The Moving Blog

Helena Metslang, Modern Moves Administrator: My first impressions in the world of dance

Six months ago, I started my new job at King’s College London, where one of my major duties is administration of the everyday life of Modern Moves. Being trained as a linguist and having no background in dance at all— little did I know back then what I was immersing myself in with this administrator job. Here, I will tell you a little more about my impressions and the people I have met along the way.

After our first research seminar event I already found myself in a noisy dance club bravely taking my first salsa steps in dancing amongst my new colleagues. Since then many more aspects of the versatility of the big world of African (influenced) dance have revealed themselves to me. I have discovered new clubs (I would definitely recommend Shaka Zulu to anyone who hasn’t been!), dance studios (I especially like Iris de Brito’s classes where you get to practice African ways of movement in light-hearted, humorous, and sometimes quite silly ways until everyone is just laughing together), DJs, dance stars and even experts of fabulousness and “fierceness” in the performing arts. A peek into the dance world has opened the door to some colourful, joyful and light-hearted ways of being.

Sinful pleasures vs. innocent pleasures

Some people say that there are three kinds of pleasure in the world: pleasures that are either damaging to your health, make you fat or are offensive to someone. Often times it proves to be true, be it a pub crawl or indulging in chocolate cakes. I have been quite impressed seeing dance people being an exception and turning this common wisdom around. It is fantastic to observe how the joy of simple things, just the pleasure of being human, and moving your body can take the place of all sinful pleasures!- be it tapping out the rhythm of merengue with your fork, knife, glass and palms, or making some unexpected African dance jumps with your colleagues.

Mysterious sexuality

One good aspect I have noticed about Modern Moves research is that it brings together these charismatic, colourful, strong and funny researchers, dancers, DJs, musicians, choreographers and other show people from all over the world. What contrasts one gets to see in the process! You get practitioners from the more authentic, traditional African dance and then from the newest trends of social dance floors or salsa congresses.

Sexuality is an interesting topic in relation to this. I’m gradually starting to get the picture of the tricky role this theme plays in our research project… One day you go to the workshop where you deal with healing your soul with this pure joy of movement. It takes you to the basics of West African dance by liberating you from tensions caused by social restrictions and sexuality related expectations and norms. I love it that the teacher who is also the creator of this dance form has purposefully stripped the dance of sexual energy to use its healing power in other ways. Another time we have a meeting with a DJ of salsa congresses. He on the other hand tells us extensively and compellingly (by using quite spicy vocabulary aided by visual gestures!) of his fantastic theories of sexuality. These are of course based on his everyday observations of highly sexually charged scenes on club dancefloors. This is thrilling and you just enjoy being carried along by his captivating story telling manner.

Feminism and dancing divas

An equally interesting phenomenon concerns the women you meet in the world of dance and dance research. Again, they can represent quite extreme opposites, different ends of the spectrum. Some dance researchers have quite strongly established feminist views. They like to think about the question of who is taking the lead in the couple dance and how it is done– either by her (!) or him. They enjoy discussing and thinking how feminist ideas go with this phenomenon.
On the other hand there are these female partners of star dancers who enjoy their diva role and don’t also mind dancing these dances that culminate with moments where the male partner repeatedly slaps the woman’s derriere.

It is exciting how female dancers (including several dancer-researchers that you meet) seem to feel extremely confident in their bodies. Some of them don’t bother much with make-up, dressing femininely or even sitting femininely with knees together as our mothers taught us to do – their beauty just beams out of them nevertheless.

They are also not embarrassed to sometimes take the pupil role. They feel confident enough to demonstrate quite private videos to the seminar audience of them taking first steps of the dance among the Angolan youths in the local fab party. (Gosh, this was an amazing party video, with the MC energetically pacing on some roof back and forward in the dark Angolan night with white leather trousers and some yellow never-seen-before-mad-African-fashion jacket). The whole seminar was a great laugh indeed. I am ever thankful to the presenter for teaching us the lesson that you can have loads of fun even if your skills are not that spectacular in the beginning. (I remember when a long time ago I was in an African night club in Ghana for the first time, I was just standing stunned looking at their dance, the fast jumps and the rapid movements of their dignified round posteriors! I was wondering to myself then that probably white people would not be able to reproduce something like that but obviously I was wrong!)

Workwear of carnival research

The last thing to mention is the working apparel of the practitioners of this field. You might think of workwear shops where doctors, construction workers, etc. buy their working clothes and protection tools. In our project these requirements are quite different. When Ananya went to her fieldwork trip to the Rio carnival, she packed her suitcase with feathers and grass skirts (haha, unfortunately our funding contract doesn’t cover these project expenses at the moment). The protective accessories given to you when you buy a carnival pass that are necessary for the young and careless participants of the Rio carnival are also quite different from one’s usual expectations. This will be a little surprise for the project auditors once they start looking at our folders containing material evidence of the project activities. Let this be our little secret at the moment… 🙂