"What is timba?" has become a recurring question in Solares. So much so that I knew the time had come to address it, because deflecting the matter further risked frustrating inquisitiveness (a damaging prospect) and allowing blurred narratives a chance to take root.
The timing of it couldn't have been better, I've been scouting out different themes for use as a contrasting activity alongside to the chapter on percussive attack. But the challenge lay in how to address the question of timba through the experiences of a dancer. Conventional approaches tackle the topic through its layers of percussion - explained by drummers for drummers. How can timba be understood by a dancer with a limited base of percussion experience to draw upon?
THAT's the sort of challenge I love to sink my teeth into.
Given the misconception, here in the UK, that rueda de casino should ideally be danced to timba, I think it would be useful to use rueda de casino as a lens through which timba can be examined, to reveal 'truths' and misconceptions.
Exercise One: Rueda de casino, federated calling
Partnered ensemble, to music. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Calling was devolved to all members of the group, each call was preceded by the 'oyé' aural cue with the simultaneous raise of the free arm as a corroborating visual cue. Conflicts where resolved by eye contact. This is the equivalent to co-operative musicianship observed in African music performance.
Four iterations of this exercise were required until a good level of proficiency was attained. According to all participants, the dynamism of the rueda was elevated to a plane not experienced before. They where no longer passively engaged in the interpretation of one person's call. Instead, they had to open their eyes and ears for calls emanating from around the circle, and decide upon the next appropriate call and issue it.
Participants also came to realise the importance of the timing of the 'oyé' cue with its concomitant raised arm visual cue. The energy of discovery from the federated calling exercise was perfect, necessary even, for what was to follow.
Briefing: "What does rueda mean?"
Gathering everyone into a circle, I asked, "what does rueda mean?" I received the well-intentioned published responses such as "it means 'a wheel'".
"Yes, that's right on a literal level" I said, "but what does it mean when we're arranged in a circle?"
Puzzled looks abounded. "The circle in this case, and also in rumba, represents the Circle of Creation; and that is what we're celebrating." You could have heard a pin drop. I launched into a short story on one of sub-Saharan Africa's many concepts of creation, Oyá, before and including its embodiment as a Yoruban Orisha.
Exercise Two: Rueda de casino, visualising the Circle of Creation
Partnered ensemble, to music. Federated calling. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Participants were asked to visualise the circle of creation while dancing rueda.
The outcome of this exercise was not as I'd expected. Although it possessed energy, that energy came from the practice of federated calling, but it lacked the textural quality which combined visualisation achieves. It turned out to be the case. I'd made the mistake of assuming that participants were (a learning point for me) already familiar with the relevant imagery.
Briefing: Oyá as the storm of creation
Participants encountered difficulty because they were visualising the Cycle of Creation - birth through death - and hence could not see its relevance in the exercise. I re-pitched the visualisation as the storm at the birth of Creation, immediately when the sky and sea where sundered.
Exercise Two (modified): Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation
The outcome was as I'd hoped: and ensemble performance of dynamism with a quality of emotional depth. I decided to stack on another layer of skill to assess participants' levels of naturalisation.
Exercise Three: Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation, attack 'in the pocket'
The refinement of an 'in the pocket' attack was introduced, intended: to create a powerful inexorability to the performance; and, to introduce a counterpointing element of restraint to the energy of federated calling. In this, no participants were successful.
I decided not to prosecute the contextualisation of learned skills further. Instead, I decided to work with what was successful this session: the use of metaphor.
Exercise Four: Rueda de casino, visualising the self as an Agent of Creation
In keeping with the concept of Oyá as a powerful event and the creation of the first land which followed, two sub-metaphors: 'drawing thunder' (with each arm-raise) and 'creating earth' (with each step) were introduced, helping participants visualise their equal roles as agents during the Act of Creation.
Power, cohesion, emotional commitment. These were present in the rueda performance at unprecedented levels. Such is the potency of understanding dance as moving metaphors.
"Will this session change the way I dance?" asked one participant before the session started.
I thought for a while before answering, "yes."
I heard another snort in disbelief. He wasn't sniggering now.
Instead I got, "how does this fit with learning what timba is?"