Friday, 17 October 2014

A Brief History of the Dance Floor

The things I do in the pursuit of the new. This weekend saw me watching Strictly Come Dancing for the first time; a mostly enjoyable experience in the company of best friends and some purple alcohol. Whether the colour of my drink affected my perception of the garish swirling and artificial tans, I could actually see how guiltily addictive such a programme could become. So when I saw that there was a lecture on the secret history of the dance floor at Kings College London, I signed up immediately. How, I wanted to know, had popular dance become a vast box of living Quality Street?

1234 Get on the Dance Floor (2013) filled the old Anatomy Lecture Theatre and Bollywood lived! The catchy nonsensical international lyrics, the colour, movement and rhythm and we were almost back with Strictly, which demonstrates the universality of the themes Professor Ananya Kabir was picking up. The dance floor is transnational, a home for signature moves in a potentially foreign vernacular, a sacred/key place on which you are urged to get, with an unlikely coupling up being a possible goal.

And then we were transported back to New Years Day in 1839, as depicted in Benoit's "Le Dou, ou grande fete des esclaves" (The Dou or great festival of the slaves). She drew attention to the similarities between this and the Bollywood video (and indeed, I have with Strictly) with the group festivities, movement around a central couple. Not to mention the exhilaration of release, a celebration of the here and now. She introduced the dance floor as a secret place of pain and trauma, which was ultimately necessary for its development. It is reflective of a history of emotion and body flamboyance, and enjoyment through suffering - basically a primal, dark, underground space. Emphasising this she played Underground is my home (2006)

Deep where the sun don’t shine,
Is a place that I call home.
When the planetary alignment is right,
And the DJ cuts out the lights.
Deep is where I’m home.
I found it, I'm home, I'm home..

From sacred to slavery and specifically to the Bois Caïman  in the 1791 uprising as imagined by David Beaubrun.  The forest, a stormy clearing, a Mambo voodoo priestess and the sacrifice of a pig. The planetary alignment is right and there is a Utopian moment in rebellion and release. There was a good reason why the plantation owners did not allow their slaves drums or music, they were deemed lascivious and dangerous. Although they took everything away, the slaves did not lose their gods or rhythms, part of a deeper humanity and a way of creating a new body for a new place. They created new bodily percussion, still resonant and relevant now in new music.

As Benoit depicts, slaves escaped their shackles through rhythm and music. What the old world slave masters in their Casa Grande could do, their slaves could do better. Whether North or South America, she draws comparisons and images by traveller Johann Moritz Rugendas (March 29, 1802 - May 29, 1858), demonstrates in his drawings.  House slaves watched the master and emulated what was forbidden, shown in the dances in Uncle Tom Cabin. This attitude of irresistibly reminded me of Pride & Prejudice;

Sir William: "What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
Mr. Darcy: "Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.”

An association which will now, for me, lift Austen out of the realm of domestic matrimonial matters and into the moral ambiguity of fortunes generated in the New World. The clearing in the plantation is space emulating the big house, where people put on their best dress and 'swag'. The era of the dandy was at its height, for the professor, this isn't submissive mimicry of the big house, but subversive civility. By dressing up and parading, the newly freed slave could celebrate, and out of this came Carnival.

Again she stressed the creation of something new bursting forth from the Old and New World. Carnival brought everything together, old gods and ideas, rhythms, resistance, showing off. For instance in a 1936 film, Katherine Dunham's l'ag'ya from Martinique is recorded for posterity. So we have all but one ingredient for the emergence of the modern dance floor. As freed slaves moved out into the world looking for work, they journeyed into the unknown again, leaving the plantations and moving to the city - the funky town...

Gotta make a move to a town
That's right for me
Town to keep me movin'
Keep me groovin' with some energy
Well, I talk about it, talk about it
Talk about it, talk about it
Talk about, talk about
Talk about movin'
Gotta move on

She pointed out that the OED's definition for funky is sweat - and who would argue that hard labour and vigorous dancing doesn't produce a sweaty stinky body? The lyrics stress the moving, the urgency, and the city supplies and responds with its own movement and urgency. Escaped slaves dancing in forest hideaways versus the necessity to find work in the constricted city is an interesting paradox. After all, even paid workers still need to escape, especially in an economically depressed time.
Large dancehalls such as the Savoy Ballroom, a mecca of dance floors supplied the space and big bands the music. Swing dancing,  Lindy hop enabled people to forget the depression and dance. Frankie Manny talks about the revival of the dance and its significance. Malcolm X, a keen Lindy hopper said that every night you could dance. White people came to watch the blacks and take moves to their dance floors. As she had done all evening, she moved south to mention similar occurrences in South America. Brazil had seen the same sort of post-slavery movements, though mirrored, as people moved south. 

In Rio these evolving dances caused scandal and consternation. See this from 1915 Castle Maxixe. Speedy dancing, a waltz base and shudders of delight. I must confess to finding this section of the lecture rather confusing, partly because like the dancing, the pace had picked up! It seemed that politics had entered the fray, and different groups and clubs had their own rules as to who could dance with whom. In Vem ca mulata, a girl turned down the invitation to dance because the invite came from someone in a different La Paz club;
Not coming here I'm a democrat by heart!
Break my baby down to the floor.

However the professor stated that it was a democratic place, where anonymity was paramount. Anyway, the development of travel technology ensured that ideas were being swapped rapidly. From the Americas back to the Old World, 1922 saw the early samba emerge in Paris, which was a hub of black dancing. Interwar Paris loved dancing to hot jazz and its cosmopolitan nature saw new forms emerge in clubs such as Le Chat Noir, La Boule Blanche... The French also drew on their colonial territories and French Caribbean singers and dancers became well known. C'est biguine 1932 and the images remind us of the island v city. The cabaret also came out of this,  different from nightclub/dance floors but the energy is the same. Glamour, desire, interracial relationships and in presence of the other, indeed, a new intimacy with the 'other'.

Music and dance were quick to absorb the influx of Hispanic dances and influences from Cuba, 'primitive rhythms' and mambo led to the Palladium era - and like all those looking to the music of their youth, they said the world would never see its like again. Freedom of physical expression and release was key - some of the moves from people like Tito Rodriguez are dazzling. Technology, modernity, the city; dance had responded with velocity, vertical precision and a transnational feel. A programme on jazz called one of its episodes 'The velocity of celebration' and that is exactly it.

Although the music wasn't the focus of this lecture, as technology moved on from live music to recorded, the era of big bands was drawing to a close - although this trend I think has reversed in recent years. As people got more into the groove, and embraced jukeboxes, they clamoured for seamless dance floor tracks.  In 1953,  Paris's Whisky à Gogo became the first discothèque with turntables and disk jockeys. A major development and a new era to be lost in music; to feel so alive, quit the nine to five. The dance floor is our escape, for that moment we should be there! We rediscover our capacity to play, to find release, to resist, to sweat with pleasure, and above all, to both mark and lose time. 

And so the DJ has taken on the power which belonged to the live music, or the drummer. Anthems implore the DJ to not stop the music and they have become invocations to the all powerful DJ....She says good ones have become the central pillar, almost godlike, or a voodoo priest both controlling and shaping the music, and hence the revellers on the dance floor. A philosopher of music in his writings on 'noise' suggested that modern music was a pathetic version of what it used to be. She wonders did he consider the dance floor? If there is no live band, you need the DJ for the energy.

She ended on a discussion about the re-Africanisation of the world. Personally I hear it in the patois of south eastern London, but this clearly has roots in culture, music and dance. D'Banj's Oliver Twist, she says is a clever combination of all elements. Not only is there the idea of wanting more (music, dance, night, whatever) but the pan-African band is in a hidden basement space where there are impossibly glamorous dancers, nonsense lyrics, and during the video a young white man's dancing ability is mocked. Here is another Africa - away from the poverty, corruption and disease of recent times - but a major contributor to the history of modernity.

Endless renewal to the rhythm of the drums. Think on that when you're watching Strictly; suddenly it takes on new significance. But personally I'd rather get me to that 80s old skool disco...

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