Note: Long week, but no time to write a new post so I’m putting up some old ones. This was actually originally posted on my MySpace page a couple of years ago, and then as a Facebook note.
I’m putting it up here because it touches on some issues raise in previous posts and also because I plan on elaborating on some others from it. When I find the time.
I used to work at the National Museum of the American Indian. There, I met Gerald McMaster, a curator who coined the term “Survivance” for one of the exhibits. The word refers to the process by which Native communities endured though hundreds of years of challenges.
I went to the National Pow Wow hosted by my former employer in 2007. It was an odd experience coming from a different kind of dance community. The most significant one is that Pow Wow’s are not just about dancing (social and competition), but they are also equal parts ceremony, marketplace, and family reunion. In that sense it’s a much more robust experience than going to a typical Lindy Hop event weekend. I guess I could draw some parallels, but really, matching up a bunch of hobbyists with native communities that are thousands of years old can’t really compare.
The National Pow Wow 2007
While watching the dance competitions, I was struck by how remarkable it was to see these various dance forms performed today as they were handed down through hundreds, maybe thousands of years of struggle. Some dances are meant to be performed in a particular manner, but others demand a high level of individuality. I find that concept highly analogous to what people are trying to achieve in Lindy Hop. It’s a tough line to toe, yet it has been achieved by native communities in the Americas and throughout the world; although not without some difficulty.
Women’s Smoke Dance competition
Grass Dance competition
I read an article by philosopher Francis Spearshott who surveyed the reasons why there is a dearth of philosophical scholarship on western dance, specifically ballet. One of his conclusions was that ballet is so far removed from the mainstream in terms of aesthetics and technical ability. Few people can really identify or appreciate it.
It reminded me of something I saw long time Lindy Hopper, Allen Hall, post in relation to Lindy Hop dance competitions some time ago: “However, once the standard of the dance is raised to a level such that the average social dancer cannot hope to do it, the dance becomes quickly moribund.”
Along those lines, there was a study done where scientists measured the brain activity of ballet dancers, capoeiras, and non dancers viewing ballet performances and capoeira on film. The scientists discovered that when a ballet dancer saw something familiar in capoeira, their brain activity increased significantly. The same was true of the Brazilian martial artists when watching ballet videos.
“Dr Daniel Glaser of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience says: “Our study is as much a case of ‘monkey do, monkey see’ as the other way round. People’s brains appear to respond differently when they are watching a movement, such as a sport, if they can do the moves themselves. [emphasis mine]
“When we watch a sport, our brain performs an internal simulation of the actions, as if it were sending the same movement instructions to our own body. But for those sports commentators who are ex-athletes, the mirror system is likely to be even more active because their brains may re-enact the moves they once made. This might explain why they get so excited while watching the game!”
There are some people in Australia researching cognitive psychology in relation to dance choreography. As part of their background research they found the following:
“Conversations with elite choreographers and dancers suggest the presence of intriguing somatic and kinaesthetic processes when they observe dance performance and this leads to many possibilities for research into communication via kinaesthetic perception. Anecdotal reports suggest that expert observers actually feel the movement or feel as if they are performing the movement; a kind of sympathetic kinaesthesia.” [emphasis mine]
I know for me I get a rush when I’m watching a performance or competition and seeing everyone swingout for the all skate. It’s the most fundamental move in Lindy Hop, but I get amped when I see it like that. I remember a friend grabbing my arm and screaming as we were watching the contestants do just that during the competition at the first Big Big Event in 2007.
At the end of the paragraph I just quoted, Australian researchers theorized, “Indeed, one could imagine that if such muscular and physiological changes occur during mere observation then styles of dance do not evolve or change from simply watching seminal works but aspects of the performance may literally be stamped in to the choreographer’s kinaesthetic memory: a kind of virtual plagiarism!”
Check out this clip of The Silver Shadows performing at the Savoy Ballroom 80th anniversary in 2006. It’s kinda fun to see the MC, Elliot Donnelly, sitting in the back, and watching him respond to the performance.
At one point the routine breaks out into a jam, and Elliot gets up and starts clapping with the rest of the team (1:02). He’s almost standing close enough to be in it, and seems as if he’s going to join in. Later on they quote part of the Big Apple routine (1:35). It’s one of those routines that most experienced Lindy Hoppers just know, and as soon as they get into that line, you can see Elliot dancing along with them, move for move.
One can imagine teenagers in Depression Era Harlem practicing all day at the Savoy, at each others houses and apartments, or even on a street corner trying to get that one move just right. It’s a dynamic that’s played itself out in communities throughout the world where dance is an integral part of the culture.
In his book Jazz Dance, Marshal Sterns recounted how two members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Leon James and Al Minns participated in a dance demonstration with dancers from the Caribbean and Africa. Throughout the presentation one set of dancers would perform a step and then the other dancers would demonstrate a similar step from their culture. Most times they were able to match up movements with something they already knew from their tradition even though none of them had traveled to each others’ countries of origin.
You can even see some similarities in the Native dance comps with solo Charleston.
Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown 2005 Solo Charleston Semi-Finals
So that could explain the durability of some dances, but how does the individuality come out? Some people call it Swing, or soul, or funk, or je ne se quois, or just plain “oomph.” It could be a cultural thing.
I remember having a long discussion with Skye Humphries where we talked about different dance competitions, and he felt that some comps differentiated themselves by what values they emphasized. After all, it’s the same dance, done by the same dancers to the same kind of music. However, what those dancers create at each event is shaped tremendously by the rules, if any, and the audience’s expectations.
I mentioned the Silver Shadows quoting Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They aren’t the first, nor will they likely be the last. Check out the original Big Apple clip from the movie “Keep Punchin’.”
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple in “Keep Punchin’
This routine was filmed over 60 years ago, for a film that no one otherwise remembers. The Big Apple dance that inspired the Whitey’s routine is older than that. Yet there are now several hundred people around the world that can do the whole movie routine start to finish, and the number is growing. Our community may not be as old as some, but what we do can have some significance. The old saying goes “Dance like no one is watching,” but that’s not how a dance or a group of people survive and flourish. It thrives in a community that strikes a balance between nurturing and challenging its members. That in turn energizes the community and gives it the strength to move forward.