legs shift around. Perhaps it’s the choreographic equivalent of improvising over a steady groove, a bodily inversion of bounce moves. The participants resemble malfunctioning robots. I also like that they apparently shot this in a random playground, no big deal: of the club but not in it.

(Via Dave Quam)

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Teach Me How to Boogie #4: “Teach Me How to Dougie,” by California Swag District

by Chris Randle

In the first installment of TEACH ME HOW TO BOOGIE, I talked to my friend Amelia Ehrhardt about bounce music and the moves that go with it. She’s still studying dance at York University. Today’s very special edition of the series is about a single song, the nation-sweeping jerkin’ anthem “Teach Me How to Dougie,” and its titular dance craze (see above). Or at least that was the plan. My long Gchat conversation with Amelia wandered off on various tangents again – all about the same subject, this time. I condensed three hours of instant messages into this discussion. Welcome to Dougie 101.

Amelia: I just watched this:

Chris: I was going to ask if you wanted to know more about that track, or The Jerkin’ Movement in general, but it seems like you’ve already done the research!

Amelia: Background research

Amelia: It’s funny background research, via wikipedia youtube and urbandictionary

Chris: Did you have to look up “redbone”?

Amelia: What is that? I haven’t heard it yet

Chris: That may only be in the dirty version of the track (so not that first music video) – one of the guys says he’s going to find a “thick redbone” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Red%20Bone

Amelia: hahahaha

Amelia: “The fundamental thing, first of all, is jerking. Jerking is the main thing you gotta know, to jerk.”

Chris: It’s almost Zen

Chris: Here’s another favourite jerkin’ track from 2010:

Chris: “my iPod got the Bangz like it’s wearing a wig”

Amelia: Holy shit this is awesome

Amelia: Have you seen any of fzcentral’s videos?

Chris: No, are they dougie-related?

Amelia: Seem to be

Chris: You’ve probably figured this out by now, but the main membership/audience of jerkin’ is teenager skaters from L.A.

Amelia:

Amelia: I think fzcentral is more focused on jerkin…Can I say that?

Amelia: So let me get this trajectory – dougie is like a subcategory of jerkin’

Chris: Or a subset – or just a jerkin’ track married to a dance craze

Amelia: OK

Chris: The beat of a jerkin’ song is typically minimalist, and I think the one on “Teach Me How to Dougie” may actually be “live percussion” presets from some audio program.

Amelia: Cowbell apparently

Chris: Yeah

Amelia: I’m watching a bunch of tutorials about how to boogie

Amelia: I mean, dougie

Amelia: Hahaha!

Chris: Although the California Swag District have been mildly controversial, because I guess they’re the equivalent of a boy band?

Chris: They all have names like C-Smoove

Amelia: How long has the dougie been like an officially recognized dance?

Chris: Since 2009, at least

Amelia: Jesus this happens so fast

Chris: There’s a song by Wes Nyle called “Dougie”

Chris: Personally I don’t really care if the group was created by an A&R guy in Burbank, because c’mon: “This beat was bubblegum/So I had to chew it.”

Chris: (Not sure if there are any A&R guys in Burbank)

Amelia: I’m sort of doing 3 Gchats at the same time right now, and I showed a couple of these videos to Jon and some of what we are now talking about is really relevant to this – just about how quickly this stuff develops

Amelia: Second time this has hit me – I was thinking about it last time I was talking to you about this.

Amelia: Things are codified so quickly; ballet took 100 years to develop 5 foot positions, now whole subcategories pop up in what – a year?

Amelia: Like, the system of academic dance I studied when I was young, if the syllabus needed to be changed it took a DECADE

Amelia: Not to be like wow it’s 2010 the future is now and boy it’s fast

Amelia: but shit

Chris: I think teenpop like “Teach Me How to Boogie” moves especially fast

Chris: Back when Soulja Boy first blew up someone presented an EMP paper suggesting that “microcareers” like his would become normal – though Souljerrrr is still hanging in there, possibly through sheer weirdness.

Chris: One of his mixtapes this year was named after an anime series

Amelia: Well they were right weren’t they? Microcareers are kind of normal now

Amelia: It’s funny – this video

at 2:37 there’s a section of arm stuff and Jon was like “is that contemporary dance” (joking) but what’s interesting is that yes, it is

Amelia: Most contemporary dance classes I’ve been to have wiggly arm stuff

Amelia: I think maybe that’s the technical term? Anyway it’s all hip hop, jerkin, tipping, etc.

Amelia: also how much of it gets appropriated by drag

Amelia: That’s the other thing – how quickly it develops means that it gets subverted really quickly too. It’s hard to tell where it starts/finishes

Chris: Is it? I’ve never seen a drag show

Amelia: God it’s amazing, I saw this weird piece a couple months ago, trying to find the choreographer’s names now

Amelia: ILL NANNA / DiverseCity Dance Company

Amelia: All men, and half of it was pretty straight hip hop…hoods, jeans

Amelia: You know – they broke free! took off their hoods!

Amelia: Then they were all in heels and lingerie, doing all the feminized versions of the same dances.

Amelia: What’s the one form – is it rockin? – I can’t remember

Amelia: Anyway it has a whole other version that is the “women’s” style, which is so interesting, in all the development of western dance and trying to gender-neutralize everything, contact improvisation, women doing the lifts, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Amelia: and ultimately, people making dances still seem to want men and women to have different styles of dancing

Chris: Jerk kids can get pretty flamboyant themselves! Neon swag.

Chris: What you’re talking about kinda reminds me of something Maura Johnston wrote this week, about the gendered nature of proposal rituals: http://www.theawl.com/2010/11/why-the-ads-for-christmas-engagement-rings-make-me-uncomfortable

Amelia: man thank god someone wrote this

Amelia: “But all these ads are doing for me, a red-blooded American female, is solidifying my belief that that I never want someone in a relationship with me to feel like they have to ‘propose.'”

Chris: Maura writes really well about issues like that

Amelia: This is the second time I’ve started thinking a lot about gender while talking to you about these videos

Amelia: Maybe I just think about gender a lot, but I think it’s also pretty inescapable to have to think about gender in a form made on bodies

Amelia: Someone once said to me that you can’t make a dance on a man and a woman and not have it be about sex, a non-dancer/dance scholar – I was so irate

Amelia: Like, who are you to say what dance can and can’t be about? I still don’t agree, but I sort of see the logic behind it

Amelia: Because to an extent yes, if you are looking at work for representation, chances are you are going to try and have it represent something familiar to you…And I wouldn’t say that contemporary western theatrical dance is entirely trying to escape the fact or deny the fact that dance can be, tends to be, has a strong predisposition to be sexualized

Amelia: However I do think the form tries to work against that as much as possible – I mean, I don’t necessarily see sex when I see a man/woman pairing. But maybe I’ve been around bodies in that sense enough that I’m desensitized to it.

Amelia: Not in the same way that “all western people are now desensitized towards overt sexual imagery,” because I don’t think that changes our relationship to sex, but I do think that having to look at bodies abstractly – like, okay, what if my leg is an extended line and not the the part of my body that is attached to my crotch – leads to a certain disambiguation between bodies <-> sex.

Chris: I was going to say, why would a dance necessarily be about sex at a certain level of abstraction?

Amelia: I don’t think it would be, but I think there is a certain amount that people will take from it.

[Chris’ router stops working yet again]

Chris: If my internet connection was always about sex it would be bad, unsatisfying sex

Amelia: I would have left by now

Chris: no scrubz

Chris: Hah, that reminds me – have I told you about Pink Dollaz? http://passionweiss.com/2010/07/28/the-return-of-pink-dollaz/

Chris: all-girl jerk crew

Amelia: Is jerk something else that has a male-female version? Research I should have done

Chris: Pertinent quote: “Gets none from me so get your magic lotion / Drop you like a lost little puppy in the open”

Amelia: hahahahaha

Chris: Also, they have a song about making boys eat you out.

Chris: (at first I heard it as “lost little puppy in the ocean”)

Amelia: I mean, as great as it is to have a counter to songs basically glorifying rape, I still find this to be a bit of a Sex and the City version of feminism

Chris: Which rape-glorifying songs are you referring to?

Amelia: I can’t think of one off the top of my head – but a friend just posted lyrics the other day. I am exaggerating slightly, but I have definitely heard songs at LEAST about blow jobs

Chris: What I really like about Pink Dollaz is…how organic they are? They’re these high school friends who began recording songs about sex and Beyonce-style financial independence

Chris: And while a fair number of jerkin’ tracks are basically good-natured songs about fucking, theirs are the most aggressive I’ve heard.

Amelia: “good natured songs about fucking”

Amelia: I kind of love that

Amelia: don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with it

Chris: I actually wasn’t sure how to respond to your misgivings because I’ve never seen Sex and the City

Amelia: oh haha

Amelia: Well, I have a problem with Sex and the City-brand feminism

Amelia: I like this group – this one you just showed me – but it does seem close

Chris: There are huge racial/class differences between the two, though

Amelia: Well, of course

Amelia: But what do you mean by that? Does it make it any better to have “female rap” be about expensive bags and blow jobs if it’s a “racial/class difference”?

Amelia: What I mean is – that’s not the only thing that is “a female experience”

Amelia: and I have a problem with media/literature/etc that suggests this

Chris: I do think that saying “I pay my own bills” is more meaningful in one context, but that’s a good question

Chris: Yesterday I read this depressing New York Times trend piece about affluent, successful, ambitious women whose lower-earning male partners felt subtly emasculated or some shit

Amelia: exactly (which is bullshit)

Chris: or who couldn’t find a date at all because their male peers are interested in secretaries and nurses

Chris: though given our respective careers I doubt either of us will run into that dilemma! ha ha ha

Amelia: Have you heard of He’s Just Not That Into You?

Chris: yeah, I’ve heard of it

Amelia: It breaks women down into several categories of Women Who Don’t Get Second Dates Because Of The Following Female Problems

Amelia: one of them is a woman who is too into her career and too successful

Amelia: it suggests you tame it down if you want to get a guy to like you

Chris: “whenever a woman offers to pay for drinks my mind flashes to a primal castration scene”

Amelia: What’s that from?

Chris: a chris randle original joke, 2010

Amelia: ha ha ha

Chris: Detouring back to matters dougie-related – when you study dance in university, do they talk about how dance crazes like that can suddenly emerge from jerkin’ or another scene?

Amelia: No – “social” dance isn’t really studied in the university on that level, at least not in Toronto/Canada to my knowledge. I mean, I guess there’s some variety; this semester I had to take a course called The Canadian Dance Mosaic

Amelia: Lemme pull up the description

Amelia: “Examines dance as a human phenomenon that both reflects and shapes culture. Through readings, films, lectures, discussions and guest artists, students are introduced to a variety of dance forms from different traditions represented in Canadian society. The course examines the place of dance in its own cultural setting as well as approaching issues facing dance in Canada as a multi-ethnic society. ”

Amelia: It did that fairly successfully

Chris: That seems like a big oversight! But the emergence of new youth memes probably isn’t studied enough in general.

Amelia: It isn’t

Amelia: But what this course kind of tried to do was “level the playing field” and look at all dance forms as equal not ballet > everything else “world dance” etc.

Amelia: It makes the argument that calling other forms “folk” or “social” (vs like, formal/art dance) degrades them.

Amelia: Anyway the course kind of sucked, but I do think that kind of dialogue needs to happen, ideally before third-year university. Especially if we want to make dance relevant

Amelia: HELLO! Here it is, dance is relevant and happening in people’s lives

Amelia: Why aren’t we talking about it? Here is dance! The people are dancing, it is happening in front of you and we won’t put it in a university

Amelia: Hip hop and other arguably ACTUAL contemporary dance forms don’t go to university

Amelia: There’s a variety of reasons behind all of this, but why not start studying, at least on a theoretical level, the fact that people seem to be dancing and dancing with each other again?

Amelia: You can learn how to do this on Youtube for chrissakes, I don’t know if dance has ever BEEN more accessible.

Chris: I love that the California Swag District music video shows this diverse multitude of all races, assembled to learn the Way of the Dougie

Chris: I even love the NAME “California Swag District” – it sounds like a faction in some post-apocalyptic dystopia, or a separatist enclave. That’s a good look.

Amelia: fashion blog

Amelia: So where the hell does the name dougie come from

Amelia: and also until I watched the video I kind of assumed for some reason it was pronounced “doogie” maybe because of “teach me how to BOOgie”

Chris: I have no idea where the name originally came from

Chris: Would it be too much to dream that the Dougie is also a person?

Chris: a Swag Elemental

Amelia: Father of Swag

Chris: This appeared in Google Reader the other day:

Two memes in one!

Amelia: hahahaha!

Amelia: Okay I have to write a stupid paper for a stupid class I don’t care about

Chris: Okay

Chris: There’s one last clip I should show you

Chris: It’s…arresting, if nothing else

Amelia: ha

Chris: http://gawker.com/5689212/wolf-blitzer-taught-how-to-dougie

Chris: Maybe that’s the best way to measure when a teen dance craze has reached mass awareness: middle-aged TV anchors awkwardly doing the moves.

Amelia: Ha, hilariously I’m being made to sit through a 15-second Diane von Furstenberg sunglasses ad using knockoff SATC background music featuring a real Carrie Bradshaw type getting into a Manhattan cab

Amelia: It’s like the twist

Amelia: THIS IS THE BEST

Amelia: I think York Dance wants me to say something about the equalizing qualities of dance, universal language etc., but whatever that’s kind of not worth talking about, I mean, I can’t describe it any better than that video shows it

Amelia: Dance, it’s like so beautiful or something

Chris: I’ve never liked Wolf Blitzer more than I did watching that clip

Chris: Or liked him at all, really

Amelia: See? Beautiful.

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Teach Me How to Boogie #3: Morris Dancing

by Chris Randle

A few months ago, I gave my dad a burnt CD for Father’s Day. It was an old compilation I’d stumbled across online: BBC’s Folk on 2 Presents Northumbrian Folk. Northumbria (or Northumberland) is the region in Northeast England where he grew up, and its location on the country’s symbolic map is akin to Quebec’s position in the Francophonie: not just poor but tacky too. The much-mocked dominant accent seems to lilt and burr at the same time. The landscape is windswept, sparsely populated and severe; one of the most popular tourist attractions is the wall Emperor Hadrian built to repel the local barbarians. It might be projection, but I sense that my dad still feels some ambivalence about the place. Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who was born two years later and a few miles away, wrote a song about the Newcastle Catholic school he endured: “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave.”

The gift delighted my dad, though, and now it fascinates me. One of its strangest tracks is “The North Walbottle Rapper Sword Dance” – not, sadly, blue-eyed snappin’ but rather a Northumbrian variation on the English folk tradition of morris dancing. While the LP’s field recording sounds like a series of rapid-fire clatters and inscrutable calls, these directions for the North Walbottle version show how intricately rapper routines are structured. Several years ago I traveled to a church in Toronto’s east end semi-regularly for the English folk dances held there, and in the beginning I marveled at their heavy regimentation. But the friend who introduced me to the whole thing had grown up amongst morris men, and those guys are yet more rigorous about their crafts (choreographic, communal, libational). I blearily watched a few of them lock swords at dawn one May Day, equally theatrical in their way as the goths playing pagan nearby.

Like Christmas, Thor comics and lots of other fun things, morris dancing itself is often believed to have pre-Christian origins. When did you ever see so many people wearing bells outside of The Wicker Man? According to John Forrest’s History of Morris Dancing, however, the earliest recorded reference to any moves by that name is from 1458. Forrest writes: “Almost as soon as the idea of pagan origins was developed, competing hypotheses emerged, based on very different agendas. The classicism of the seventeenth century, for example, sought an origin for morris in classical antiquity, the commonest hypothesis being that it was invented by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles.” A Moorish antecedent was mooted too;  even before mass culture, some paranoiacs viewed popular entertainments only as corrupting “miscegenation.”

The mythic pagan origin of morris feels right, at least. The dances are redolent of an ancient, ley-webbed England, a land where some druid might bless the harvest by dragging his sickle across your throat. The fact that this place is mostly imaginary doesn’t preclude its potential vividness. Scotsman Grant Morrison included stray references to villainous Morris Men in a recent Batman & Robin storyline (along with a much more prominent Northumbrian rogue, King Coal), inspiring one of the bloggers at Mindless Ones to write: “They are inescapably creepy…it is clear even to children that their treasured accoutrements and mannered, over-rehearsed and curiously arrhythmic movements are intended to carry meanings readable only by other Morrises, and the darkling gods of yesteryear themselves…Their ossified yearning for a lost, or probably entirely invented and phantasmic Merrie Englande, also feeds in to discourses about cultural conservatism, purity and superiority that personally makes me feel uncomfortable in a very concrete  and political way.”

Yet an invented past doesn’t have to be a purely reactionary one, in morris circles or any other ones. Sunderland, my dad’s hometown, is intensely proud of its industrial history, the shipyards and coal mines that were long since hollowed out. There’s a monument in the shape of a miner’s lamp outside the local football stadium. My dad is an unsentimental man, though, and I bet he prefers the slyer version of this story from “In the Bar Room,” another Northumbrian Folk selection: “In the bar room, in the bar room, that’s where we congregate / To drill the holes and fill the coals and shovel back the slate / And for to do a job of work, why I am never late / That’s providing that we do it in the bar room.” If we can’t erase the traces, we can always smudge them.

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Teach Me How to Boogie #2: “The Monkey Man”

by Chris Randle

“The Monkey Man,” a dance rap single by Lil Buck and Lil Deezy, became a minor local hit on Louisiana radio around the start of this year. I found out about it soon after – not from a Baton Rouge urban station, from the blog Cocaine Blunts. The signifiers here are, um, racially loaded, though probably without intent given that Lil Buck was born in 1997. And what interests me most isn’t the track per se but how it spread the meme of its signature dance, one reworked and expanded by the duo’s listeners.

I don’t know exactly when the song was first released; the video above is the earliest Youtube clip of it being performed. At this point it’s barely a dance at all: The only moves are a running-man-like step, that charming belly-rubbing motion and the occasional dip. The MCs seem both halting and nonchalant, which must be a common reaction from young teenage boys caught in the act of choreography. Awkwardness was so prevalent at the school dances I remember that it became far less mortifying than the rest of adolescence. But the routine mutated as it appeared on a few Louisianan playlists. Several weeks later the same Youtube account uploaded this clip:

The structure is more elaborate now – we’ve got some simian chest-beating and that weird falling-backwards trick. (I like how quickly the song itself switches between monkeys and gorillas.) Finally, a couple of months after that, “The Monkey Man” was formalized by what appear to be trained dancers. Their new slide-hop move is fun, but my favourite aspect of the clip is that little girl’s extreme seriousness:

In the first chapter of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, a revisionist history of American pop music, Elijah Wald notes an obvious yet overlooked fact: Before recorded music became ubiquitous, and even for decades after that, hit songs were routinely and invisibly altered by the unknown players who transmitted them. This often-inadvertent process never disappeared – Wald mentions Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” as a later example. The spread of wax simply made it a rarity rather than the norm. I’ve seen it argued that this phenomenon is resurfacing online, but the internet mainly seems to facilitate comprehensive remixes (which are not quite the same thing) and exacting covers (quirkily smug or reverent novelties).

Perhaps dance is now the medium best suited to gradual folk development. It’s inexpensive, susceptible to small mistakes or improvisations by its performers, and still pursued en masse by amateurs in a way that music or painting no longer are. I chose “The Monkey Man” because the marginal, localized popularity made its evolution easier to track; there are far vaster examples of the same. Soulja Boy’s #1 hit “Crank That” inspired literally dozens of musical variations, let alone unwitting choreographic ones. The clearest continuity here forms a major theme in Wald’s book: Whether in 1910 or 2010, predominantly male, older music writers have rarely understood the modish dance crazes adopted by young women who dance.

NEXT TIME: Morris dancing! Probably.

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Filed under chris randle, dance, music