Modern Moves postdoctoral researcher Madison Moore delivered a standing-room only lecture titled “How To Be Beyoncé: An Interpretation of an Icon” on the pop star and her cultural relevance. The lecture was part of the Turl Street Art Festival, a week-long cultural extravaganza organized by Exeter College, Lincoln College and Jesus College on Turl Street in Oxford.
Moore’s unique brand of public scholarship regularly pushes the boundaries of traditional academia by taking seemingly insignificant topics (i.e. items from pop culture) and unraveling their multiple layers of complexity. Focusing on the intense fervor surrounding Beyoncé and her red-hot, nearly religious fan base, and moving to discussions of the black body and the pop music industry, the lecture approached Beyoncé as just one cultural text to explore issues of race, sexuality, media, stardom, and long-running depictions of the black female body.
On Monday, March 16th, Moore will do a repeat of the lecture at University College London. Stay tuned for further details!
No matter what genre(s) you play, to be a DJ you need to have a ravenous, unending passion for music. Sure, most people can admit to having at least some sort of passion for or interest in music, but I think to be a DJ you really have to be obsessed with finding, collecting, and sharing music with an eager and willing audience. I buy dozens of vinyl and digital music files every month, and you should see my Beatport Hold Bin: there are hundreds of tracks in it and I keep adding more.
My love of music started at an early age when I was first exposed to classical music. I remember being in 3rd grade and everyone in my year had to learn an instrument. I guess that was supposed to make us culturally well-rounded. You either went with the woodwinds or brass, which typically put you in band, or you picked a stringed instrument, which means you would be in orchestra. I chose violin for two reasons: 1. because I didn’t want to be a “band geek,” that horrible nerdy trop you still see in Hollywood movies about American school kids and 2. because I liked the way it looked. I thought it sounded prettier than all the other instruments and, ever the esthete, I chose the prettiest thing on offer.
When you first study a stringed instrument the teacher puts little pieces of masking tape on the fingerboard to help you learn where to naturally place your fingers to make the right kinds of sounds. Nothing too complicated, just simple notes in first position. Our string teacher taught us notes not by telling us what the notes were — we couldn’t even read music yet. She taught us with numbers. So “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was not A-A-E-E-F#-F#-E, as it is notated in real music, but A0-A0-A0-A0-E1-E1-0 — the “1” indicating where you should put your first finger on the E string, the “0” indicating an open string.
I didn’t know that picking up a violin in the 3rd grade would turn into years of violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, recitals, sectionals, auditions, competitions and hours and hours of practice. More than that, I was always the only black guy in the orchestra, a joke my grandmother just loved to point out every time an orchestra I was in took a group photo.
“Where’s’ Madison,” she’d ask. “There he is!” pointing right at me, the brown spot.
The lack of black orchestral musicians and recitalist is why I thought that I wanted to be a concert violinist, or an international artist who makes a living simply by performing as a solo artist in recitals and with orchestras. I’m talking along the lines of Anne Sophie Mutter, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell, all of whom are white. I wanted to be one of the first black concert violinists and I was steadily towards that goal if I might say so. I loved the idea of being an artist and making a living doing something I loved to do.
I stopped playing violin after nearly 15 years for reasons I won’t go into, but because music was such a big part of my life it’s hard for me to imagine not doing something musical.
I always describe myself as being of two minds: the first mind is deeply intellectual, loves ideas, theory, high art and the like while the other is seemingly superficial, loves nightclubs, popular culture and dance music. This was even the case when I was in the violin world. So at the same time that I was dealing the classical music world I was also going to nightclubs and loving dance music.
One summer I was a fellow with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. It was a position that brought together the best high school string players from around the country for an eight-week apprenticeship. There was a lot of trying to “out play” one another. They put you in a dorm and you had a member from the NSO as your private teacher for eight weeks. We were also given a pretty nice stipend, almost all of which I used to buy CDs from Tower Records. Seriously. We got our allowance of $200 per week which was meant to cover food and other expenses but I probably used $100 of it on CDs every week, everything from techno and electronica to my favorite concert artists performing Bach, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
I told you I loved music.
II. Hey Mr. DJ
When I stopped playing violin I needed another outlet to express myself musically. I can’t sing at all so that wasn’t an option. The only thing I loved as much as music was going out to nightclubs. I was so drawn to the fantasy the club offered, to how loud the music was, and to how a nightclub was a similar social situation as an orchestra concert: people gathered together to hear music. Though, admittedly, there are more people asleep at an orchestra concert than in a nightclub which makes an orchestra concert a very expensive nap.
I had my first DJ lesson in New York in 2009. I learned on a vinyl emulation software program called Serato, which allows you to play digital music files with a special piece of timecoded “vinyl” that’s virtually indistinguishable from traditional vinyl. The nuts and bolts of the software is that you can take the traditional DJ set up — two vinyl turntables and a mixer — and play all of your digital music files straight from the time-coded vinyl, as if you were playing a “real” record. You can control the digital music with the timecoded vinyl.
Probably the most exciting thing about DJing is the ability to touch the music. It’s not just pushing “play” on a CD player or on iTunes. You actually pick up the needle and place it where you want it to go on the vinyl. And then there the music is, spinning right in front of you.
I took lessons for a few weeks before my tutor told me I knew everything there was to know. All I needed to do now was practice.
But as with any new hobby, you have to invest in the materials if you want the best results.
All budding DJs know that it is a fairly expensive affair. You need turntables, which can easily run from 200 to 1000 dollars a pop, and you need two of them. That’s at least 400 dollars right there. Then you need two cartridges to play the vinyl. You need a mixer, some type of sound system, and, if you’re going the Serato route, you need to also buy the software and required equipment.
The cost to entry for beginning DJs can be as much as 1,200 dollars for a basic set up.
As a graduate student living in New York City I just didn’t have the extra resources to dedicate to such an expensive hobby. So I tabled my DJing, knowing it was definitely something I wanted pick up again later if I had the chance.
Now, as part of my work with Modern Moves, I’ve been studying DJing and music production at the London Sound Academy in Camden and have made my first two mixes, Hexagon and Suprematism, and I’ve even had my first performance at Roadtrip in Shoreditch on Friday, February 27th.
III. Nuts and Bolts
When I first learned to DJ I learned on vinyl emulation software, but this time I’ve been learning on CDJs or digital turntables that play digital music files from a CD or USB stick. If you’re a tech geek like I am, standing in front of a CDJ 2000 Nexus, standard equipment for the industry, is really exciting. You’re in the DJ booth! You’re touching some very expensive equipment that is meant to set the tone for the evening.
One of the things we did during my first lesson at the London Sound Academy was beat matching. Beat matching is tricky because you are essentially trying to play two tracks at the same speed but in a way that is imperceptible to the audience. While one song is playing you’re trying to sneak in a brand new track and you have to make it go the same speed as the one that’s already playing. If you don’t it will sound like a train wreck and is very noticeable.
Beat matching, for what it’s worth, is in some ways a lost art in the age of the digital DJ. Now it’s possible to use the “sync” button on your DJ controller or software program in a way that the computer’s algorithms will actually match up the waveforms for you so that the music automatically plays at the same speed.
Is that cheating? Some might say yes, but I think it’s all about your own taste and what you’re aiming to do with the music. Some people prefer to use the “sync” button so they are free to play with effects and do all sorts of crazy things to the music.
By the second lesson we were covering musical phrasing, which is essentially about how you mix one track out of another in a way that makes musical sense. Usually when you mix you lower the high, mid, and low frequencies of both tracks and essentially swap them out as the new musical material is brought in. But when you mix by using phrasing you’re actually trying to match up the musical phrases of the song going out with the phrases of the one going in and blending them together in a way that no one will notice what you’re doing.
So first you’re attempting to beat match or play two records at the same speed, and while you’re doing that you’re also thinking about how to bring in a new musical idea in a way that makes sense and won’t clear the dance floor. This is essential in techno and house music because there isn’t usually a break in the music over the course of the night, whereas with other styles of music there is often a perceptible end of one track and a beginning of the next.
It’s really hard work.
For what it’s worth, there are different styles of DJs and different styles of mixing, and each musical scene can require a different kind of DJ technique. With turntablism, for instance, it’s about the art of playing music but additionally using the record to make radically different sounds. “Cutting” allows you to drop the bass in and out in a way that “shapes” the musical content.
The DJ, who works with prerecorded material, uses the equalizer settings, filters and other effects to shape the musical content to make it his or her own. The bass can be dropped out entirely or swapped so that you are hearing track A but hearing the bass line from track B. These materials make it possible to shape even pre-recorded content to make it personal so that the DJ doesn’t just play song after song but takes your track and mixes and distorts it in an interesting way.
It’s easy to think that a DJ has a list of songs he or she wants to play, cycles through them in that order and then the night is done. Part of the magic of DJing, for me, is the improvisatory quality of the form. Not only does the DJ attempt to reflect a musical personality but she or he also usually tries to respond to the demands of the crowd or what the crowd seems like it wants at that time of the night.
When I made my first mix “Hexagon” I had no idea what I was going to play. Actually, I didn’t even know I was recording a mix that day. I went into the studio and my tutor told me, “Okay, you’re making a mix today.”
I knew which two songs I wanted to start with, and I knew which songs were in my playlist, but that playlist had probably 60 songs in it and I was only making a 45 minute mix. I wasn’t going to play 60 songs in 45 minutes.
Choices had to be made. Are the tracks in similar or related keys? Is one grossly faster than the other? Would they mix well? These are the questions that preoccupied me in the mix.
My tutor told me that all of the tracks you have in your arsenal, whether that’s 200 or 20,000, these are the tracks that make up your sound. Between gigs you might play the same 10 songs but you might play them differently or in unexpected ways. Figuring out which tracks work together is part of the fun.
When I was asked to record my mix, on some level I was just trying to do the exercise and get through the thing. But as soon as I realized I would be recording something I wanted other people would hear I began to think about the kinds of sounds I’d put in my mix.
I love the droning, driving, relentless sounds of techno that can sometimes seem nonmusical and without a sense of melody. I love this style because it is so focused on rhythm and to me it is a much more difficult to access and much more difficult to like than music that has a defined melody or a singable chorus, or something else a bit more tangible to grasp. With this style of music you really do have to focus on the rhythm itself and allow yourself to be entranced by it completely. For me, droning, minimalist, rhythmic music is powerful because of its connections to ritual and that even without drugs or artificial substances you can lose yourself in just the undulating drum line alone.
But I also love the powerful gospel techno of Robert Hood/Floorplan, an interesting style of music that still punches with relentless drum lines but has the highs of gospel.
In the heat of my mix – that is, once the record button flashed on and off – something interesting happened. In my practice sessions I’d stop and start if I made a mistake, or else I would try to rewind the track and start over. The thing is, you can’t do that on a dance floor. If you mess up you don’t get to shrug it off and press “do over.” You have to keep going.
Each time I’ve recorded a mix — and there are two mixes now — I’ve essentially improvised but with a template in mind. One thing I’ve learned, then, is that the DJ is really a careful improviser. She or he has a crate or crates of tracks they usually play, tracks that make up that particular DJs “sound.” My tutor told me that a DJ might have a certain number of things in their library and those tracks become their “sound.” They might have 3 gigs in a month and they might play some of the same songs in a different order at any given gig that month. Those tracks index a particular DJs taste level and interest in certain kinds of sounds.
The style of music I play is techno and I don’t mind being a relatively “niche” DJ. There are a couple types of DJs: wedding DJs, DJs who play requests, DJs who have a specific style or who dabble in a few different genres. I got into DJing to play my favorite music and to share my specific musical taste with an audience to make a connection with them over a night. To me, that’s where the artistry of DJing lies.
As the postmodern theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has observed, the DJ is essentially a copy and paste artist, the crux of postmodernism, a selector who copies preexisting musical content and pastes it together in a brand new context over the course of the night. Part of the excitement of DJing is how you surprise yourself by pasting songs that fit together in ways you didn’t anticipate.
VI. The Night Of…
I had my first DJ performance in the basement at Roadtrip, a popular bar in Shoreditch. Part of the reason I chose the DJ school I did is because it’s relatively inexpensive, compared to other DJ schools anyway, but mostly because they have tight relationships with many of the major music venues in London and do well with getting their students gigs. I hadn’t even finished my 3rd lesson before my tutor told me that he would like to book me for a gig at Roadtrip!
Out of the bedroom and into the bar.
My set was scheduled from 4am to 5pm on Friday, a time that is really perfect for playing the dark style of music I love. To prepare I thought carefully about the first couple of songs I wanted to play because it was my first night performing and I wanted to announce myself with a specific sound. When you’re a DJ you are your sound, and hopefully people book you not because they want some random DJ but because they want you to play your style.
I spent hours in the studio trying to figure out which tracks went together and how I would play them, and the first track I went for was “Breathe” by Answer Code Request. It’s big and boomy and doesn’t have a four on the floor bass line right away. But that was part of the point for me. I wanted to play this abstract, slightly track before I punched the room with with another track that was big and beefy.
I was so nervous about the first three tracks. Not nervous about playing but nervous about the fact that my tutor told me at the last second that the mixer and the turntables were different than the ones I’d been used to practicing on in the studio. In general a mixer is a mixer and a turntable is a turntable, but for a new person performing I was already anxious about messing up and now I had to think about how different the mixer and turntables were.
All told, once I hit the DJ booth I don’t really remember much. I didn’t see anyone. I stopped feeling nervous/nauseous and, thankfully, nothing went wrong. I had a playlist of tracks on my phone I knew worked together and that I knew I wanted to play, but somehow by the time I reached the 6th track I was so into the music that I completely forgot to look at the my playlist and improvised as I went along. As one track was going out I sampled different tracks in my headphones and listened to what worked or what I wanted to play next.
As I played, supporters who knew it was my first time stood by me and cheered and others watched me in the DJ booth to see what I was doing. At the end, a few people came up to me to say how good I was and they were really encouraging me, telling me how much they liked my set.
But there were also naysayers, as there are with any performance. My friend who was in the room told me that someone said they didn’t like the music and wondered when “the real music” would be coming on. Apparently the person was expecting a bit more commercialism from the music that night, and it is true that at a certain point the room cleared — the DJs worst nightmare. My goal for the night though was to have fun and to play the music I love. I didn’t get into DJing to be a crowd pleaser. I got into it to share my love of music.
VII. What’s Next
My tutor told me that I don’t really need any more DJ lessons. He told me that now I should be focusing on production because today DJs are also producers of their own music. They mix their own tracks with those that already exist. Being a DJ producer puts you in charge and further amplifies your brand.
Now I’m on the lookout to start my own dance party at a basement venue in London. Most of the influential DJs got their start by igniting their own musical movement or party and building buzz around it slowly but steadily. So that’s what I want to do next: find a small, dark basement in London, fill it with smoke and find two other DJs to play dark, booming music.
I imagine a small art collective of five people: three regular DJs, a lighting designer and a graphic designer and we would be the brains and the machinery behind this party. The DJs would show off their specific sound and style, the lighting designer would use light sculpture to create a unique visual experience, and the graphic designer would be in charge of all image aspects of the party itself. It’s a party that aims to attract a small art audience, an art crowd, or a crowd interested in a deep sensory experience.
To me, this party is the antidote to commercial nightlife. 15 pounds to get in, 10 pound cab to get there, 8 pounds for one drink in a small cup. Before you know it you’re in the red. People often go out because it’s Friday or Saturday night, not because they want to have a unique experience or do something new or hear cool music. With my party I want to try to change that. I want to create a nightclub that’s as much a movement as it is about clubbing itself.
My DJ tutor told me that I was a bit “chin strokey,” meaning the kind of person who is interested in things that make you think. He was probably kidding when he said it but actually I think he’s right. I want to use music, sound and space to get people to think through their bodies. That’s why I want to DJ and it’s the connection I want to make to clubbers.
In August 2014, the Modern Moves team collaborated with London’s Batuke! Festival of Afro-Luso dance culture. This month’s Moving Story presents a kaleidoscope of our individual responses to the weekend, which included classes, parties, and participation in the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday.
Four very different perspectives here, which are not shy to reveal the intensely personal impact the festival had on each of us—and each one emphasizing the ‘exhilaration’ alongside the ‘learning’. 1. THE (JOYFUL) WOUND OF HISTORY- Ananya
Batuke 2014: In a basement room in central London, a group of dancers are going through the steps of the Angolan dance ‘Rebita’. The Rebita involves men and women promenading in a circle. When the ‘Commandante’ (here, the teacher Mestre Petchu) calls us to attention—‘atenção!’— we shift our steps from tempo to contratempo. Stepping into the circle with a crossed step, we shift back, face our partners, and flex our torsos towards each other. After this movement, we resume our Rebita promenade.
What we were performing in that group was the infamous gesture of ‘semba’— which Portuguese and other colonial authorities found the most scandalous element in the dances they observed amongst the Africans they encountered in the region that is now Angola, as well as amongst those transported to Brazil to work as slaves. It is a gesture that – despite this heavy weight of disapproval—has survived and lives on in various social dances across the Afro-diasporic world; it has even given its name to the modern dances ‘samba’ and ‘semba’.
A very specific experience that recurs in my dance research is the feeling, while I’m dancing, of being transported to another time and place. This uncanny encounter between my dancing body and a history that is not mine per se repeats itself often enough for me to not want to dismiss it as the product of an overheated romantic imagination. In the course of my research I constantly ask myself about ‘methodology’. What do we scholars actually do with social dance? How do we use living practice to reveal the past, and why should that past be of any importance and interest to the present?
The Batuke festival presented me with two moments of cutting through space and time. The first was the class in Rebita and Angolan carnival rhythms (such as kazukuta) that Mestre Petchu and Vanessa offered. An exhilarating session of men and women facing each other, led by Petchu and Vanessa; we moved by mimicking their gestures. The heat, the beat, the advance and retreat- the collective energy that warped the present- Petchu and Vanessa coming together briefly in couple hold to dance a few semba steps. I was somewhere in Angola, sometime when the rebita and kazukuta were transforming into semba.
The second class released a different energy. Kwenda Lima led a large group through Caboverdian rhythms: mazurka, coladeira, and batuke. As with the other class, we sometimes formed couples, sometimes divided into male and female groups. The atmosphere was defined by Kwenda’s mix of childlike joy and complete control over the archive he was opening. It was delightful to move from the mazurka, with its clear links to Central European partner dance, through the lively coladeiras and finally our fantastic finale of the batuke (more meaningful for us by being one of the songs in the Muloma soundtrack). Facing each other, keeping the rhythm by continuously slapping our thighs, we performed for each other, gave each other strength.
Once again I was translated to an ‘elsewhere’– an island in Cabo Verde, where women sang work songs and produced percussion out of their bodies—because they either did not possess percussion instruments, or because percussion was forbidden (as with the ‘patting juba’ traditions of the American South). That evening I discovered massive bruises on my thighs produced by the energetic batukeira that I had momentarily become. I remembered the wound that never heals on the ankle of Achille the Caribbean fisherman, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros? Yes, the wound of history– but also the mark of intense pleasure and a physical understanding of what it means to feel the batuque.
There were other moments, too, when the unexpected conjunctions of Afro-diasporic history passed through my body as participant and spectator. Jessica from New York paying homage to her Haitian heritage by dancing the yonvalou (voudou movement in honour of the snake god Damballa) at the start of her kizomba show with her dance partner Phil (also of Haitian heritage via Montreal); Nuno Campos and Iris de Brito teaching us to sing in Criolu (‘Sodade’) and Kimbundu (‘Muxima’), the sounds and words forming in our mouths and throats; all of us at the final class chanting in call and response format, participating in impromptu animations, and cheering on those who entered the drum circle to delight us with their quicksilver movements.
It’s unusual to find a festival that finds space for discussion, history, and reflection, as well as for dance pedagogy. When these elements are integrated into a festival it facilitates a different kind of learning experience. Dance and music illuminate each other in a mutually enhancing manner. The learning breakthroughs for me came in Phil and Jessica’s ‘kompa to kizomba’ presentation, and towards the end of Petchu and Vanessa’s seminar on Carnival. In the kompa presentation we were asked to dance in two-step to different genres- kompa, semba, zouk and merengue, while in the Carnival seminar, different couples danced social semba, funana, samba and carnival semba to the same song.
As each presenter asked members of the audience to dance to demonstrate the co-existence of similarity, difference and continuity, many things that I had only read about in texts suddenly came alive and made real sense.
2. ‘TIME GOES BY SO SLOWLY’- Elina
After a long weekend of dance classes and parties at Batuke! Festival in London from 22nd to 24th August 2014, anyone who has experienced so many different kinds of body activation would be both exhilarated and exhausted.
It was also an intensive brain ‘boot camp’ — as this word is now used in the dance context — that allowed me to experience and to think more deeply about how Afro-Luso dance culture, particularly kizomba, is now so popular among a very diverse range of people.
Besides the dance classes I attended, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen class to Coupé décalé (offered by an Angolan dancer by the way), from Rebita and Semba to Cape Verdian Mazurka and Coladeira, the parties taking place in the evenings were also a space where you could experience another relationship to dance. People are no more in training clothes and running shoes, but dress up according to the different themes (‘Union Jack swag’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Miami Beach’), ready to apply on the dance floor what they learned in the day. The multiplication of possibilities to connect with dance in different ways during the festival allowed me to think about the complexity of spatiotemporal dimension in this frame.
As multi-layers of time are already entangled in the context of dance floors, the kizomba scene adds another dimension that could be related to the world of electronic music: the music is deliberately mixed in such a way that you can barely feel when a ‘song’ ends and another starts, especially during tarraxinha sets.
This also implies that the change of dance partner is not obvious at all and reshapes the relationships between the dance couple and the energy produced on the dance floor. You do not see a moving tide with hands and arms flying around like in a salsa party, but in the contrary, you can see a slow undulation of bodies, head against head with closed eyes, that seems able to never end. Indeed, if the dancers are both enjoying the dance, they can keep dancing without feeling any need to look for another partner for a while.
Thus I discovered during the Batuke! parties that some of the codes valid in the salsa world – for instance- are not accurate here. I am afraid that my ‘salsa’ tendency to move away from my dance partner at the end of the song was surely felt quite rude sometimes. You have to penetrate a world that is not only a space for a completely different kind of couple dance and music but has also its own rules. If you try to apply the ones you know previously without keeping this in mind and accepting your ignorance, you may be ‘chopped’ ¬or seem to ‘chop’ someone by mistake — to use a word from the Vogueing scene that I’ve learnt thanks to Madison!
Thinking about this phenomenon when we are used to dance according to a very specific setting which involves the change of partner after each song, then suddenly, discovering the possibility of being ‘locked’ with a complete stranger for about half an hour or more raises many questions: how the partners feel that it is the time to release each other? Who is responsible for ending the dance? Are both men and women feeling bad for being released only after one song? Besides, how important is the influence of the music production in this setting? Are the possibilities offered by electronic sounds ‘responsible’ for expanding the dance?
This slow dance, which is experienced by an international audience and could be considered, for many reasons, as a product of the globalization process in itself, thus confronts the realities of the globalized capitalist world where – in short – accumulation and speed are emphasized.
The notion of ‘song’ duration is transcended by the need of people to connect themselves with another body through the length of the dance. The longer the better to be completely immersed in a kind of transcendental space, where the two bodies are building a little story, song after song, without any words or even any eye contact sometimes, but with the sharing of a close body contact and the feeling of moving in a compatible manner.
My global assessment of the kizomba parties I first experienced so completely at Batuke is that they completely invert the balance between the couple dance part and the solo dance parts (on Afro House music) as I have experienced as a teenager during the first parties I ever had that we called ‘booms’ at that time. You were mainly dancing in solo but were secretly waiting for the ‘slow’ couple dance moment. At Batuke! parties, it seems that I had to forget all my expectations to be able to go beyond the dance culture in which I grew up!
3. ‘LAS PENAS SE VAN CANTANDO’- Francesca
Batuke! definitely represents an exception among the many festivals of kizomba, in terms of the effort to represent Afro-Luso culture in the most complete way and in terms of the quality of the professionals chosen for the event.
My impression of the teachers was really positive. I realised that they were chosen not just for the quality of the shows that they could produce –which is one common criterion of choice in this kind of event – but especially for their pedagogic qualities and their ability to move in a comparative way between different dances from the most traditional to the most modern ones throughout the Afro-diasporic world.
Some classes — the Kompa, Zouk, Coupé-decalé, traditional dances of Cape Verde, Rebita, Sabar — were really important opportunities to understand how the most contemporary dance evolved, and other activities like the seminars and the singing class very interestingly complemented this approach t o African culture and rhythm. I must say that very few organizers invest in the introduction of these elements in the dance festivals. Among the different classes that I participated in, I found the following ones particularly interesting:
New York Ginga by Jessica of Kizomba NYC: A comprehensive and interesting class by someone who was for me a lovely discovery through Batuke!. She explained basic movement technique for ladies’ ‘ginga’, starting form the opposition between chest and hips and the position of the knees, which is something fundamental to obtain the correct movement but that most teachers forget to explain. She then proceeded to the description of very simple movements as the frontal wave and hip rotation during the second basic, but she was able to deconstruct the movement to demonstrate very clearly the coordination between the changing of weight and the lateral step in order to make the process clear to even absolute beginners.
In the second half of the class, she applied some tango steps –following her own description of the work – to the ladies’ and men’s saidas. Despite my doubts about the fact that this kind of improvisation very hardly can work in couple dance and that very often women in kizomba have neither the time nor the occasion to plan correctly their own embellishments, the exercises were very useful to train quicker change of weight, balance recuperation, and a little improvisation using the contratempo.
What was evident to me – and it was also confirmed by the couple demo provided at the end of the class – was that the sequence could be applied only partially, and not easily, in a couple’s spontaneous interaction; yet it represented a very good training exercise. (video available)
Dancehall: This class brought together some nice movements that I recognized as belonging to very different African traditions. The typical traditional African movement of the hip circle was combined with the opening and closing of the knees– elements characteristic of some dances from the southern Congo areas that have evidently been developed in different ways in Jamaica adding to them the special cadence of ragga music and a deep bounce at the moment the movement is linked to another one. The basic ginga of capoeira was also used in the mini-choreography that we danced during the class, the basic step reproduced once with the original cadence and then twice at double the speed.
This dance beautifully demonstrated how Jamaican dances unify the idea of a fight with the idea of smooth and provocative movements that can use similar gestures with a completely different attitude. The teacher himself, Safwaan Ess Daboogie, said that he is constantly surprised by the presence of many heterogenic elements that he discovers in dancehall. Traditional kinetic codes are being constantly renewed in these street dances.
Singing: this class to me really represented the spirit of the festival: led by the teachers Iris de Brito and Nuno Campos we spent one hour trying to memorize and sing Creole and Kimbundu lyrics of the two songs Sodade and Muxima, and we received an explanation of the importance and meaning of the two songs that are really emblematic for the two cultures of Cape Verde and Angola. The experience was fascinating: when we try to reproduce the melody of a song in the singing we immediately feel our body interiorizing the rhythm and the cadence; consequently this starts coming out naturally even in the dancing gestures and in the posture of our own body.
Nuno’s explanation of ‘Saudade’ in Cape Verdean culture as a suspended moment, a calm but uncertain wait really clarified the Cape Verdean spirit and was maybe the most profound cultural topic that we touched: he described Sodade as an accepted sorrow, not dramatized, not desperately assumed, but the brief and intense sound of a drop, constantly falling over the echo of a wide but peaceful loneliness.
Final class: The best idea of the festival, and a moment in which we shared our own work and presence there, giving something back to ourselves and to all the group, to fellow participants and to the teachers, celebrating our own presence and energy. This final class has already become a classic and permanent element in the structure of the festival and is definitely a liberating moment in which people can experience the purest essence of dance and music. The dance can be improvisation on the drums, collective moment following a leader, or even just following with our own body the percussion without almost moving.
Dancing to the sound of live drums and without specific structure to follow is an experience that takes people to another level of interpretation of music and of their own movements. In the same way the experience of playing for somebody else for the first time is something really powerful that puts the dancer in a new position and stimulates new cognitive capacities of interpretation of the music and very physical conception of the rhythm.
Notting Hill Carnival: an amazing experience– one of those moments in which the body is part of the dance and part of the music and we can no longer separate them. People from all cultures participated and mixed in the event. We could recognize people that were not born into the cultural groups that paraded, wearing the same costumes with a sense of pride and love. I felt positively surprised by people’s capacity to embrace a new culture to the point of rebuilding the image of their own body and trying to live it in a new way. This was absolutely evident in the Brazilian parades, where people of all provenances were sharing the exhilaration of feeing the freedom and joy of their own body beautifully dressed and decorated, without any taboo due to aesthetical or social rules. It was truly a suspension of the common regular order and the opening of a new dimension in which the body seemed to surpass its limits and capacities and transform itself into a collective entity that was dancing shaking singing and screaming together.
This moment can be a very rich learning process for newer generations within a particular culture, since we actually experienced movements that were suggested by other people in the crowd without even seeing them, but just by means of the vibration of the bodies, without even knowing what our body was doing. Simply being part of a Carnival group is already a way to learn, and we learn by responding directly to the bodies of the other members of the group that impose on us their movement. The Batuke group was really full of energy and well organized and we danced in the rain for almost six hours without stopping. Nobody left till the moment when we decided to leave.
A very good experience was also the one of seeing represented the symbols that I discussed during my seminar on Maracatu on Sunday: seeing kings and queens opening the parade, Brazilian groups playing stick fights (Maculele), and having our own parade opened by an African folkloric group that had at their head a sort of joker figure with a very long stick pointing at the sky, decorated with colourful strips. Maybe he knew, maybe not, that he was recalling some unknown ancestors from another world, geography, dimension… anyway, we knew he was in the right place.
4. DANCE, RECOVERY, REDISCOVERY- Madison
As someone who can spend hours in nightclubs – so long as I’ve had an adequate ‘disco nap’! – during the Batuke! Festival I found myself experiencing a completely other sort of exhaustion. I participated in a number of classes, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance and Cape Verdian Dances to Sabar from Senegal and AfroMix, but after each course, and sometimes during the middle of the class, I had to stop to catch my breath or sit out entirely. This was my first Batuke! Festival as well as my first hands-on exposure to many of these Afro-diasporic dance forms, and part of the incredible learning experience was staying in tune with my body, how it was moving and what it was telling me.
What’s the difference between dancing by yourself to music in a nightclub and being taught choreography as part of a group? How does the body labour differently in each situation?
The best class for me was the Sabar class, mostly because I loved the presence of the drums (and I would) as much as I loved the movements. The whole time there I kept thinking about Barbara Browning’s concept of ‘infectious rhythms’, where cultural transmissions occur through various types of ‘infections,’ with the powerful rhythm of the drum playing a key role. I loved the interplay between the dancer and the drums, with the dancer in many ways ‘conducting’ the drums. I noticed, too, that at the penultimate Batuke! Finale workshop, as each participant danced by the drums, there was definitely a sort of call-and-response, a direct communicative link between the body and the instrument, or the body as instrument.
If the dancer made smaller movements, the drummer made smaller sounds. If she or he made big movements, the drummer made bigger sounds. Certain sounds even lent themselves to all types of booty pops and pops, and this interplay between the body and the drum really made me think about the work a DJ does on any dance floor in inciting you to move, and to move in particular ways.
What I loved most about the festival was the sense of it being a shared space of learning and cultural transmission. People were there to learn. I bought homemade black hair care products and asked the person who sold it to me the best way to take care of my hair. But in terms of the dance itself I’ve already said that this was my first exposure to many of these forms, and even then I could already see how many of the moves percolate throughout contemporary popular music – and I’m thinking specifically of the global popularity of popping and locking, twerking, booty popping, grinding and all the rest.
But it was also a shared space for expressing one’s own connection to the diaspora. French, Spanish, Portuguese and German was spoken, in addition to English, of course. I was asked by several different participants ‘where I am from’, a question that most brown bodies are used to being asked. When I told folks that I was from New York, which is what I always say, the answer was never sufficient enough and people always dig deeper.
‘No, but what are your origins? What is your cultural background?’
And in that instance I say what I always say: my father, who I have never had any contact with, is Jamaican, and the rest is unclear. My mom made various kinds of curries and oxtail, culinary delights that in America are as much a part of Southern Style Soul Food as anything. I feel more African-American than anything as I have never really had any direct ties to Jamaican culture, not least because of rampant homophobia.
When I said this to one person in particular who asked me about my ethnic origins, she rightly told me that it doesn’t matter whether I feel any connection to the culture. It’s in my blood. The way I move and the way I dance is already impacted by my Jamaican roots because ‘it’ is in my blood.
The festival was also a shared space for experiencing connectivity and the universality of the human experience. More than one person I talked to emphasized the power of kizomba to highlight the feelings of being human. Though Kizomba does privilege heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, which admittedly I do have serious issues with, I did notice at least one lesbian couple, and another gay male I talked to told me that when he dances with a girl in kizomba, clearly for him he is not interested in a sexual experience but more in the spiritual feeling of connecting with another body. There’s something about being so in tune with another person that gives you an out-of-body experience.
Kwenda Lima’s exhilarating and fun Kaizen Dance class ended with an unexpected therapy session where his philosophy to life, as mirrored by the dance, was expounded on. Participants eagerly talked about their feelings, love, feeling free through dance, with some people in tears. Immediately I began wondering about the interplay between physical exhaustion, sweat, tears and confession all within the same dance class. How do all of those emotions relate together?
Some questions are best answered by us performing the answers.
We hope this report has made you both think about dance and want to experience, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the exertions, exhilarations and epiphanies of the Afro-dance floor!
All photos courtesy of Kizomba United Kingdom.
The Modern Moves team thanks Iris de Brito for the opportunity to work with Batuke 2014.
This Moving Story was put together by Ananya Kabir on the basis of individual reports from Modern Moves team members Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Ananya Kabir, and Madison Moore.
There was zero chance I’d miss a house music party in an abandoned warehouse in Shoreditch, especially not one fronted by Berghain/Panorama Bar resident DJ Tama Sumo. Her set, which went into the wee hours of the morning, spanned house music gems, disco, funk, and boy did she work us all through the night. It was so hot in there.
There are plenty of folks out there who think that people who have an interest in fashion have nothing powerful or intelligent to say. Fashion and style are too superfluous to merit any real attention, they scoff.
But this theory overlooks the fact that we live in a social world dominated by appearances and first impressions, as the great sociologist Erving Goffman spent his career theorizing. When we get dressed in the morning for a job interview or a date as for a night on the town, we are putting on first impressions. People who say they don’t care about style still live in the same appearance-focused world as everybody else, so “not caring” about fashion is still a fashion choice.
My second or third day in London — I’ve been here about two months now — I was on the night bus going to who even knows what club when I saw these two fabulous black women and they were dressed to impress. They were definitely “turning looks,” and I wanted to be wherever they were going because it was probably going to be fabulous.
At one point two guys got on the bus, looked at these two apparitions of sartorial beauty and sassed, “There’s a lot of fierce looks going on right here!,” snapping their fingers and feeling overjoyed with emotion.
Having a great style is on the one hand about expressing oneself and expressing a type of self-love, but on the other it’s also a way of connecting to someone emotionally, even if just for a few seconds, and even if you don’t say a word to them.
For me, this is the real work (werk? were? work!) of style. Running into a person with a great sense of self-presentation produces a range of reactions in us, and I always find people’s reactions to amazing style an interesting place to think about the power style has for us as for the wearer.
Anyway, style is effervescent, transformative and has the power to change the dynamics of a room — or a sidewalk. MADISON
Over the past few weeks the Modern Moves team has been busy percolating dance floors and drum circles in various scenes all over London. We worked the dance floor at NUMBI: A Night of Afro-Futurism, where Ananya, Elina and me competed for best dance moves. We were completely covered in sweat by the end of the night. It’s funny because when we got to the venue nobody was dancing — the center of the room was empty. Obviously as dance fanatics we felt that being in a party full of good music and good company where nobody was dancing would simply not do.
As usual we took it to ourselves to get the party started. Anything for research!
A few days later, over in Hoxton, we went to AfroKarib, a day-long festival of Haitian music, food, dance, and drink, where the drum circles were even more beautiful and intense. It was a little slice of Haiti in East London.
For my part I’ve been going to a lot of techno-oriented parties, primarily in Dalston, Elephant & Castle, Shoreditch and King’s Cross. One thing that strikes me as a fascinating linkage between the worlds of machine created drum beats, like those typically found on techno and house dance floors, and the more real-time drumming like we’ve experienced in drum circles, is how in both scenes, people love being close to the source of the beat, whether it is mechanical or human.
In a drum circle you use the body to dance in a call-and-response to the beats a drummer is offering. There’s an intricate synergy between the dancer and the drummer — the heavier the beats, the more we are entranced.
What I’ve noticed on the techno and house floor is that people love to stand right in front of the subwoofer, or next to a speaker tower, such that they are so close to the sound source it’s like they’re trying to climb in. They’re possessed by the beat, the repetitious sound of the kick drum producing in them feelings of euphoria and ecstasy.
Drum circles, kick drums, sound systems.
Marry this with the fact that techno and house music are so beat focused that when a sound system is good — really good — the bass isn’t tonal as much as it is a feeling. You feel deep bass inside of you and it adds an invisible thickness or weight to the dance floor.
The connection between afro diasporic drum circles, sound systems, and the way bass and drums impact our bodies on the dance floor is one topic I am really curious to unpack even more as a way to understand why everyone loves a drop.