… A white woman sees a black man.
They call police officers on him.
Then the officers murder the black man.
Then the officers go free.
Then the masses rise up.
They are met with resistance from the state.
Eventually, the masses become quieter. They burn out. They reorganize. They grieve.
Then a white woman sees a black man.
And calls police officers …
Each event described above is a point within a choreography, a score. How we get one from one point to another is unique each time.
But we always do.
There are many other similar choreographies.
We’ve all tried to learn a dance by following the steps of a master. Counting 1-and-2-and.
And almost always, we succumb to the reality that its not working. We’re off balance, off beat, scrambled.
We watch the master trace their own steps in confusion.
They are stepping the same as us. They are counting the same as us.
But there is something also hidden underneath – echoes of history, long into that past – that we cannot seem to understand.
If we give up hope, we may get exasperated. Face deep shame inside of ourselves for not being able to the dance as we ought to, the way all of our ancestors probably have.
When this happens, it can be tempting to give up.
Some of us burn out. Some of us reorganize.
I love watching Black folks dance. Even if it makes me feel a twinge of shame at how uncomfortable I am in my own body.
The easeful feeling that exudes from the simplest steps is exquisite.
When the Electric Slide spontaneously breaks out at a club and everybody is all smiles, oh man. I wonder for a moment, wow do they all know each other? And then quickly I realize, to my embarrassment, its the first time that many of them have met.
I’ve tried to follow along in the past and have failed every time. My feet get caught in each other and I stumble – off-balance, offbeat, and scrambled.
There are other dances that I can do passably now – although what is passable is possibly a low bar when I think about texture and timing.
I can only really do The Shamrock on my right side. On my left I have to really fudge it and breathe through it.
The Funky Four Corners is fun and easy though. You just have to step forward and back in a square.
The Spanish shuffle (I think that was what it was called) is a staple but sometimes when I get self-conscious I twist my left groin.
My Running Man is pretty corny.
The Breakdown is cool but my arms always get tangled when I’m rolling them around each other sometimes.
I will probably die not ever being able to do the Roger Rabbit because it gets me so so off-balance, offbeat, and scrambled.
I started dancing ‘seriously’ a few years before I went through my divorce, which is now a decade in the past.
I was a video artist at the time and was starting to go out to clubs again after about a decade long hiatus. I was immediately capture by the dance circles that spontaneously broke out when local legends got down.
I got hooked.
I started spending a lot of time watching Youtube tutorials on how-to-dance and practicing in front of a mirror all day at home.
I also read a lot of books and essays on Black dance culture as I made the history of club music and dance culture as a subject of my work. I was particularly interested in how large currents in Black history were accompanied by changes in how Black people moved.
One of my most favorite pieces of writing was “Why, I Say, White People Can’t Dance (And, Yes, It has to Do with Race/Culture/Rhythm, Appreciation, & Respect)“ by Shayna Israel.
I think I went to my first Poppin’ class in 2009.
If you don’t know, Poppin’ is an umbrella term for a family of mechanical dances, such as the Oakland Boogaloo, Bopping, Poplocking, Filmore Strut, and of course, Poppin’, that originated in the West Coast of the USA. These dances emerged from working-class Black and Brown communities that proliferated up and down the state of California due to rapid growth in manufacturing work. Poppin’ was also highly influenced by the experience of young Black and Brown people who went to the Vietnam War and learned to do military marches.
Poppin’ was originally danced to funk. Parliament. Zapp. Midnight Star. And lots of other bands that were forgotten.
We hear stories that some Poppin’ groups danced at Black Panther rallies.
Then the ‘War on Drugs’ hit really hard in the 80s and 90s. In this time, Poppin’ became danced to ‘g-funk’, short for ‘gangsta funk’.
Sometimes now people say ‘popping and locking’ to refer to a single dance style. They are actually different dances but got mashed together through popular films such as Breakin’. It’s a pet peeve of most poppers (and lockers) I know.
It was Poppin’ that got me through my separation.
I was in the middle of my divorce process when I first really started to train my robot, which is a foundational technique for Poppin’ and even originates a bit earlier as a style.
Training the robot helped me zone out, hold a glassy gaze, breathe very steady, and just really, numb numb numb the pain that seemed to last all day long if I stopped.
I think I was bottin’ for about six to eight hours a day for a few months.
There was a moment somewhere in the midst of that where I realized that this feeling I have in my body right now, this meditative, pain-free state, is what the forebearers of my dance also felt. In the 60s, the 70s. The civil rights era.
This eventually led me to ditch the white-ified art world, spend most of my free time dancing, and pursue dance and somatic therapy as a new path.
I never mastered bottin’ though.
There are so many beautiful Black dances. The Charleston. The Big Apple. The Puppet. The Scarecrow. The Snake. The Dog. The Funky Chicken. The Jerk. The … The … The …
Each of these dances have their own meaning that reflect the joys, pains, and desires of the communities they emerged from.
I read in a book once, before I had even started Poppin’, that The Robot was a dance that originated both as a satire that made fun of white people and their rigidity, as well as an embodied critique of the mechanization of the Black body through industrialization and war.
What an incredibly genius piece of subversive commentary!
Yet, when you spend time with it, you understand there are other layers. You realize it is also about the humanity and resilience of Black bodies, which can be felt through the deep soothing that mechanical motion and its hypnotic consistency provides.
So you put your right foot out to the side.
Then you roll your shoulders back and lean your head to the right.
Let the chest and hips follow.
And then snap your fingers and clap your hand while bring both of your feet together.
Repeat the same steps, stepping to the left.
And there you have it.
A basic two-step.
Maybe something doesn’t feel right though when you try it out.
It feels off. Not cool.
Each piece feels … disconnected.
Probably because white culture has taught us that we can learn a dance by knowing its name, its steps, and its counts.
It’s ironic that culture can be deadened by explaining what it is. But O.G.s tell us that’s what happens when you separate an art its people and their history. Our ancestors’ voices fade when there is too much chatter in our minds.
But if we pay very close attention, we may find that the threads of the knowledge we seek are still within the form of the dances themselves.
Have you heard of The Fragmentation Dance – in which each move feels disconnected from the other and each person doing it feels disconnected from each other?
A unique aspect of the Fragmentation Dance is that the dancer becomes fragmented from what they are doing and they begin to forget that they are dancing.
When that happens, the dancer becomes completely taken over by Fragmentation itself. They become entranced by their choreography and not able to exit it. Even when they try to change the dance, the body magically goes to the same places and repeats the same scores.
We seem to prefer the term trauma.
One of the moves in the fragmentation dance is a move called: “Call the Police”.
There are also much deadlier moves.
From the forebearers’ forebearer’s forebearer’s … :
“If you want to exorcise the spirit of Fragmentation, you need to pay attention to HOW you are doing, not WHAT you are doing.
Notice if Breath, Timing, Balance, Cadence, … , … if these are disconnected from your soul.
An unknown dance lives there, in that death-space where time bends and gravity shifts.
You will know when you get there because you will feel everything slowdown.
That’s a sign that we are present with you.
We GET DOWN AND PARTY TOGETHER.”
If Life is a Dance, violence is an old choreography, passed down many generations.
But so is justice.
We are allowed to tune in to something different, underneath the rhythm, and from there, follow impulses, that become steps, that lead to ancient places, where we may find a future where we don’t have to: “Call the Police”, or “Murder the Black Man”, or … , or … , or …
This was a Funk Lesson* shared with me by my masters.
May we, as their descendants, be blessed by Blackness.
* The title of this post is an ode to the work of Adrian Piper, a mixed-race black woman and artist, who made deeply innovative works around the subject of anti-Black racism and cross-racial-cultural dialogue. A particularly canonical series of works Piper created was a series of performative lectures called ‘Funk Lessons‘, staged between the years of 1982 to 1984, where she shared with (mostly white) audiences the history and movements of funk culture. To this day, it’s one of my most favorite works of modern art and has served as an inspiration for my practice as both an artist, change-facilitator, and teacher. You may also enjoy her reflections on these works, an essay titled, ‘Notes on Funk‘ (I’m quite sure a non-ripped copy would be VERY hard to find so I attached a link to a PDF here).