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Flash Report, 7-20: Millennium, Day One
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 Clubs."

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 world.

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 and murder.

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 normal way.

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 it.

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 to India."

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