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Late Learning In Popular Dance

I turned 49 two days ago and in many ways I feel nothing like a 49-year old. Yet I’ve started learning a new dance form and it makes me feel distinctly middle-aged. Although I have dabbled in a number of hip hop styles over the past six  years, last October I started regularly attending breaking sessions. In some ways it’s not such a smart move on my part. It’s really tough on hip, knee and ankle joints and you need a lot of upper body strength to pull off even relatively simple freezes. There just happen to be a lot of breakers in Philly where I live and I interact with breakers through my work and research, therefore this is the style I have ended up committing to. As someone who is pretty goal-oriented, I soon realized I would need to re-think my approach to this dance. I am certain I will never be able to pull off the majority of challenging power moves and freezes, and I doubt I will ever have the confidence to battle or jam. That aside, I absolutely love doing it. It is both humbling and humiliating to learn a brand new dance style later in life, and I am learning to focus on process over outcomes. I accept I will need to practice even the absolute basics for a very long time as none of it comes easily. My youngest son breaks too and he soaks it up like a little sponge without the slightest hint of effort. I meanwhile have to practice frequently, visualize and imagine it, think about it a lot, and constantly ask for help. I am overwhelmed by how generous the other dancers have been. The majority are at least twenty-five years younger, but they are courteous, encouraging and only too willing to help. While most are male, I have become close to three young b-girls, all of whom are beginners and I love it when we compare notes, share achievements, and offer support. Although I have experienced one utterly embarrassing injury, numerous moments when I fall flat on the floor, calloused hands, aching joints, and exhaustion like I’ve never known, I have kept a journal that shows me I have made progress. My six-step is now relatively clean and I can switch from a baby into a turtle freeze on my right side. That’s not the important thing though. Doing it just makes me happy.

I would love to know if other PoP MOVERS have taken on new dance forms later in life or if you have tried to learn a new style that radically departs from what your body currently knows.



What My Body Knows* – “Being Stuck on Popular (Screen) Dance”


On the heels of Joanna Hall’s excellent and thoughtful blog post from last week and with the anticipation of my upcoming blog post this week, I have been reflecting a lot on the question of writing about popular dance: how, why, and most importantly what to write about. It’s a thought that somehow not so seamlessly follows the completion of my PhD and the insistent question posed in job descriptions about the next potential, big, beneficial, and cutting-edge research projects. What do you bring to the department/school/faculty? Where do you fit in? How would you position yourself and your research? Which resonates with my own questions. Where do I go from here? How do I determine where to go next?

When I speak of “here”, I refer to the space that my PhD project on So You Think You Can Dance and affect has provided for me for the last 4 years. “Where to” in the current academic environment is the big question that hovers on the edge of my consciousness. It’s not that I am at a loss for ideas or interests, but researching and writing about popular screendance has always been a balancing act between several related yet different disciplines; a balancing act that was full of movement and full of a lack of a clearly placed position despite the insistent question, “but what is your methodology?” I enjoyed playing around with multiple interdisciplinary approaches to popular (screen) dance and saw it as a part of the freedom of movement that the PhD gave me. I also saw it as the freedom that the beautifully interdisciplinary field of popular dance affords scholars. For the next big thing, however, I seem to have to position myself more carefully.

Thinking about Brian Massumi’s conception of “positionality” as that which subtracts movement (Massumi, Parables, 3), my body, and by extension my brain, seem to be stagnant and also slightly resistant in determining which position to move to next. It’s in part a resistance to the “publish or perish” rhetoric that is so prominent in the Australian university system where I am located, which causes quite a bit of harm and anxiety among the PhD cohort. It also causes writer’s block and a blocked imagination. It’s Massumi’s static positionality. I believe thinking, writing, and researching takes time. When taking time is something that is not valued, every little moment of taking time to reflect is an instance of resistance. So I try not to think about my position as being devoid of any movement, but as one of stillness that is full of movement and breath, while I orient myself towards new spaces.

There is this scene in the movie Centre Stage (Columbia Pictures, 2000) where ballet teacher Juliette Simone tells ballet dancer Eva Rodriguez that returning to the studio, to the ballet barre to be exact, always means returning home. Home, in this instance, indicates the return to a safe space in which to reflect, gather strength, inspiration, and momentum. So, my question is, where in the current academic and also non-academic climate do popular dancers and/or popular dance scholars turn to for gathering strength, inspiration, and movement momentum? Where does the body turn to? Where do you turn to?

I find myself returning to the screen and particularly popular screendance texts as a source for ideas. In the last few weeks I have revisited films such as Centre Stage, Dirty Dancing, Honey, and more, as well as going to the movies to see Spear, A Ballerina’s Tale, and The Fits (all excellent and moving films!). I also constantly return to YouTube to watch new and old dance videos, dance music videos, and to engage with the comments in the dance fan community to see how and what other popular dance fan bodies sense and know. It seems that I will remain “stuck” on the screen (thanks Sara Ahmed for that ever appropriate metaphor) and stuck on popular dance research. As such, I will stick it out in-between disciplines and areas.

It is the strength of popular dance research to be interdisciplinary and to provide contact and relations between different area-surfaces. I find solace in this space. I find solace in the community of popular dance scholars. As Joanna Hall wrote last week, we are indeed stronger together. It is somehow something that counterbalances the writer’s block and the anxiety. It also mutes the “publish or perish” rhetoric. In this sense, maybe popular dance research can be seen more as an interface, an in-between that is in constant flow and movement, counteracting static positionality. In the words of Elena del Rio, “As the image becomes translated into a bodily response, body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact, engaged in a constant activity of reciprocal re-alignment and inflection” (del Rio, “The Body as Foundation”, 101). And that is what my body knows.


Dr. Elena Benthaus, University of Melbourne


*Title inspired by Vivian Sobchack’s chapter “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh” from her book Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004).

We are stronger together…

In this blog I seek to open up questions about the process of researching and writing about popular dances. In particular, I encourage the reader to {re}consider the role of the writer, the personal, and the associated paradigms of authority, objectivity, authenticity, inclusion and exclusion that are often evoked in writings, and writings about writings, about such matters.

So, I ask, who can write about popular dances? Who has the authority? Who is inside, or outside, enough? Who is excluded by “others’” writings about popular dances?

These questions are prominent in my mind as I think about the ethnographic practices that I have used in my own research, and the writing about fieldwork practice that informed my fieldwork design. In Tess Buckland’s Dance in the Field (1999), Georgiana Gore discusses the representations of dance practices that are constructed through the ethnographic lens. She reminds us that the term ‘fieldwork’ denotes an activity that takes place in a particular space and time, and, that such space has historically been constituted as somewhere other than the researcher’s ‘home’. In more current times there has been a sea change, where new ethnographies realise the value of insider experience.

How to interpret the concept of ‘home’ troubles me, particularly when I sense the authority that proximity now bestows on a writer. Writing from a position of ‘home’ is, in some cases, seen as the most ‘authentic’ version (even though the idea of authenticity is recognised as problematic). This way of thinking establishes divisive dichotomies between those are who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ (I write this on the eve of the U.K., E.U. referendum!). I’m reminded of William Eric Perkins words in the preface to Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture where he asserts his own and his co-writers’ authority, ‘we don’t merely study this world, we’re in it and of it’ (1996, p.xi). This statement uses difference to set up a {familiar} divide between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, {is this a new Other?}. When similar statements are made in dance scholarship, such claims of ownership and authority are often prompted {and validated} by the historical invisibilization of the contribution of marginalized dancers and choreographers from dance history.

Then, for some, is the act of writing about popular dances an act of recuperation?

Does a status of ‘outsider’ mean that a researcher has reduced authority in writing about contemporary subcultural dance practices (even if they undertake rigorous, extended fieldwork)?

What does this mean for our academic careers, where we might move from studying one popular dance practice that is close to us, to another that is new?

I greatly value the contribution of writers who are already part of a subculture or dance movement, for they are able to contribute significant knowledge from an ‘insider’s’ perspective. But, let us not make divisions between who can, and who cannot, write about popular dance practices. Surely, we are stronger together…

Dr. Joanna Hall, Kingston University, London.




Popular Dance Education and “The Fits”

I just read a review of a new dance film called The Fits, that is a lovely departure from  what we have come to expect from North American dance films in recent decades. Not only does it center around a young African American girl’s life, dancing, and community, but it also blurs lines between dance and sport in interesting ways.

I can’t wait to see this film and find ways to include it in my courses. Someone should definitely write an article one day that compares it with Billy Elliot, How She Move, and Save the Last Dance, among many others.

I mention “The Fits” here because just reading about this new film and watching its trailer nearly gave me the fits. It made me think about all the exciting and interesting young dancers that are out in the world, for whom popular dance is intrinsic to who they are, how they see themselves, and where their life is going–and yet we STILL have no place for them in our university dance degrees. After more than a decade in the profession, my patience is waning on this issue.

In an era of diminishing enrollment, in which we are having to break our backs to find enough qualified students to recruit in order to meet “our numbers,” how can we continue to ignore these kinds of dancers? They could revitalize not only our classrooms, programs, and universities, but also inspire a revolution in dance education. [Those of you who know me well might remember that I have raised this issue six years ago in an article in Research in Dance Education.]

And so, I ask you all, where are there good examples of innovative dance programs that welcome (not just tolerate) popular dancers, who just happen to be the majority of young dancers today? Talk to me about curricular design and pedagogical approaches.

Tell me how we can break the “art” dance training model, that excludes so many interesting movers and dance makers who might jump at a chance to study dance academically as a potential pathway to a career in dance?




Dance as ‘care of the self’ in the academy

At the ‘PoP Moves Seedbed: Dancing Methodologies’ symposium on Saturday I had a 90-minute curated conversation with Kélina Gotman (Kings College London) about historical methodologies in popular dance research.  Our conversation ranged across the materiality of archival documents, the partiality of ‘the archive’, expertise (always to question it) and the fictional characteristics of historical writing. We talked about the deep, overarching, often personal questions that drive our research across projects and down rabbit holes. Our astute audience, made up of undergraduates, postgraduate students and academics, challenged us on what happens when these long-term questions that shape our academic careers encounter the shorter-term realities of deadlines and pressure to submit the article/present the paper/perform the work/finish the book. This brought to my mind Danielle Goldman’s excellent book I Want to be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (2010). Goldman frames dance improvisation as a way of moving in the ‘tight places’ produced in particular times and spaces by constraints of race, class, gender, sexuality, time and artistic conventions. Improvisation, she argues, can become what Michel Foucault (1997) calls a ‘practice of freedom’ in these constrained contexts; that is, a quotidian act that allows an individual to redefine themselves and their relationships to others without necessarily overturning the whole regime in which they are embedded. I wondered, how can we, as dance scholars, negotiate and improvise between the questions that drive us and the goals, challenges and obstacles that define the ‘tight place’ of contemporary academic life: teaching schedules, curricula, publication deadlines, the academic book market, publishers’ commercial agendas, funding criteria, research outcomes, impact, the REF, promotion, tenure…? Not to mention the constraints of personal life: relationships, parenthood, other caring roles, health…. As (popular) dance scholars, what models, practices and techniques can our subject offer that might help us to survive and flourish in these tight places? Could we, for example, in our working days, institutions and scholarly relationships:

  • give attention to the balance and relationship between choreography and improvisation as working modes?
  • focus on the weight, pressure, momentum, tension and centre of mass in our contact with others?
  • experiment with the effect of deliberate changes of speed on different types of activities, and in particular, the personal and political potential of the slow?
  • negotiate a path around the ‘ballroom’ that respects the spaces of others while carving out our own space to move?

What I am suggesting, I think, is the potential of dance as a model for ‘care of the self’ (Foucault, 1997, p. 291) in the academy. I write this amid today’s demands of childcare, shopping, writing pressures and home maintenance (it is a bank holiday). The music slows. Stillness. Writing. The music quickens…

Clare Parfitt-Brown

“Demimondes and Dance Worlds,” Julie Malnig

I am teaching a course this semester, for the second time, called Demimondes and Dance Worlds, a team-taught, graduate-level course with Professor Deborah Kapchan. She teaches in the Dept. of Performance Studies and I in the Gallatin School at NYU, This social-dance based seminar explores a variety of social-dance “worlds” through the lens of “transgression.” Here is our course description:

demi ‘mond/

“a group of people in society who are not considered to behave according to the moral or social standards accepted by most people”

Worlds of social dance often find their genesis among artists, rebels, nonconformists, and others who are deliberately or accidentally marginal to mainstream capitalist culture. From the bordellos of Buenos Aires, where tango was born, to the honky-tonks of Nashville, to the jazz clubs of New Orleans and New York, to say nothing of contemporary raves, social dance’s roots may be found in transgressive behavior. Dancers in these scenes are often referred to as obsessed, addicted, and out of control. But whose control? In this course we examine the relation of the moving body to music and transgression, analyzing the way aesthetic styles create demimondes and subcultures that transform gender relations and public affect writ large. Beginning with theories of the aesthetic that explain the power of the body in cultural expression, we move on to examine dance worlds in their historical and ethnographic context, paying close attention to the politics of the body and its influence on changing parameters of social permissibility. We will also explore dancers’ efforts to test behaviors and assert identities outside the confines of the ordered, everyday world and consider what qualities are lost or gained when these dances become adopted for mainstream consumption.

This has been an exciting course to teach as it, in part, brings together Deborah’s training as an anthropologist (and sound studies scholar) and mine as a social dance historian.  I think this combination opens up interesting avenues for student inquiry. Our syllabus is very interdisciplinary methodologically and draws on body and sound studies, gender studies, affect theory, cultural theory, new historicism, queer theory, and, of course, dance history and theory. The history of dance under review spans the 19th century waltz to contemporary hip hop. One particularly interesting text we have been using is Lefebvre’s “Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life,” which I think can be applied very profitably to the study of social dance.  I may have more to say about this in another post!

In other news, I have been presenting my work on rock and roll dance, race, and youth culture of the 1950s and early 1960s. In April 2015, I presented “Rock, Rebellion, and Race: Teen Social Dance of the 1950s and 1960s” at Temple University’s Dance Colloquia Series and at the Columbia University Dance Seminar (in March). I will also be presenting similar material at an upcoming seminar in October in dance history at Juilliard.

Dancing the Francophone Postcolony on YouTube

This semester I am teaching a course called Dance in Global Contexts, a general education class for non-majors. In the first week I tried to introduce some of the larger ideas and skill sets that will carry out through the term. We talked particularly about colonialism, and about the impact of missionaries and cartesian dualism on the dance practices of colonized populations. One of the dance forms we discussed is Ori Tahiti, the complex of Tahitian dances that originated from pre-contact Tahiti and have since evolved. In addition to the history–it was banned by both English missionaries and the French colonial agents–one of the reasons it is a useful form for introducing this student population to larger concepts about dance is that while men and women perform together, there is some specific gendered movement vocabulary. For women, there is O’tea, circular movement of the pelvic girdle which Cook Island dancers teasingly call ‘the washing machine.’ For men, there is Pa’oti, a scissoring of bent knees from a first position where the knees come together and re-open.

In addition to a full performance, I wanted to show these movements separately, in order to emphasize their difference as well as to help build skill in movement observation. While the focus of this course is not expressly ‘the popular,’ I try to show a range of visual examples, and mostly what is available are modern performances on YouTube. While looking for videos, I found a tutorial for pa’oti, one of several posted by Tahiti Dance Online.

As I watched, I thought, ‘that song sounds so familiar!’ When the lyrics came in, although softly, I realized it was Belgian singer Stromae’s wildly popular song “Papaoutai.” Stromae, born Paul Van Haver to a Belgian mother and Rwandan father, is a successful dance music artist, well known for integrating diverse sonic influences like American and global hip-hop, Congolese rumba, and Cuban son, as well as for his often challenging lyrics and imagery.* “Papaoutai,” from Stromae’s second album released in summer of 2013 gained global popularity, appearing in the top ten of most European popular music charts, and at number 1 in France and Belgium.

The music video, which echoes the song’s question “Papa, where are you?” features parent-child pairs dancing happily together while Stromae appears as an immobile mannequin to his fictional son. A range of dance forms are presented: Krumper Tight Eyez is the father in a krumping duo, there is a flexing father and son, and two contemporary pairs–two women and another father-son duo. Stromae’s son turfs to get his father’s attention, itself a hybrid form. Together, they freestyle, echoing and re-imaginging the movements of the content pairs he watched. This includes the opening and closing of the legs also seen in Azonto and other afro-diasporic forms.

When I showed the pa’oti video in class, I asked, “does anyone recognize the song?” Only two of fifty students raised their hand. As is so often the case, the United States was largely out of the loop of Stromae’s global popularity. Once they and I had explained the song and who Stromae is, I asked “knowing that, why do you think this song appears in this video?” And a few students were able to work out the connection between the Belgian-Rwandan artist and song and Tahiti’s colonial past. In addition to the popularity and pervasiveness of Stromae’s song in the year the tutorial was made, I can’t help but think there is a little bit of a bilingual wordplay going on, given the sonic similarities between pa’oti and papaoutai.

While the predominant reading of “Papaoutai” is biographical–Van Haver’s father was largely absent while alive, and was a casualty of the Rwandan civil war–I think there is a reading here of the now absent but always present colonial power, father(s) with many children, whose language is left, whose mark on movement is left, a father who played favorites and left fratricide in his wake. And yet through what is on one hand the neocolonialism of global media infrastructure, and on the other the agentive re-mixing and recirculation of meaningful texts, the far-flung ‘brothers’ come together on YouTube.

The official music video for “Papaoutai” has been viewed almost 300 million times on YouTube. While YouTube statistics no longer show the geographic distribution of viewers, we can imagine France, Belgium, and their (post)colonies, all in the dark green of dense viewership, their citizens singing and dancing along.

*His song “Carmen,” and the video for it, is a striking, self-reflexive critique of fame in the Internet age.

** A parody of the song criticizing Algerian president Bouteflika circulated in 2014

–Alexandra Harlig, The Ohio State University