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Flash Report, 7-20: Millennium,
Getting Down with the Critics, & Other Action
By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha
WASHINGTON -- By the
time I left the evening welcoming reception of the "Dancing in the
Millennium" conference at the Washington Marriott Hotel, it was
a joyous and noisy affair! Most of the delegates, speakers and participants
had begun to arrive by the late afternoon and early evening, and
most made the effort to come to the large reception hall to share
drinks and mingle. There were many there who happily found others
they were not expecting to meet and before long one could see some
scholars or dancers deep in discussion with each other, demonstrating
here, flinging an arm out to emphasize a point there.
My day with the panels
actually started at 1 p.m. but, wait, I'm going to go backwards.
So let me start with the panel under the heading "Dancing at the
Carolyn Cooper's paper
was on "Female Fertility Rituals in Jamaican Dancehall Culture."
Dr. Cooper, a teacher of Caribbean, African, and African-American
literature at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica,
gave a presentation that was lively and stimulating, and she had
her packed room with her all the way.
Dr. Cooper explained
how young women mostly from working-class backgrounds transform
themselves as they prepare for and enter the dance halls of Jamaica.
The most extravagant and eye-catching change is in the wearing of
wigs, which can go from the wild to the outrageous: heavy spiky
hair a la Tina Turner in her comeback; a hair-style made entirely
out of gold beads; bright purple hair. Then the adorning of the
body, with clothes that would not be part of any working woman's
wardrobe: short and tight black dress with cut-away patterns; long
black boots; short figure-hugging tops and sleek shorts. Next comes
the painting of the face and body to enhance and complete the picture:
dazzling beads placed strategically on the face or in various patterns
across the arm or leg. A video clip made all this very clear. The
woman before she is ready to appear in the dance hall is your average
woman off the street. Yes, good-looking, but nothing to make your
head turn. This picture is completely wiped out and the transformation
is complete as she dresses for the dance club. Which is the real
woman? According to society the dance hall is a "misogynist space
in which women are reduced to mindless bodies," said Dr. Cooper.
But she argues that the dance club culture gives the ordinary woman
in Jamaica freedom from "demure." Once part of the scene she is
able to celebrate her female sexuality, luxuriate in it. A woman
in such a scenario is able to project whichever image she may choose
to have, free of social restraints, and may relate to other women
and men in an uninhibited way, which does not necessarily mean that
she is on a path to self -destruction.
The speaker went on to
take the "flamboyant" deejay, Lady Saw, as an example that "epitomizes
the liberation of African-Jamaican women." Lady Saw, shown in a
video clip, is a young, charming woman who is not worried about
what others think of her. Her gestures are unrestrained, and holding
onto her crotch or boobs or behind is all part of her normal act.
When critics have complained, her answer apparently was that Michael
Jackson did it too and no one complained! Her blatant style and
somewhat course language has caused her to be called "slack," a
term that in Jamaican society apparently refers to someone with
loose morals, a loose woman, or to sexist images of women. However,
as Dr. Cooper put it, she is the new woman of the times, no holds
barred, creating her own space. Her lyrics can be serious and thoughtful
when needed, and a quote was given here with reflective lines about
people, society and politicians.
One of the other papers
in this panel was by Sally R. Sommer (Ph.D., teacher at Duke University),
and called "Check Your Body." Sommer's paper covered the "underground"
club scene in New York, starting, as she said, in the 1800s. She
quoted an extract from a view of the cellar clubs in the 1800s,
a place where the white and black, black and white all mingled together
with such fiddling and dancing and drunkenness -- a place full of
merriment and abandon that was definitely not the lot of the working
people in New York in those days. This culture, said Dr. Sommer,
has survived and continued with some changes in the dance clubs
of New York today.
Dr. Sommer then went
on to talk about the more recent development of the Rave and the
sense of closeness and innocent partying that the crowd is drawn
to. And about the contribution of the deejay and his control of
the crowd through the beat, which is slowly increased to an almost
frantic pace. Where the idea is to dance yourself out of all energy.
This, she said, was never the idea of the underground dance clubs.
Those clubs were all about dancing, whether you danced in a loft,
garage or basement. And yet, each place has its own codes and clientele.
The people going to the loft take a change of clothing and talcum
powder. They are signaling that they are there for the long sweat,
serious business. Those going to the garage are more hip. But it
is the underground lot that really personify the club. Here, Dr.
Sommer said, you can come year after year, get to know all the others
who frequent the place and yet never meet on theoutside, never even
know each other's names or occupations. Yet they have a special
bond, a bond that cuts out the rest of life and the rest of the
A video clip showed some
scenes from different underground clubs; those that have "survived
the 1997 (Mayor Rudolph) Guiliani purge." As one deejay says, you
"check your body in" when you enter and then it's only the dance
that takes over. In the center of the circle go those who have created
some special moves on their own. They compete, but they also celebrate
each other's achievements. One really interesting piece on the video
dealt with a particularly young boy in his early twenties who says
that he was inspired by television, certain movies, animation etc.
to dance ( this drew many amazed laughs). But he says he wasn't
a dancer and why should one become a dancer, it isn't if you get
any money for it! This, as you can imagine, drew much self-mocking
laughter from all in the room!
The point that I think
Dr. Sommer was underlining was that the underground dance club culture
is especially important for those people who have a need for the
outlet of their talent, but have no money and no community to feel
bound to. For them all of this is available at the club. And unlike
what many think this culture does not necessarily lead to crime
Sally Sommer's paper
was thought-provoking and the presentation with the video clips
was fast-paced and lively.
Well, that was all on
one panel! Earlier I attended quite a different paper being given
on the topic of Dance Ethnography. Here Joan Erdman presented a
paper entitled "Creating Choreographers: The Uday Shankar Method,"
discussing a certain stage of her research into the man often called
the father of modern dance in India. Ms. Erdman is at present working
on a biography on Shankar, a journey she started out on when to
her surprise she discovered that there are no books written on the
life, work and importance of this great Indian choreographer.
She reflected on Shankar's
fascination with one of India's dance styles called "Kathakali"
and it's narrative dramatic aspect. And on Shankar's need, as an
anglofied Indian who had traveled abroad extensively and had come
back to India, to find a way of dancing that would reflect his culture,
his Indianness and yet the times that he lived in.
"Almora" was the institute
that Shankar established to teach his particular approach to dance
in India. This institution unfortunately only survived for four
years but it laid the foundations of the modern dance in India even
as it blossoms today.
Using many quotes from
different disciples of Shankar, including Zohra Segal and Ann Hutchinson,
Ms. Erdman explained a little about the Uday Shankar methodology.
Before breakfast, under the shade of trees at this hilly resort,
the students started with morning exercises -- stretches and gentle
movement. After breakfast, they would do movements lead by Shankar.
Often he would show a movement, explaining that this was the way
they should not do it. Or that they should observe this movement
and then repeat it in their minds and only later bring it out in
their bodies. He would sometimes do a whole sequence this way and
it had to be all held in the mind.
At other times, he would
give his students a topic to improvise. The bare outline would be
given and they would need to learn to get over their shyness and
learn just how much to pre-plan and how much to leave to their instincts
when up on stage.
Walking was important,
say his students. Sometimes Shankar would assign a problem; for
example, they had to walk while letting the left arm move to a beat
of three and the right arm to move to a beat of two. This showed
eventually how the natural rhythm of the arms aids walking in the
Most of all his method
was to help the students to concentrate and discipline themselves
and their minds, taking them from a mere self-consciousness to a
self-awareness. Shankar insisted that his students at Almora not
confine themselves to any one dance style, and instead they learned
all the various classical and folk dances styles from the best of
teachers. He then focused on helping them to free themselves from
the strictures of all of them and to concentrate instead on their
perception of movement as part of life and their own reaction to
Are choreographers born
or made? Erdman feels that they are made. Her argument is that Uday
Shankar was able to liberate the imagination and creative powers
of not just the students that he himself taught and that have on
the whole gone on to be heads of their own dance companies or made
their mark on the dance world of India in a different way, but that
his impact can also be felt right up to today in the Indian society
in India and abroad, as a new generation struggles to explore and
explain itself through a modern dance that is "particular and peculiar
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