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Photo: Associated Press.
Marc Raibert, founder and chair of Boston Dynamics, with an Atlas robot that can dance with near-human fluidity.

We can probably all think of discoveries that initially seem frivolous or peculiar and later turn out to be important to humanity. So perhaps we shouldn’t laugh too much about a robot dancing to Motown. Who can tell what will come of it?

Rodrique Ngowi writes at the Associated Press (AP), “The man who designed some of the world’s most advanced dynamic robots was on a daunting mission: programming his creations to dance to the beat with a mix of fluid, explosive and expressive motions that are almost human.

“The results? Almost a year and half of choreography, simulation, programming and upgrades that were capped by two days of filming to produce a video running at less than 3 minutes. The clip, showing robots dancing to the 1962 hit ‘Do You Love Me?’ by The Contours, was an instant hit on social media, attracting more than 23 million views during the first week.

“It shows two of Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas research robots doing the twist, the mashed potato and other classic moves, joined by Spot, a doglike robot, and Handle, a wheeled robot designed for lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse or truck. …

“[Says Boston Dynamics founder and chairperson Marc Raibert], ‘We didn’t want a robot doing robotlike dancing. We wanted it to do human dancing and, you know, when a human dances, the music has a beat and their whole body moves to it — their hands, their body, their head,’ he says. …

‘It looked like the robot was having fun and really moved with the music. And I think that had a lot to do with the result of the production.’

“Teaching robots to dance with fluid and expressive motions was a new challenge for a company that spent years building robots that have functional abilities like walking, navigating in rough terrain, pick things up with their hands and use attached advanced sensors to monitor and sense many things, Raibert says.

“ ‘You know, our job is to try and stretch the boundaries of what robots can do, both in terms of the outer research boundary, but also in terms of practical applications. And I think when people see the new things that robots can do, it excites them,’ he says.

“The advanced Atlas robot relies on a wide array of sensors to execute the dance moves, including 28 actuators — devices that serve as muscles by converting electronic or physical signal into movement — as well as a gyroscope that helps it to balance, and three quad-core onboard computers, including one that processes perception signals and two that control movement. …

“ ‘We’ve gotten calls from all around the world,’ Raibert says. ‘We got a call from one of the sound engineers who had recorded the original Contours performance back in the ’60s. And he said that his whole crew of Motown friends had been passing it around.’ “

More at AP, here.

A dancing Atlas robot at Boston Dynamics.

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Photo: Christian Kuntz
After Gurdeep Pandher
became a Canadian citizen in 2011, he traveled across the country, dancing bhangra with people of all faiths and finally settling in the Yukon because it reminded him most of his village in Punjab.

I liked today’s story about bringing joy through dance. I especially liked learning about research showing that differences drop away when people move in unison.

Sara Miller Llana writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “He has led firefighters and police officers to the rhythms of bhangra – a centuries-old dance that hails from the farming fields of Punjab. He has danced in front of Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa and amid crashing waves of the country’s Pacific Coast.

“But these days, Gurdeep Pandher has more fans than he ever has – by posting videos of himself dancing in the snow-covered forest behind his cabin near Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada’s northwesternmost territory.

“At this time of year, it’s not until about 11 a.m. that the sun comes out, filtering through the trees and drawing him outdoors. ‘It looks so beautiful, to me it looks just like magic,’ he says. ‘I do feel like I live in a winter wonderland.’

“On the winter solstice last month, in a bright blue sweater, an orange turban, and brown snow boots, Mr. Pandher posted a new video of himself doing what he calls a ‘happy dance’: arms raising to the sky, knees as high as they go, and the broadest of smiles. …

“Bhangra began as a farmer’s dance in Punjab to celebrate a good harvest, but it’s found its way across the globe, from trendy DJ fusions to entertainment on basketball courts of North America. Mr. Pandher has been dancing it since he was a child, and he says there’s no surprise to him that it’s caught on – for its upbeat sounds and its core value of joy.

‘If you’re dancing bhangra, and you are not happy, that is not bhangra, even if you are doing all the moves perfectly,’ he says.

“That’s why he believes his videos, one after the other, keep going viral during the pandemic, when there is so much darkness and heaviness.

“ ‘There’s a Punjabi saying that when there’s a lot of darkness, we value brightness more. And I’ve noticed that, a lot of the sort of people who never cared about watching my videos before, like lawyers, or politicians, or diplomats, are sending me messages,’ he says.

“ ‘Before maybe they didn’t feel like something light was professional, or important, but now in these difficult times they realize the importance of someone dancing to create happiness, someone who’s preaching that kindness is important, what our ancestors from centuries have been preaching.’

“He’s not the only one feeling a new buzz around bhangra. Harshjot Singh, who founded Power Bhangra with his wife in Montreal, is these days offering popular bhangra fitness classes over Zoom. It’s a physical workout, but he says it’s also the culture of bhangra that he believes keeps his students – who span Canada and even North America – signing up. ‘You have to smile, it’s just the rule of the dance. And as students learn about it, slowly and steadily, it just comes naturally.’ …

“Peter Lovatt, the author of new book The Dance Cure, says that dancing, unlike just plain fitness, has four key benefits in the realms of social, thinking, emotions, and the physical – which, fittingly, spell STEP.

“All of those areas are suffering during the pandemic, and everyone benefits from things like physical activity or disconnecting from the Internet. But there is something especially compelling about the synchrony of dance in today’s climate. ‘When people dance in synchrony, it increases how much they like each other,’ Dr. Lovatt says.”

More at the Christian Science Journal, here.

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Photo: NBC
Promotional photo of Ray Bolger from the television program the Bell Telephone Hour.

This story sent me straight to TikTok. I love both the creativity of Cory Linger’s idea and his professional execution. He is someone who really made isolation work for him.

Leigh Scheps reports at DanceSpirit, “With #SocialDisDancing still very much in place, it’s a challenge for dance partners to perform safely, and even harder to perform safely together.

“But Broadway’s Cory Lingner may have found the solution — on TikTok. He’s using the app to tap alongside some of the most iconic movie stars. …

“Lingner has perfected the use of the app’s duet feature. On one side of the video is a clip of the tap-dancing icon and on the other is Lingner, dancing in unison. And as a bonus, Lingner’s also giving viewers facts about the stars and the performances as they watch.

“Lingner’s danced in everything from On the Town to An American in Paris, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Carousel. But still, his tapping TikToks may be one of his favorite challenges yet. …

“Without a stage and a live audience, he’s getting his fill of performing from his social media duet series. And it’s so popular on TikTok, he’s gained more than 8 thousand followers in a mere month.

“Dance Spirit: How did your ‘Cory’s Duet Series’ on TikTok get started?
“Cory Lingner: … The very first spark of inspiration was another fellow tapper, Nicole Billow. She actually did the first side-by-side with Gene Kelly from An American in Paris. I watched it and I was like, ‘This looks really fun.‘ …

“The majority of what I’ve tried to focus on is introducing new performers so I don’t repeat dancers too much. The last time that I repeated was with Vera Allen in White Christmas, since it was the holiday. I also try to find sections where not only I can do the choreography in my limited space, with my little piece of plywood, but also if they’re able to stay on a single camera shot for long enough for the 20 to 30 seconds. …

DS: What do you think about the skill level of some of Shirley Temple’s tap steps?
“CL: It’s remarkable the fact that she did that many films and had that kind of tap dance skill set at such a young age. … People were commenting on that video too, writing, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize what she can do.’ …

DS: What is some of the feedback you’ve been getting?
“CL: Oh, my goodness. It’s so lovely, all the comments and messages. There was a grandmother that said, ‘I think you just inspired my 3-year-old grandson to start taking dance.’ It warms my heart. …

DS: What are some dream duets that you need to do?
“CL: There were other duets people were recommending, like James Cagney. So I’m trying to find a moment when he stays still. I learned ‘Moses Supposes’ from Singin’ in the Rain many years ago, which would be really fun to tackle again. Maybe I’d do that one in two separate sections, so I can do one with Gene Kelly and one with Donald O’Connor.”

Are you on TikTok? It’s worth it, just for this. More at DanceSpirit, here.

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Back in January, I read Michelle Herman’s Slate column about taking up ballet late in life, and I’ve been wondering if she’s kept it up during the pandemic. Even professional ballet dancers have found it challenging to practice.

Here is how Herman got into ballet at age 62.

“The dance studio had just opened on my corner — I didn’t even have to cross a street to get there. So what I asked myself was just how lazy I would have to be not to try a class. I had fond, if vague, childhood memories of the weekly modern dance classes I took for five or six years at the famous Marjorie Mazia School in Brooklyn. …

“It had left its mark: The thought of a dance class did not fill me with despair or fury the way a Pilates class or the contemplation of a gym membership would have. Plus, I enjoyed dancing at parties. So maybe this would be fun, I told myself. Maybe I wouldn’t hate it.

“I didn’t hate it. I didn’t hate it so much that almost right from the beginning I was in tears. … There is no reason it should have felt so right to have one hand on the barre as I extended a foot that I was concentrating very hard on simultaneously turning out and pointing — concentrating not only on that pointed foot, but also on muscles throughout both that leg and the other leg, the one that was supposedly just standing still. And on my right arm in second position.

“I believe what happened that day was that I fell in love.

“There were only four of us in the room that first day. Three students (two old, as in over 50, and one young, as in under 20) and Filippo Pelacchi, the teacher (who was very young himself, although not in dancer years—he had just turned 28).

“If I cannot recreate every one of the 75 minutes of that first adult beginner class I took in the summer of 2017, it’s because by now I’ve spent approximately 84,000 more minutes in that studio—that is, 1,400 hours, something like 950 dance classes plus rehearsals for performances, and those minutes run together in my mind. But I do know this—that in that very first class, …  I had a moment of what seemed like perfect clarity: My body and my mind were working as one. …

“I’m a writer and a teacher, so all my work is mental work. But in ballet there was what seemed to me a remarkable twist: I was living that mental work in my body. In my body — with which, even more remarkably (even more improbably), I was making art. …

“In ballet, there is no separating the body and the mind. I have to think hard to create the shapes, to make the movements, of ballet. Even standing still in first position — which to the observer doesn’t look like anything — requires the engagement of muscles that will not turn on without my express command, muscles that do not engage reflexively the way my muscles do when going about ordinary tasks. There is nothing ordinary, nothing of the daily life, about ballet. …

“And there is this: Almost from the start I saw that ballet would fulfill a longing I’d had as far back as I could remember, a longing that accounts for the pleasure I take in hosting and leading a Passover Seder although I am a firmly nonbelieving Jew. …

“Sometimes the ballet advice sounds a lot like life advice.

  • Build a solid structure, Filippo tells us, and then find the open spaces where you can experiment, be yourself, and make it your own.
  • With stability comes freedom. If you are strong in your center, the rest can move freely around it.
  • Everything is connected. Everything you do is informed by what you have done before.
  • Commit to the transitions, he urges us. Even though they are not the highlights, they are the platform for the highlights.
  • And: No matter what happens, stay in it. Even if you forget or make a mistake, keep moving. “Here I am!” Own it. And then find your way back in.
  • Search every moment for what is there. Especially in the pauses, you have time to find something new, the next thing.”

More at Slate, here.

Art: Natalie Matthews-Ramo

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Photo: Devin Muñoz
” ‘Cooped-Up’ is a contemporary dance performance viewed entirely from behind car windows,” reports Margo Vansynghel at
Crosscut.

I’m fascinated by all the different ways the arts are reaching out during our lockdown. Some efforts come off better than others, and a given organization may be kind of lame on one evening and on another delightful. We’re all learning as we go.

In this story, Seattle dancers offer performances for an audience in cars.

Margo Vansynghel writes at Crosscut, “Gedney Barclay sat in her idling car in a North Seattle Safeway parking lot, awaiting instructions. She could feel herself getting anxious. … She looked around — unsure of what would happen next — and glanced at the phone in her hand. The call from an unknown number would come anytime now. And then there would be no turning back.

“Barclay wasn’t involved in some kind of nefarious plot. She was about to participate in ‘Cooped-Up: Drive-in Dances for Cooped Up People,’ a contemporary dance performance by local company LanDforms, in which audience members view the proceedings through their own car windows. …

“Guided by pins on a digital map and a downloaded soundtrack — featuring songs,  poetry, a couple of old voicemail messages and mysterious clues — ticketed audience members drive through the city and visit performers at their homes. The dancers perform from porches, sun rooms, front yards, alleys and balconies while the audience, cocooned in 20 cars (one per household), drives up to watch at 10-minute intervals.

“ ‘It’s a wild journey all over Seattle,’ says LanDforms’ Leah Crosby. She and co-director Danielle Doell describe the show as a whimsical mashup of a drive-in movie, scavenger hunt, escape room and ‘durational performance’ tailored to and inspired by COVID-19 restrictions. Basically, they say, it’s like curbside pickup of food-to-go, but for dance. The first, mid-April performance of Cooped-Up sold out almost instantly. …

“Crosby and Doell are among the many local artists finding front yard and window workarounds to the stay-at-home order and ban on gatherings.

“Earlier in March, artist Rachel Kessler and On the Boards director Betsey Brock staged a citywide performance titled ‘Going the Social Distance,’ for which they collected song requests (and home addresses) from participants, donned cheerful costumes and biked to people’s houses blasting the songs through Bluetooth speakers. Isolated fine art photographers are venturing out to photograph people from a safe distance either outdoors or behind windows. In late April, KEXP radio DJ John Richards started broadcasting live concerts from his front yard. …

“Cooped-Up deals explicitly with our new corona-colored reality. In seven different dances created collaboratively over Zoom, the participating dancers bring their personal quarantine experiences (and corresponding cocktail of emotions) to the makeshift stage. However whimsical, the show doesn’t shy away from expressing the loneliness and the boredom specific to this cultural moment. …

“On a Zoom call with production manager (and frequent collaborator) Ari Kaufman in late March, the duo wondered: ‘How can we make a live performance right now?’ Doell says. …

“When Doell, who is also a youth educator, noticed that cooped-up kids in her neighborhood had been hunting for the stuffed animals neighbors placed in windows as a way to pass the time, she wondered, ‘Maybe we can make kind of a dance teddy bear hunt?’ …

“These are not improvised performances. Everything is timed to the minute, if not to the second: when the first audience member’s car leaves; when they should arrive at the next location; where every car should theoretically be at each point in the performance; when the next song is supposed to start; and when each dancer resumes their short loop. ….

‘At any given time during the show, there are basically seven miniperformances happening simultaneously, Crosby says. That’s a lot to keep track of.

“During the five-hour run of the show, she sits in her room in West Seattle, headphones on, surveying multiple screens and spreadsheets like an air traffic controller. Meanwhile, pacing in his kitchen about a dozen miles away, production manager Kaufman has his phone at the ready, in case a car gets lost or runs into any trouble. …

“The dancers, including Doell, say [they] miss the collective warmups and preshow rituals, the murmur as the audience trickles into the theater. When they’re done, there’s no applause. It’s a new shade of loneliness. But also one that has Doell reconnecting with her neighborhood, she says.

“ ‘A lot of neighbors were poking their heads out and being like: “Wow, what is happening?” ‘ Doell recalls. …

” ‘Normally, the audience member’s job is to pay money and then sit face-forward in a dark room where their identity is masked,’ she says. [In this performance, they] have to figure out where to go. Follow the clues. Find the dancer. Park by the gray garbage bin, not the green one — and don’t knock it over while backing up. …

“[Audience member Barclay] hadn’t ventured outside her neighborhood for a long time. Driving through the city was a poignant reminder of something she already knew: So many people, in house after apartment after studio, were going through the same isolation, the same loneliness. But for a few hours, from the relative safety of her car, Barclay felt like she’d made a connection — rekindled the kind of mutual appreciation between dancer and audience that electrifies live performance.

” ‘It made me feel way less alone,’ she says.”

More here.

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tik-tok-videos

Photo: Natalie Bell
Natalie Bell and her kids, says CBC, “have been making Tik Tok and Instagram videos together to pass the time while they’re isolating at their home in Winnipeg, Canada.”

The other day, I took an online seminar on how to do TikTok. Just because. But even before I read today’s story, I was pretty sure you would need a teenager in the house to move to the next level. (Namely, the level beyond downloading the app.)

Rachel Bergen at CBC Manitoba writes, “Families cooped up together during the COVID-19 pandemic are turning to Netflix, board games and puzzles to get them through — but a few are going renegade and taking on TikTok dance challenges.

“Take Pat Tetrault and his three daughters in La Broquerie, Manitoba, who found they had an abundance of time on their hands and decided to use it making TikTok videos together.

” ‘They showed me a few TikToks that I thought were hilarious, so I said, “What the heck, let’s do something crazy. Let’s get something done,” ‘ he said.

“TikTok is one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, with more than 800 million people around the world using the app regularly to create and share short videos. It’s mostly popular with teens, who often post videos of themselves taking on dance challenges. …

“Although Tetrault is still going to work, his daughters are home and isolated from their friends. It can be challenging, he said, but the videos are ways they can have fun together — and his daughters can make fun of their dad. …

“Making creative videos is a great outlet, says parenting commentator Ann Douglas. The parenting book author and columnist for CBC Radio says children and teens are likely feeling very vulnerable and out of control, so parents ceding control of activities allows kids to take a bit more ownership of a challenging situation.

” ‘I think it’s great to let kids take the lead on some of the activities because right now, a lot of kids are feeling like they’ve lost all control over their life,’ she said. … ‘One thing kids can control is coming up with a way to have fun.’

“Tetrault’s daughters control their TikTok videos and, apparently, his dance moves.

” ‘I’ll be honest with you. I’m old school. I’m not a big dancer. … The girls are teaching me all sorts of new stuff. … We’re actually getting closer because of it. … It’s a different avenue of connecting with them.’

“Natalie Bell is also making TikTok videos using her account @pegcitylovely with her children to pass the time.

‘We try to do things more now as a family than we ever have before because, of course, it used to be just the business of the day. … It’s just something fun. There’s no stress, there’s no pressure. It’s just if we want to do it, we do it,’ Bell said. ‘We have fun and we don’t care who sees it.’ …

“In Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Nellie Guimond, Alexa Haley and Lily-Jade Haley create daily videos on TikTok featuring their mother, Cindy Guimond, and their dad, Éric Haley — whom they are teaching to dance.

” ‘Showing this to the world, to our family and friends, was really entertaining for everyone, and everyone loved it. I think that’s the main reason for our little popularity … his goofy side that people didn’t think he would, or could, show,’ Nellie said in a CBC Quebec AM interview.

“Lily-Jade said making the videos keeps them happy and connected.

‘Sometimes we laugh about our dad, because he doesn’t get the moves right away,’ she said. …

“[Parenting commentator] Douglas said there are many creative ways parents can connect with their children during the pandemic, and they don’t need to use social media to do it.

“For example, it can be an opportunity to try new things in the kitchen and access a kind of ‘improvisational inspiration,’ she says. ‘What if you only have these five or six ingredients? And what could you Google and find a recipe for? And how might it really turn out?’

“For parents of craft-loving kids, Douglas suggests making signs with community-minded messages to put in the window for others to see.”

OK, but if you ask me, TikTok videos of dancing dads who don’t know how to dance sure beats signs in the window.

More at the CBC, here.

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harss_plainspoken_img_0

Photo: Timothy Norris
Choreographer Mark Morris is currently learning to make films remotely with his dancers. Above, he leads audience members in a sing-along at California’s Ojai Music Festival in June 2013. The image is from an article in the
Nation.

As we all try to learn new technologies to continue valued activities under social distancing, I’m noticing that some technologies turn out to be pretty hopeless while others will be a good addition to our repertoire. Figuring out why my sound system’s feedback was disrupting an ESL teacher’s online class wasn’t worth repeated failures. I contribute to the teaching other ways. But basic features of Google Classroom, WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime have been great. Those are keepers.

In an example from the dance world, choreographer Mark Morris is teaching himself to make films with his quarantined dancers.

Sarah L. Kaufman writes at the Washington Post, “Choreographer Mark Morris says to his dancers. ‘Go as far away as you can in your room.’

“Morris, in a black T-shirt and a string of beads, peers through his reading glasses at his computer screen. Arranged around his own image in rows of little boxes he can see who’s on this recent videoconference call: his rehearsal director, music director and three Mark Morris Dance Group performers.

“Stuck at home like everyone else in New York, the dancers jog backward, past couches, beds and bookshelves, to the rear walls of their apartments. … It’s all he and his performers have to work with.

“Choreography in the age of covid-19 is hardly a graceful undertaking. Morris, the esteemed modern-dance artist whose company has performed to acclaim for more than 40 years, suddenly finds himself out of place in a world of seclusion. His profession depends on working closely with people, getting them to move exactly as he wants. But he’s determined to keep creating. No matter that the city’s quarantine makes gathering in a rehearsal studio impossible.

‘Now, let’s dance a little bit,’ he says. ‘Foot articulation is not important ’cause I don’t see that. What’s more interesting is swooshing’ — he swirls his hand in a serpentine movement — ‘and depth changing.’ …

“The three dancers in their separate squares whirl and glide into view with a smooth, floating quality, winding side to side as if drifting on wind currents. In his chair, Morris echoes their moves with his upper body, lifting his arms as they do. He gasps, he gapes. He sucks in a breath and runs a hand over his hair. Suddenly he waves frantically at the screen.

“ ‘Stop, stop!’ He grabs his head in his hands and pitches backward in his chair. Something has bowled him over — but what? Anguish, despair? Has he been horrified into silence by what he’s seen?

“The dancers wait, breathing hard. Finally the choreographer snaps himself upright.

” ‘That was great!’ he shouts, beaming.

“He adjusts his glasses and adopts a lilting Italian accent: ‘I feel like-a Federico Fellini.’

“That captures this weird, tilted reality perfectly. There is a certain hallucinatory, Fellini-esque quality to this scene, where a giant of the dance world struggles to master the same awkward video technology that remote office workers are using to teleconference. And where top dancers are limited to a few feet of floor space and bad lighting, using bathroom doors as stage wings. …

“Morris has retooled himself as a filmmaker. He began working on this dance last fall, devising the movements in his company’s spacious Brooklyn headquarters with a pianist and 15 dancers. He was nearly finished before shuttering the building last month. …

” ‘My job is irrelevant, if not obsolete,’ Morris says in a phone interview. … ‘The truth is,’ he continues, ‘I’m not making up a dance. I’m making a film. But I’m not an auteur, I don’t understand this technology.’ …

“The dancers have been taking company class every day on Zoom, and having weekly Zoom singing sessions and happy hours. But rehearsing with Morris — even with his tendency to tease them about their unmade beds — fulfills a deep-seated need. Gazing into his virtual studio, Morris appears to be comfortably in his element, scanning each face, each body, picking up every move and gesture, editing freely. No one escapes his focus.

” ‘Can you exit stage left or stage right?’ Morris asks the group. Christina Sahaida and Laurel Lynch slip out of view through nearby doorways, then simultaneously strut back in like Ziegfeld showgirls.

“ ‘Oh, my God,’ he exclaims, delighted. He leans in, like a scientist studying specimens under glass. …

“ ‘There will be more dance products coming from me,’ Morris says later. … ‘When I’m done with this I’ll start something else. Even though it’s not my medium.’ ”

More here. (There’s a firewall at the Post, but you can get a free subscription for a short period of time.)

Photo: Mark Morris Dance Group

DANCE-MORRIS

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wizdom-1

Photo: Stephen Gosling/NBAE
The Wizdom is a dance team made up of exuberant and talented woman, no longer kids, who are good enough to dance at pro-basketball games.

I have listened to WBUR’s sports show Only a Game for years and was worried when host Bill Littlefield left. There was no need to worry. The program still excels at human-interest sports stories that draw in people like me as well as genuine sports fanatics.

Gary Waleik filed this one on some high-energy, over-50, pro-basketball dancers.

“Last year, Anna Cruse began to experience dread,” he writes. It was around the time her youngest was leaving for college, and she wondered what she would do with an empty nest. What was she good at? …

“To answer those questions, Anna Cruse had to look back at something she was good at four decades ago. In 1978, Anna Cruse was 21 years old. …

” ‘I was driving home from work one day and heard an ad on the radio for tryouts,’ Anna says. The NBA champion Washington Bullets were holding auditions for their dance team. ‘And I thought, “Hmmm … I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna go and try out.” ‘ …

“She made the 1978–1979 Washington Bullettes dance team.

” ‘All of it — the friendships and the performances, even the practice — it was all exciting,’ Anna says.

” ‘[But] in the fall of ’79, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.’ After a year of fighting, Anna beat the cancer and returned to her job as a word processing specialist, but not to the Bullettes. … Sometimes, when Anna watched dancers at an event or on TV, she’d remember how much she loved being one. …

“The years flew by, and Anna’s two oldest kids left their home in Greenville, South Carolina. Then, in March of 2018, the Washington Wizards held a 40th-anniversary celebration of the franchise’s only NBA title — from back in the days when they were still the Bullets.

” ‘And so they invited all the players back, and the coaches,’ Anna says. ‘And then any of the dancers through the years — I think there were about 60 of us — and we got to perform at this event. It sure reminded me of how enjoyable it was.’ …

“In early September, about a month after her daughter left home, Anna got an email. The Wizards were holding tryouts for a new dance team — or perhaps a new older dance team. It was for dancers 50 and older and was sponsored by the AARP. It would be called ‘The Wizdom.’ …

“In late September of 2018, undeterred by the eight-hour drive from her home in Greenville, she tried out for The Wizdom. … Anna had hardly danced over the previous 40 years. She says there were more than 80 dancers at the tryout, ranging in age from 50 to 76.

‘Absolute characters,’ Anna says. ‘Totally uninhibited. Comfortable in their own skin, and just entertaining folks.’ …

“Late one night, she got an email. … Anna Cruse had been chosen as one of the 20 members of the Wizdom over-50 dance team. …

“The Wizdom got just four practices in before their debut on Nov. 24, 2018.

” ‘The fans … so gracious. And the affirmation from them, and the excitement of the fans to this over-50, like, “What are these women out there doing?” Anna remembers. ‘When we came off the court that first game, I mean, these ladies were screaming and hugging.’ ”

More at Only a Game, here.

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spanish20classical

Photo: Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, based in Chicago, is among a growing number of American flamenco companies.

I had no idea that there is a vibrant branch of flamenco dance culture evolving right here in the United States, but a recent article in Dance Magazine set me straight. Alice Blumenfeld begins by noting a Dance Magazine interview with Cuban Flamenco star Irene Rodriguez.

The interview, she says, ‘mentions only a few of the many flamenco companies in the U.S. and claims a lack of innovation in American flamenco. [It] brings to the forefront a deeper problem surrounding flamenco in the United States.

“Why are so many flamenco dance companies and dancers in the U.S. — especially those pushing the form forward — overlooked and undervalued? Why do we constantly have to defend our work?

“When I toured the U.S. with Flamenco Vivo, my first two tours I wore the iconic red bata de cola. I’d run onstage and hit a pose in the middle of the first piece — and almost without fail, the audience would cheer. I’d hold my pose, chest and chin lifted, castanets drawn and ready. But in my head, I was thinking: Why are they clapping? I’ve done nothing worthy of applause — entering the stage and making a pose is not such a special feat. Presumably, it was the appearance of the red dress and the dramatic change in lighting.

“Why is the audience trained to clap at that moment? I could start with Franco, who used the image of the flamenco dancer to attract tourists to Spain. The woman in the red dress is even an emoji. …

“Pursuing flamenco outside the norms is not so easy. … Sometimes, flamenco is sidelined because it isn’t fully understood. (One MFA program called and asked me why I wanted an MFA, since I was a flamenco dancer. Only upon including in my answer that I also study contemporary dance and had a foundation in ballet did it seem to make sense to them.)

“I am ever-grateful to my experiences dancing with several of companies Rodriguez admires … But only as I started to branch out did I realize there are many people breaking boundaries in flamenco in the U.S. in incredible ways that could only be possible in the melting pot that is America. … Many cities in the U.S. champion vibrant flamenco scenes with outstanding dancers and musicians, and some, like Pittsburgh and Austin, have burgeoning scenes. Building a flamenco community takes decades of tireless work, and many of us creating today are standing on the shoulders of often unrecognized artists.

“As foreigners, we have to prove five times over we know the rules before we can break them. … I want aspiring flamenco dancers to know it’s okay to not wear a red dress and polka dots, to branch out, and to explore one’s own style, story and self through flamenco. And I want audiences to know flamenco is more than passionate and fiery footwork. …

“I want people to understand there is an ever-expanding horizon in flamenco, that flamenco has a specific (and fascinating!) political and cultural history. … Flamenco can be for anyone willing to put in the time to study it — the technique, structures, history, music — and then deepen that knowledge with their own interpretation.”

More here.

Photo: Angelica Escoto/ Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
Alice Blumenfeld performing with Flamenco Vivo.

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Photo: Kate Holt/Flickr
The joy on the faces of these performers in Kenya illustrates a universal truth: people love to dance. And it turns out, dancing informs our development in significant ways.

There’s something about being human that inclines one to dancing. Not necessarily ballet or hip hop or ballroom dancing, but dancelike movement that is part of everyday lives. The research on this may surprise you.

Kimerer LaMothe writes at Aeon, “Dancing is a human universal, but why? … What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? …

“Researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

“According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

“In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. …

“Humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons ‘appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture’ by allowing humans ‘to adopt each other’s point of view and empathise with one another.’

“Nevertheless, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. …

“In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.”

This Aeon article came from the website Arts Journal, which brings together arts stories from around the world. Read more at Aeon, here.

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Photo: J. J. Williams/Public domain
Hawaiian hula dancers photographed in J. J. Williams’s photo studio, circa 1885. The art form was suppressed for many years but is now celebrated around the world.

I was thinking recently that I’d love to learn some new dance forms. I took lots of ballet as a kid, and I keep reading that dancing is good for your health when you’re older. Essentrics, an exercise program I love, has taught me to focus on moves that are beneficial, not contorted. So what kind of dance would be good? Someone I know teaches salsa. Should I try that?

The following article got me wondering if hula might be good for me.

Ligaya Malones writes at Atlas Obscura about Hawaiʻi’s Merrie Monarch hula festival, “arguably the most prestigious event of its kind.

“Every spring, thousands of hula fans descend upon the Hawaiian town of Hilo and line the bleacher seats at Edith Kanaka’ole stadium. Thousands more across the islands — those unable to make it to Hilo themselves — watch live broadcasts on their televisions or computer screens. All these people are showing up and tuning in for the beloved Merrie Monarch Festival, sometimes referred to as ‘the Olympics of hula.’ …

“The three-day competition is part of several week-long events held throughout Hilo, home of Merrie Monarch since 1963. … Much credit is given to King Kalākaua, the last of Hawaiʻi’s kings, for reclaiming hula’s place in Hawaiian society. He was elected to the throne in the 1870s by the Hawaiian legislature, and often hosted hula-filled celebrations, including at his coronation. Merrie Monarch was Kalākaua’s endearing nickname and it is his contribution to hula that the competition honors every year.

“ ‘It’s electrifying,’ says Robert Ke’ano Ka’upu IV, who grew up in Hilo. Ka’upu has participated in the invitation-only competition for the last 30 years as a spectator, dancer, chanter, costumer, and now as kumu hula. … ‘I don’t get excited like this for any other competition,’ he says.

“During the festival, every inch of a performance is scrutinized. Dancers are evaluated and earn points for the way they enter and exit the stage, their facial expressions, posture, costume, lei, and adornment, says Ka’upu. However, the bulk of scoring is placed on the kumu’s interpretation of a song, known as a mele, and how well dancers interpret their kumu’s vision of the performance.

“To assist in deliberations, every competing group provides judges with a fact sheet that corresponds to each performance. These fact sheets, which are due before the competition, explain everything from a mele’s background to the meaning of the lei that dancers wear ‘so [the judges] get a better understanding of what each halau is doing,’ says Ka’upu. He adds that his halau will submit more than 70 pages of fact sheets to the judging panel for the competition this year. Judges bestow high scores to those who best personify technical excellence, and ultimately the expression of Hawaiian identity through chant and dance. …

“Hawaiian culture existed without the written word until western contact, so Hawaiians passed down knowledge orally and through dance. Through chant and movement, hula narrates place; honors goddesses and gods, such as Pele, goddess of fire; celebrates nature’s surroundings, from birds to waterfalls; and records genealogy and human emotion. ‘Kaulilua,’ for example, is one of Merrie Monarch’s most performed ancient hulas. The mele likens a woman to the island of Kauaʻi’s verdant Mount Waiʻaleʻale. …

“As Western influence grew and Hawaiʻi’s fate approached annexation and eventual U.S. statehood, so did the need for local manpower to fuel its new sugar economy. In 1858, missionaries with a keen interest in sugar’s profits pursued legislation to suppress hula even further, citing lethargy in sugar cane fields, promiscuity, and attrition from Sunday service. Records show a code of conduct published in 1859 required a license for ticketed, public hula performances. Yet hula persisted under the mesh of legal restrictions and moral shaming. Hawaiians still danced, particularly in more rural areas where government oversight trickled, missionary presence was scarce, and police all the more so. ‘Hula was never lost,'” says Dr. Taupouri Tangarō, director of Hawaiian culture and protocols at University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

For more on the competition and for more-contemporary hula photos, check out Atlas Obscura.

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Photo: Cliff Grassmick
Lucy Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, incorporates jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop into the dance classes she offers in women’s prisons.

My friend Asakiyume has been a tutor in a women’s prison for several years, where she has learned that many inmates got in trouble after suffering repeated abuse or gross failure by the educational system. Most students, she says, are grateful for any attention from outside and are determined to do better on release. I think she would like this story about a dancer serving incarcerated women in the South.

Maria Di Mento writes at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Lucy Wallace is a dancer who has spent a lot of time in prison. That’s because Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, travels the country teaching dance classes to incarcerated women to help them cope with depression, despair, PTSD, and complex trauma. …

“Despite her assumption that most prisons would turn her away, not one has.

‘I’ve never had a warden say, “No, we don’t want your program,” ’ Wallace says. ‘They’re grateful to get programming, especially in rural areas that are so remote no one goes there to volunteer.’

“A former dance major who has a master’s degree in psychology, Wallace incorporates a mix of movement styles into her dance classes, including jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop, and a variety of musical genres. …

“The program involves writing exercises and group discussions that let the women talk about their lives, how they coped with their first few weeks in prison, their biggest challenges, and what they’re getting out of the classes. She provides the prisons with DVDs of the classes and has certified about 400 prisoners who can lead the courses.

“Dance to Be Free is in 13 prisons in eight states and operates on a budget of about $100,000 a year. Few prisons will pay for the programming, something Wallace would like to change. For now, the charity receives all of its funding from individual donors, raising roughly $175,000 since 2015. …

“Wallace is holding off expanding the program for the time being and is instead focusing solely on the South, especially Mississippi and Florida, where she says women’s prisons are in deep need of programs.” More here.

From the Dance to Be Free website: “Our mission is to radically improve the lives of incarcerated women through the healing power of dance. We use ‘Cathartic Choreography’ to both train the inmates and teach them a new skill. We have seen this technique help our students deal with physical and mental illness, including PTSD and complex trauma.

“During our teacher trainings inmates gain confidence as they experience leadership and responsibility, often for the first time in their lives. That sense of accomplishment flourishes as our students learn to not only express themselves through dance, but to free others to do the same.

“Throughout this transformative experience, we teach the nuts and bolts of choreography, timing and flow, and just as importantly we facilitate journaling and sharing exercises that nurture introspection and self-awareness that inmates often need.”

I found the nonprofit organization’s video very moving.

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Photo: Bangkok Post
Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia.

Dictators try their hardest to wipe out whole cultures and groups of people. They can do horrific damage, but they can never fully succeed in their evil intentions. From whatever is left, new shoots will grow. The Khmer Rouge and the tyrant Pol Pot (1963 to 1981), for example, thought they could crush traditional arts in Cambodia, but today those arts are rebounding. In addition to resurrecting Cambodian ballet, devotees are also bringing back masked dance.

Check out this story by Chantha Lach, Panu Wongcha-um at Reuters.

“Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields’ regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.

“Sun Rithy’s father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge — who scorned most art as decadent — banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.

“Now 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. …

“Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand’s version of the dance, known as Khon. …

“ ‘In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn’t teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed,’ said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.

“Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe’s a newly built theater at Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh. …

“Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.

“ ‘Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this Wat Svay Andet,’ Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. ‘But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders.’

“Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers. Thailand’s Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities.

“Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti, 67, has followed his father’s footstep in making Khon masks since he was 10 and still hand-fashions the masks from his home studio in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

“Each mask takes a month to produce, from molding the plaster to drawing the intricate details. Pongsawad said the UNESCO listing could boost awareness.

“ ‘Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance,’ he said. ‘They need to help students understand the roots as well to preserve it.’ ” More here.

This effort reminds me of the book Farenheit 451, which takes its name from the temperature at which book paper burns. Did you see the movie, with Julie Christie playing two different women? In the Ray Bradbury story, a future civilization bans books, but in a secret camp of outlaws, each individual takes on a book to memorize to keep the treasures of literature alive. They walk around most of the day reciting David Copperfield or whatever. The experience of Cambodia suggests the 1954 science fiction story was not so far-fetched.

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Photo: Pari Naderi 
In the dance called Stroke Odysseys, projections reveal stroke victims’ inner thoughts.

What is your experience of stroke? Both my brothers recovered from theirs, but our father was incapacitated by a stroke in his late 40s and lived as an invalid for the next 23 years. Medicine has improved a lot since then, as have programs that get people moving again.

At the Guardian, Lyndsey Winship has an interesting story about life after stroke.

“It was around four in the morning when Pauline Boye woke up and realised she couldn’t move. ‘I was unable to get up,’ she remembers. ‘I called to my partner, “Can you help me? I can’t get up!” ‘

“Boye, who was 47, had suffered a stroke. She spent four months in hospital, and was left with physical impairment down her right side and difficulty with her speech. The former nurse suddenly went from caring for others to being the one in need of care. Once she was home, she didn’t want to leave the house. …

“Boye was shy even to speak, worried that people wouldn’t understand her. But eight years later, on stage in front of me, she is acting out a scene based on her time in hospital, her voice carrying across the stage. Clearly she is not ashamed any more.

“The transformation is thanks to the [UK] organisation Rosetta Life and its director, Lucinda Jarrett, who works with artists and health professionals to devise arts projects that have a meaningful impact on the lives of people with brain injuries. For Boye, this now means touring the country as a performer in Stroke Odysseys, a production by choreographer and director Ben Duke and the composer Orlando Gough, featuring a cast of musicians, dancers and five stroke survivors. …

“The physicality of each person is different and shows vulnerability but also determined strength. Through a series of scenes and songs, the performers’ experiences – of struggling to express themselves, mixing up words – come to life, with projections cleverly revealing inner thoughts and subtext. …

“The discipline of rehearsals, the camaraderie and the drive towards performance can offer very real motivations and therapeutic benefits. ‘The key outcomes are increased mobility, increased cognition, increased verbal articulacy,’ says Jarrett. One in three people experience depression after a stroke, but evaluations of Rosetta Life’s work shows that it has ‘enabled people to change the perception of their disability and look forward to a new life’, says Jarrett. Reducing depression means people stay more active and are less isolated, and hopefully therefore less prone to accidents, second strokes and hospital readmissions.

“In that light, it is surprising when Duke says: ‘I’m interested in the idea of dance as a useless activity.’ But he goes on to explain the benefits of physical activity that have no practical function. When you lose the use of one hand, for example, you tend to use your other hand instead, and the impaired hand becomes weaker as a result. Whereas with dance, the performers are asked to make gestures simply because it’s the choreography, and they’re forced to do things they might not otherwise. …

“ ‘For Pauline, dancing was a big part of her life,’ Duke says, remembering the day she brought in some videos of her dancing at a wedding. ‘But the first time she talked about it, she stood up and she [danced], and even now with her limited movement, it’s all there. Physically it is a fraction of how she used to be, and yet, it’s there. The body lights up.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: James Glossop
Scottish Ballet expands Dance for Parkinson’s classes to cities across the country.

The class that comes right before my Essentrics stretch class on Thursdays is for people with Parkinson’s. The participants seem to enjoy it. One man, who is said to be over 100, routinely leaves the class with a smile on his face.

Exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s are not new, but there are always new locations offering them and new techniques to help people keep moving. Consider, for example, this report from Scotland, where the Scottish Ballet has a program.

Jeremy Watson writes at the Times, “Research has shown that dance can help people with the degenerative disease physically, mentally and socially. [At the Scottish Ballet,] staff and volunteers help participants develop movement skills with particular emphasis on fluidity, balance, co-ordination and posture. The sessions include activities focused on problem solving, improvisation, vocal skills, memory and multi-tasking.”

The Scottish Ballet website adds background. “Established in 2016, the Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland programme supports those with Parkinson’s to experience the benefits of dance and creativity — improving balance, spatial awareness, confidence and fluidity in movement. Every week, around 75 participants take part in sessions delivered by Scottish Ballet in Glasgow and Dance Base in Edinburgh. …

“The warm and informal Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland classes feature elements of ballet and contemporary dance with a focus on Scottish Ballet’s repertoire. Using the themes and movement from current productions, specially trained Scottish Ballet and Dance Base Dance Artists lead participants to develop movement skills with particular focus on fluidity of movement, balance, coordination, expression, posture and rhythm.”

The Edinburgh Parkinson’s site says that the aims of the classes “are to

* wake up stiff muscles and improve flexibility,
* encourage mind-body connection,
* improve co-ordination and balance, and
* increase self-awareness and self-esteem
* in a supportive and joyful environment

“The social time at the end of each session is a chance to make connections and feel part of the dance community. … The teachers have a wonderful sense of light-heartedness and fun which they bring to the classes. Live music is an essential ingredient, and we have a talented pianist, Robert Briggs, providing the accompaniment, so the music is used flexibly to encourage movement and development of sequences. …

“The original concept, arising from collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group in New York, is now increasingly practised worldwide among the Parkinson’s community.”

Patients’ partners and caregivers attend the class that I’ve looked in on, and they are welcome to participate and get some exercise, too. The musical selections are great, but unlike in Scotland, there is not a live accompaniment.

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