Saturday, April 27, 2013

Falling Into The Abyss by Mai Lê

In 2012, I entered a House Dance Competition at International Soul Society Festival organized in Washington DC by Urban Artistry called The Abyss. Why was it called the "Abyss"? 
Probably because unlike traditional House battles, here, the selected dancers go hard for an hour straight in the cypher. So depending on where you come from, mentally, I mean, maybe geographically too (HA!), you could think of it as a harder challenge (1 hour vs 2 minutes) or as a rather natural experience (same as cyphering in the club). My past experience made me opt for the latter, but at the end of the day I didn't really know what to expect.

After participating in my first Abyss cypher in DC, I concluded that it wasn't as natural as I thought it'd be- probably due to the competition context (money at stake, judges' eyes, the thought of time management, etc.), but it definitely was the closest to the "real deal" in the sense that the cypher helps build an organic vibe among its dancers, true to its clubbing roots.

I may be wrong but I think we were all a little reserved when we did that first Abyss. We were half creating, half observing and understanding the dynamics of this "official competition cypher". Looking back at it, the reservation wasn't justified, we just had to go hard and that's all we should have thought about!

Lesson learned as the ISSF organizers come to Oakland to host an Abyss Qualifier at the Oakland House Dance Conference 2013. This time- no judges, the top 12 dancers (as opposed to top 8 the first time) still dance for an hour straight, but then they have to vote for who they think the best dancer of the cypher was. The winner then is flown to DC for the International Soul Society Festival for The Abyss 2013 finals, where he/she has the opportunity to win the grand prize.

In the Oakland Qualifier, I didn't enter for the win. I was honored to participate in The Abyss as a "wild card" - basically a dancer that jumps in the cypher for a short time just to spice it up! 

To be honest, this Oakland cypher didn't even need to get spiced up (HA!), those 12 dancers were hungry and going hard from beginning to end! The music was definitely helping (props to DJ Tomahawk Bang on the wheels with the bomb track selection). I felt the dancers covered more range too (floor work, animalistic style, aggressive flow, very smooth gracious flow, etc). The cypher was very intense, in a positive way, and was clearly entertaining the whole room.
When the time came for the dancers to vote, two dancers stood out, they each had three votes so they had to "battle" for an additional half hour to determine who was the cypher warrior of the day. Maaaan o maaaan, I have the biggest respect for these two! Angelo and Odie gave their heart to the floor. The crowd was super encouraging, so much so that we all got some of their sweat on our faces as a thank you ;)) Odie went home with the W.  Congrats again to him!

In conclusion (because I'm trying to make this short, but I see it becoming a book-HA!), my first Abyss experience was a dope one, but my Oakland Abyss experience was an even a doper one.  I just hope that future, "Abysses" follow that exponential growth trajectory! This cypher is not only inspiring for its dance but actually rather for its vibe and energy. It is a real, raw and memorable experience to all of us and on our paths in this House culture journey, I wish us all many more!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The New Style of Tap" by Che Shabazz

Modern tap dance is most commonly broken up into 3 styles of tap.  You have rhythm tap, which is the most popular style of tap; rhythm tap is easily separated from the two often presented a cappella rhythm tap is as much music as it is dance based in meters, bars, and of course rhythms.  Broadway tap is another style of tap easily recognized, the distinction between the rhythm and Broadway tap is a much bigger style of tap it is perfect for its medium.  The few sounds and big movements of Broadway tap work with the large musical numbers you usually find in Broadway productions. 

The third style is competition or convention tap.  Competition tap is choreographed, more so than the others, down to the movement of the dancer’s fingers. Competition tap is all flash steps and big smiles.
While there are three styles tap is broken up into every dancer has their individual style and many of the greats have even defined that style (for example, Savion Glover and his funk tap). 

In the vein of the greats, I myself have spent the last few years developing my own style of tap.  A style different than any style of tap to date, or at least different from any I have ever seen.  Tap dance is usually lumped into the category of “classically trained” dancers.  Dancers who learn tap usually learn jazz, ballet, modern, or contemporary, forgetting that tap is the original urban dance. 
My style of tap is meant to bring tap back to its roots in hoofing with complex footwork-  combining it with house, hip-hop, lofting, and popping.  Admittedly this is the most difficult pursuit I have undertaken in dance in my long dance career and is still incomplete.  I have been recording my pursuit  and it can be traced at my Courtap page.

Meet the Author:
Che Shabazz is a college student at University of Maryland and artist with Urban Artistry.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Investing in a Safe Space" by Emily Oleson

When I first started to collaborate with Urban Artistry, I was touched by their openness and the warm welcome I and my fellow Irish step dancers received.  I decided I wanted to study with this group of artists who had created one of the healthiest and happiest dance communities I had ever encountered.  I had to ask myself: what does it take to invest in a community, a cause, and a culture? Should you be from it, of it, or in it?  I knew from being involved in several different dance traditions that there are various ways to enter a new dance scene - I also knew from studying the idea of "community dance" in general that different approaches often determine how and how long people remain engaged.  I appreciate many of the ways that Urban Artistry creates and maintains a real community.
Investment in a common “topic” (whether political, aesthetic or social) seems to lead people to a space and time where their interests can be shared.  This is obvious.  What might not be so obvious to scholars and dancers from very formalized areas is that structures and rules already exists within dance communities that are self-sustaining.  The shape of a culture's organization might not look familiar at first, but when I look carefully I have found parallels between urban dance cypher culture and traditional Irish music etiquette, for example.  Understanding that rules exist, perhaps below the surface or by other names, has helped me identify and follow them with sincere efforts toward respecting leaders and peers.  Dancers who come from one dance culture to a new dance culture, say from contemporary or modern dance to urban dance, might have assumptions based on their own training that will be challenged in a new environment.  This is healthy, fun, and produces artists with broader minds and skill sets - it's a good thing for everyone.   I am learning from Urban Artistry members that there are three "T's that promote investment - "Time," "Transparency," and Tension."

It might behoove community dance practitioners who come into a group from the outside to spend an extended amount of time observing the existing aesthetic values.  What do the people you are there to serve consider beautiful or excellent?  Rather than pre-programming an agenda based on an imagined need, we can ask questions, both subtly and explicitly.  We can do this as students of a new style, discovering fresh goals, or as teachers in a new setting, realizing we have a range of tools and skills to offer.  Many leaders in the field of "Community Dance Practice" establish this as one of the most important of their "best practices."

The community should expect a high level of transparency and accountability on the part of incoming dancers.  Visitors should respect prior community members and protect them from oppressive or irrelevant judgment.  I find entering a new world of dance is a great opportunity to learn about my own preferences and assumptions.  There is no need to project shortcomings on other dance forms because they are not my favorite. I don't need to change, rescue or enlighten anyone so that everything can be my favorite thing - and I don't need to pick just one thing.  I like crossing over between different dance communities and building bridges for collaboration and play.  I also see most other members of Urban Artistry spearheading these kind of projects, without public funding or support.  This is inspiring.  My hope for the field of Dance Education is that with real attention and respect towards established dance artists in a variety of backgrounds, project-based community dance that's enriching to existing communities can be funded to have lasting and sustainable impact. 
Where many different people are all invested in a similar aesthetic/political/social topic, a certain amount of tension is inherent.  We don't have to look at tension or disagreement as a knife dividing communities into sub-groups.  We could look at the sub-groups or individuals in a community as charged particles orbiting around a single nucleus.  The tensions are like the electro-chemical charges that keep things alive and in motion around the common theme.  Just as some structures can’t be built or achieved without a certain amount of tension (hanging a hammock for instance), there might not be true community without internal dissent on some level – maybe.  There are stories from disparate individuals coming together to make group, creating counter-narratives across generations and backgrounds.  Creating safe space for dissent (instead of only trying to foster consensus) would definitely constitute another "best practice" for community dance.
The safe creative spaces that are bound by the three "T's,"- time, transparency, and tension, are not necessarily value-free spaces.  I have to admit I have personally spent a lot of time complaining about aesthetic hierarchies that discriminate against urban and folk arts (like those that might show up in higher education).  Still, I do see that within most communities certain organic hierarchies are present. 
Continuing the metaphor of particles in orbit, there are certain pathways and spheres of orbit that are closer to the nucleus than others – this is how I see hierarchies of artists manifesting within some communities.  There is a music jam at Augusta Heritage Center's Old-Time week called the “Onion Jam” where the instructors are in the center, and it radiates by skill level from there - respecting existing hierarchies might be a best practice, too.  
These are not linear, vertical, list-like hierarchies, but mobile, changeable proximity to the source of the art form.  In Good Foot Dance Company, my partner Matthew Olwell and I sort of orbit around each other- interacting, playing off of one another- creating our own pathways and yet following traditions.  This is also a necessary kind of motion in a dance company - you don't always maintain the same role, and you're not always the one on top.

Beat Retreat Teaser
Perhaps the saying “you get out what you put in” explains the fact that artists who invest the most in the form seem to be more central in the scene.  They are fed by the art form emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and hopefully materially -  but perhaps one can only be nourished by the form and the community by being responsible for oneself.  Being transparent about your intentions and background helps to set a tone that inspires generosity in others and helps create the safe space for the community and the individual.  The space, perhaps filled with a healthy tension, between the individual and the group, holds our communities together.  

Meet the Author: Emily Oleson:
Emily Oleson started as an intern with Urban Artistry, and has become an Artistic Director because of her background in the connections between Irish and European step dance, Appalachian flatfooting, and tap.  She recently graduated with an M.F.A. from University of Maryland and is the co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, which specializes in remixing American vernacular dance into innovative “Trad Dance Theatre.” Emily's article, "Two Shoes, Same Foot: Vernacular Dance and Concert Dance" was recently published in Dance USA. She also has an upcoming performance at Flurry Fest with Urban Artistry's Executive Director, Junious Brickhouse in February.