Though many might disagree with me I see most popular performance dancing today-that you would see in any live concert from Usher to Janelle Monae’, it is the late Michael Jackson who defines the popular dance ethic of the past two decades. His style of movement directly channeled the history of performance dancing from that of his own childhood inspirations James Brown and Jackie Wilson to Broadway and musical show dancers such as Gene Kelly and, later even famously garnered inspiration from the Breakers and Electric Boogaloo’s such as Popin Pete-the man who supposedly thought MJ the backstep, which through him most know as the moonwalk-actually the same dance done in a complete circle. I view Michaek Jackson as something of the Quincy Jones of modern popular dancing: a connective thread to his many inspirations and a historical siphon of movement as it were. However dancing has a far deeper historical presidents than that.
My own mother was a youthful modern abstract dance choreographer in 70’s NYC. I’ve often asked her to tell me stories of some her her experiences as a dancer. She talked a great deal about her encounters with Alvin Ailey, her admiration of Merce Cunningham, Rudolph Nureyev and the tap dancing team of Cholly Atkins and Charles Coles; even producing one piece to the tune of “Westchester Lady” by jazz fusion piano player Bob James. For her dance was an art form and a very needed outlet for emotional release and expression. One could theoretically argue that dancing is more significant to life than music. Many people share a philosophy that life is a dance, and for that one needs a partner. This motivates friendships, business partnerships and marriages. In that context “the dance”, or dancing in general is an essential ingredient in the lifeblood of our humanity. Everyone has their own style of dancing. And it serves an important purpose to their respective natures.
In my own personal experience, I’m often fascinated by the cultural contrasts of different dances. Whenever I see movie footage of members of the counter culture dancing during the Summer Of Love and at happenings such as the Human Be-In, I notice their instinct is always to “dance free”. That means simply moving based on split second emotion, often under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. Knowing the back round of many of these adolescent baby boomers helps too. These are people who were bought up in often planned suburban environments with strong cultural repression in many cases. When they began to move their bodies to dance to music they loved, outside the context of choreographed sock hops and such their movements, while free in form, were very stiff -limbed and rigid rhythmically. They appeared to be struggling and often frightened. A struggle to be free-to coin the phrase.
There’s a whole other side to that coin as well. When talking about dances at a gay dance club, a Jewish bar mitzvah or an African American nightclub and/or family reunion it is a very different story. These are individuals from cultures of people who have been treated badly and oppressed in different ways. Therefore, as with their lives, I would describe the dances they’ve developed culturally as being far looser. That means that the movements they make have a lot more to do with self control than in simply allowing themselves to lose control of their bodies. In the end that gives them an extra freedom to dance actually. Because, as ironic as this may sound, they have freed themselves of the need to be free. In Funkadelic’s song “Better By The Pound” this statement was used to describe a similar human condition: the idea of self control over eternal inner conflict and struggle. I witnessed and participated in this personally at a family reunion in Austin,Texas six years ago. And when I danced with my family there, it was a wonderful feeling to have the freedom to move with that level of control and fluidity.
One of the things that attracted me to funk/groove oriented music was often the poetic and metaphorical use of the term “dance”. P-Funk/George Clinton/Bootsy’s Rubber Band provide a myriad of examples of that very ethic. It was in fact key to their entire approach-again that life was a dance. Chaka Khan has a similar concept, even recording a song called “Life Is A Dance” and in another song called “Papillion (Hot Butterfly)” proclaimed that “there was a time in life when foxy was the dance”. In 1987 Earth Wind & Fire,in describing a litany of modern social injustices, summed this all up by saying “so I dance-its my system of survival”. It wasn’t about a dance like the Macarena that was designed to sell a popular song or anything of that sort. It was a cultural extension of dancing the blues away. That link to the juke joints of the early/mid 20’th century, Don Cornelius’s Soul Train dances in the 70’s which in turn inspired the break dancing of the 1980’s. A cultural link in a chain that kept people’s spirits alive and thriving.E
Most of my early life a part of me stood in awe of watching James Brown and Michael Jackson when they danced. When I saw Janelle Monae’s gravity defying dance moves life in concert two years ago that same emotion re-emerged. Sometimes these days, life feels stagnant, lifeless and profoundly dull to a creative minded person such as myself. Some days I have a cap on it. Others it flat out gives me a headache to think about. But seeing a young women like Janelle Monae dancing free from the need for freedom it brings me to a world of people who ask questions, who don’t need lawyers to solve all their problems for them, who are concerned with more in life than pursuits of commerce. A world where the dance of life celebrated and championed the spirit. And fired the imagination to create and achieve great things. So more and more people would probably be wise to get up from where they are sitting, do their dance and see how many people will want to join them in moving to the music of the world.