Sunday, June 26, 2016

African Dance Aesthetics

Four years ago, after I presented my findings at UNESCO CID's 32nd World Congress on Dance Research, I embarked on a next step of the study asking, "could a non-native exponent of Latin dance, who learned in a non-indigenous environment, be developed to an extent where he or she would (willingly) be mistaken for a native dancer?" Today I would ask the question differently:
"Is is possible to restore or reconstruct the African aesthetic, erased through the (un)conscious processes of whitening during internationalisation, to Caribbean dance?"
According McMains (2015), referencing Robert Farris Thompson's "Aesthetic of the Cool" (2001), African aesthetic features have been down-played or lost in the whitening of international Latin dance. Foremost of these are:

(from the Greek 'ephebos' εφηβος referring to the adolescent male)
A youthful energy (not commonly found in European ballet). "Old people dancing with youthful vitality are valued examples of ephebism in Africanist cultures." (Gottschild, 2001)

"Polyrhythm and polycentrism are also central to African dance. Polyrhythm is the layering of different rhythms over one another and polycentrism is the idea that movement can initiate from any part of the body. These two qualities play together because different parts of the body dance to different instruments that are playing at different rhythms. Farris Thompson describes learning polyrhythm and polycentrism, “my hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.”(Farris Thompson, 1974) All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out. This method of dancing is another way of incorporating and valuing the entire body and bringing together the music and dancing." (Willette, 2012)

Ephebism and Polycentricity combine to give rise to an aesthetic of polyrhythmic embodiment. "The concept of vital aliveness leads to the interpretation of the parts of the body as independent instruments of percussive force." (Farris Thompson, 1974)

Welsh-Asante lends further structure by articulating seven "senses" and seven characteristics of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985) which she believes to be requisite.

The Seven "Senses" of African Dance

1. Polyrhythm
(see above)

2. Polycentrism
(see above)

3. Curvilinearity
"refers to the curved shape, figuring or structuring of artistic products as well as within the positioning of bodies. It’s directly related to two core concepts in African societies: continuity and fertility." (Afreaka, 2013)

4. Dimensionality
Extrasensory feelings and emotions. "Asante's (sic) (1994) dimensionality refers not to "measured dimension" but to "perceived dimension," a "something extra that is present in harmony with the music, dance, or sculpture" (Caponi, 1999).

5. Epic Memory
The dancer draws upon folkloric knowledge and cultural histories to imbue the dance with spiritual and emotional meaning, thereby making a universal connection with the audience.

6. Wholism / Holistic Unity
arises out of the circle-solo dance format where there is a communal circle and a soloist leader or couple. Members of the circle: drummers, singers/choristers, dancers-in-waiting, audience members; all participate. Says Welsh-Asante (2010) "Participation is anticipatory and responsive. In order for an event to be successful, everyone must be fully involved. Silence and stillness are not valued in the African performance arena. In fact, to be silent is to be critical in a negative way and shows disdain and contempt for the performance"

7. Repetition
"Most African composition is based on the repetition of a musical unit. It is that repetition that holds together the other musical units of the composition. These other unit are structured with great freedom relative to the first unit, producing their own rhythmic pattern that coincides only occasionally with that of the other units and with the basic pulse. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of various parts, and the musician develops an improvisation out of this core pattern." ('Music in Africa' 2015)

The Seven Basic Characteristics of African Dance

1. Low to the earth
2. Undulating from the centre outward
3. Polyrhythmic
4. Emphasis on the pelvic girdle
5. Body part isolations

6. Whole foot touching the ground
"Nous sommes les hommes de la danse, dont les pieds reprennent vigueur en frappant le sol dur. ["We are the men of dance, whose feet take on new strength from stamping the hard ground."] From “Prière aux Masques” ["Prayer to the Masks"] by Léopold Sédar Senghor.

7. Bent knees

Good and informative as they are, they should not be taken as dogma. Jane Desmond (1997) cautions:
"I could show you several Senegalese steps that don't adhere to any of those characteristics and utilize only a few of Welsh-Asante's senses. But to many students of African and African-derived dance, these are nothing short of regulations of appropriate dance behavior and conduct."
Further Elements
1. Texture
How dance functions as performative conversation.
"Tell me how you dance and I'll tell you who you are." - Alphonse Teirou
"When a body moves, it's the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I'll tell you who you are." - Mikhail Baryshnikov

Research Objective
To assess the desirability and feasibility of these senses and characteristics as the elemental blocks for the restoration or reconstruction of the African aesthetic in internationalised Latin dance.

Afreaka (2013). "Africanist Dance Aesthetics: Societies in Movement". [Retrieved 19/06/16]

Caponi, Gena Dagel (1999). "Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin' & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture" Editor. Amherst : Univeristy of Massachusetts Press.

Desmond, Jane (1997). "Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance" Editor. USA : Duke University Press.

Farris Thompson, Robert (1974). "African Art in Motion". Los Angeles : University of California Press.

fl00oxhmyv9w (2013). The Lineage of the African Dance Diaspora. [Retrieved 19/06/16}

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon (2001). Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance. In "African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas" Edited by Sheila S.Walker. pp.89-103.

'Music of Africa'. In "New World Encyclopedia" (2015) [Retrieved 16/6/16]

Sauter, Jen (2013). Copy of Symbolism in African Dance. [Retrieved 26/06/16]

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1994). Ed. "The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions". Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (2010). World of Dance: African Dance, Second Edition. NY : Infobase Publishing

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. [Retrieved 18/06/2016]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Positive Move To Rhythm

I've decided to leave the story of torneo incomplete.

Last night, solares participants finished the session looking absolutely spent. They were physically drained from the struggle of maintaining a single pivot point for extended periods, and for providing the constant drive for turning. The sustained concentration on kinesthetic input was intense, made more challenging for the dizziness that the advanced choreographic element can create.

They were valiant in their resolution; they understood its value as a move in itself and for the skills it develops. But at the end of the workshop, I looked into their eyes and asked myself "did they have enough in the tank to take another four of these in a row?" They probably did. But was it worth the learning harm?

I beat down my inner completionist with a big stick.

Since the beginning of the year, solares' learning themes have been to do with the Caribbean capsule vocabulary, and the torneo as a 'stretch' element. I've been wary that that emphasis was disrupting the equilibrium of development; favouring move vocabulary over quality of movement, and decoupling movement from rhythm.

It's time to restore that equilibrium, perhaps to dedicate a good portion of the year's remainder to articulating a capsule vocabulary of Caribbean rhythm. I, too, am looking forward to learning more about the preferences, the dispositions of the regulars whom attend solares.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Dancer's Approach To The Tumbadoras (Tumbadora Session One)

I learned to play the tumbadoras or congas descriptively. At that time, the resources available presented the information as: this is how you set up, these are the tones, these are the rhythms. By learning the rhythms as set patterns (they were, in fact, routines) it took a lot of effort to liberate myself from them afterwards. Experience told me that as a percussionist-dancer, I also needed to know what the tones meant in the various positions of the rhythm stream; and what where the precursor proto-rhythms which combined to give rise to the tumbao moderno.

Why? So that I could understand it as a flexible, living, breathing, thing that could be played and played with.

To learn musical expressions interpretable on the tumbadoras, as a plastic aesthetic driven by a cognitive-emotional approach

To develop an appreciation of the history of rhythmic expression, as a context for understanding where the important tones are, why they're important, and subsequently the points of flexibility in rhythm timelines.

Learning Outcomes
The participant would be able to derive the tumbao moderno from first principles.
He or she would be able to explain and demonstrate each step of the derivation.

Further Aims
The dancer would be able to sychronise his or her dance timeline to tumbadora rhythms musically.
The dancer would be polycentrically articulate.
The dancer would be capable of African and European phrasing simultaneously.

So that's how we started this afternoon's one-to-one tumbadora session.

Seated position. Two drums (requinto and conga). High-pitched drum between the legs controlled by thighs and ankles. Low-pitched drum on the dominant side. Both drums playable with the dominant arm by pivoting, without displacement, at the elbow. Minimising movement improves timing consistency.

Tones and Tone Practice
Open. Heel. Toe. Open slap. Closed slap. Bass.
Marcha: heel-toe alternating sequence played with hand resting on the skin (Cuban style, preferred) compared to hand pivoting above the skin (Colombian style).

All exercises were performed two-person as a dialogue of 'coro-pregón' ['call and response']. All exercises began at the start of the African rhythm cycle (European count of beat 4). One bar phrase. Numbers in curved brackets () correspond to the European beat count.

Exercise One (dialogue total: 1 inter-drummer; 0 intra-drummer)
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer B: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: open tones (2, 2+)
Drummer B: heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
This creates the first 'call and response' dialogue between drummers. Inter-drummer dialogue.

Exercise Two (dialogue total: 1 inter-drummer; 1 intra-drummer)
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer B: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: open tones (2, 2+)
Drummer B: heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
Drummers A&B: foot pulse i.e. tap ball of foot, non-dominant side (1, 3)
Adding the foot pulse synchronises percussionists (drummers and dancers) to the master pulse, and develops bicentricity.
An additional, intra-drummer, dialogue is created in Drummer A between the foot pulse and the open tones.

Exercise Three (dialogue total: 1 inter-drummer; 2 intra-drummer)
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer B: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: open tone (2)
Drummer B: heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
Drummers A&B: foot pulse
Alternation of double open tones with single opens creates another intra-drummer dialogue, again in Drummer A. This adds an audible internal dynamic to the two-player rhythm.

Exercise Four (dialogue total: 1 inter-drummer; 3 intra-drummer)
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer B: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: open tone (2)
Drummer B: toe (2+) heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
Alternation of a two-stroke marcha with a three-stroke marcha creates an intra-drummer dialogue in Drummer B. This adds an (in)audible internal dynamic to the two-player rhythm.

Exercise Five (dialogue total: 1 inter-drummer; 3 intra-drummer)
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer B: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: slap tones (2)
Drummer B: heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
Although there is no increase in dialogue dynamism, the substitution of a slap stoke for the open tone (beat 2) - short impulse instead of long impulse - changes the nature of the dialogues qualitatively.

Exercise Six
Drummer A: open tones (4, 4+)
Drummer A: heel (1) toe (1+) [marcha]
Drummer A: slap tones (2)
Drummer A: heel (3) toe (3+) [marcha]
This is the state of independence. One drummer plays both roles: the reason why the tumbao moderno is 'modern' i.e. the number of drummers have been reduced in response to commercial pressure. To be true to the rhythm's feel, the single drummer must phrase and dialogue as if (s)he were two separate players.

Contrasting Activity
The stability and groove of any tumbao rests on the ability of the inaudible (in full ensemble) marcha of the non-dominant hand. Traditionally, the heel stroke would fall on the whole notes (4,1,2,3) and the toe stroke on the 'and' counts (4+,1+,2+,3+). An exercise for developing a feel for African phrasing involves (to music):
  • beginning marcha with toe stroke on count 4+
  • ending marcha, after one bar or more, with heel stroke on count 1
  • maintaining foot pulse as a constant timeline, even during cessation of the marcha
Total duration of session: two hours.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, June 11, 2016

"Spinning Mambo Into Salsa" by Juliet McMains

Spinning Mambo Into Salsa
Illustration Copyright © 2003 University of California Press Ltd. All Rights Acknowledged.

The past five years has seen an increasing amount of literature published, in book format, concerned with the ethnography and sociology of popular Latin dance, whose primary target audience includes the interested non-Academic. I find this a welcome and much needed development, redressing the imbalance between the study of Latin music, which is richly explored, and of Latin dance, which has lagged behind. McMains' contribution has gone a long way into redressing that with respect to salsa, and may soon be regarded as a seminal work.

Through a combination of fieldwork, personal interviews, literature review, and secondary sources such as interview transcripts and internet videos, Juliet brings together a broad detailed tapestry of life in the mambo and salsa lane woven with compelling arguments. She is true to the realm of academic study, dispelling lore and revealing reconstructed histories, as she addresses polarising issues which continue to divide our salsa communities:
  • the on-1 versus on-2 rhythm debate;
  • mambo authenticities;
  • European versus African aesthetics;
  • salsa of the North versus salsa of the South, and
  • what it means to be a dancer in the modern era of internationalised Latin dance.
McMains achieves this through studies in three major loci: New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami; supported by secondary fieldwork in Havana, Puerto Rico, and passing observations in cities farther afield where she has taught. E special feature of note is her highlighting of the Hustle as 'the missing link' between Palladium style mambo and the modern New York style of salsa/mambo. Her tone is light and accessible, her scope of exploration intriguingly broad, her arguments persuasive with academic rigour.

Compelling though it is, there are some instances where her opinions and mine differ.

I would have liked to hear an Africanist voice in the rhythm debate; "on-1 versus on-2" dissolves in the face of how African percussionists perceive the rhythm-cycle, as does the significance of beat 2.

The exploration of son cubano on eastern Cuba (performed in an individual circular style also called 'rueda') was a glaring omission, one which I think weakened her conclusions across contratiempo and modern Cuban dance.

Her observations come across as drawn from the rarefied atmosphere of the elite dancer. Whilst I might agree with her conclusions on the prevalence of styles and dispositions, drawn from congress and workshop experience, I find that this differs greatly from what is happening at the international grassroots level of dancers taking their early steps at bars and clubs worldwide.

The African aesthetic, so well introduced early on, was a fading thread such that it had disappeared before the end. Opportunities were missed where its presence would have made a valuable contribution, for example in the re-working/re-imagining of African authenticities on congress performance.

The link between dance and music was underdeveloped, and allowed to be imbalanced with its focus on beat 1 and 2. For example I would have liked to hear her thoughts on salsa's matancerisation with its cumbia-esque bass-line and whether it had a relationship with on-3; or why beat 2 became the 'gold standard' over that of the ponché or beat 4.

There are weaknesses in the book: the kineschizoponia; the thready African perspective; the mono-cultural perspective drawn from elite dancers; the mis-pitching of the tagline "Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce" when it hardly addresses Europe nor Asia.

"Spinning Mambo Into Salsa" is a labour of love by an exceptional researcher who is a lover of dance. It is a fascinating insight into the salsa world of North America. It is a candle of truth to illuminate the salsa/mambo lore which has been constructed for commercial objectives. It is a gateway to the burgeoning field of dance sociology.ethnography. It is essential reading for anyone who loves salsa as much as Juliet McMains does. As I do.

Loo Yeo

Thursday, June 09, 2016

What Does A Dancer Need To Know About Percussion?

That's the question that's been burning since a specific Solares participant enthusiastically indicated that he wanted to know more about Afro-Cuban and African phrasing via percussion. But it's a 'what' question, not a 'why' question, which in the grand scheme of question hierarchy: Why > What > How, tells me I need to be thinking bigger picture.

So instead of asking "what does a dancer need to know about percussion?" I should be asking questions in that order, beginning with...

Why does a dancer need to know about percussion?
The writer Juan Luis Borges said, “art is fire plus algebra”. Passion plus skill. Dancers are already percussionists, it's just that most of them don't know it. Learning about percussion is an additional route to connecting a person's creative side with his or her physical manipulation side. It creates a more profound melding of the embodiment activity (dance) with music, building a complete synchronous sensory experience - tactile, aural and visual.

What does a dancer need to know about percussion?
I've been to a number of percussion workshops (usually part of congresses) where the deliverers described the rhythms and got the attendees to dance to them, But all of these were presented from the drummers perspective: there was no "this is what's important to you as a dancer, and this is how you use it". Hell, I've been guilty of doing the same before!

"What are the sounds?" and most crucially, "what to do they mean to a dancer?" must be the questions at the heart of adventure.

How does a dancer need to know about percussion?
Okay, the structure of the question makes it sound contrived, for good reason so as to simulate closer examination. The 'how' determines the realisation of the why and the what. How the learning experience is shaped affects the likelihood of the adventurer's realisation of meaning, and how much that meaning is valued.

On the basis of this, I have now to design a conga adventure programme for the hands of a dancer, that he or she may be enriched, and knowing so, through Afro-Cubanisation.

Yeo Loo Yen