Monthly Archives: August 2010

Mr. B and BET

It is after dinner-time on a Tuesday night. In TV terms, one day after Anthony Bourdain and one day before Top Chef DC. In other words, a TV wasteland, except for the Rachel Zoe Project which I happen to like. What? Don’t hate. Rachel’s doing her thang. She has a vision. She’s in it. And there is something soothing to living vicariously through someone whose biggest question is Gucci or Dolce?

But Rachel’s not on til 10. I am scrolling through the channels when my boyfriend suggests we watch ATL on BET. He is surprised that I’ve never seen it. It’s a teenage-romance/roller skating film featuring rap stars and their requisite big-bootied, lollipop-sucking, weave-wearin’ girlfriends. No, harumph, I haven’t seen it.

I supposed if he can suffer through Rachel Zoe, I can watch ATL. Besides, he insists. My boyfriend is first generation French-American. He is white, as opposed to, say, Algerian. Just a straight up Frenchie. From the coastal region to the west.

“How you spell dat, baby?”

“B-R-E-T-O-N.”

He talk French too. Real pretty. Oui, oui, oui, oui, oui.

But he grew up in Queens. NY, that is. And, god bless him, my white Frenchie boyfriend loves Black people. He is not one of those white people who pretends to be black. He just loves colored.

I’m just playin’ y’all. Havin’ a little fun. Actually, he just generally loves people. He will chat up anyone who gives him the time of day. When passing strangers on the street, he will be the first to say “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Have a nice day!” and genuinely mean it. When we first met, I suspected he liked me, but then became confused when I realized he smiled at everyone that way. But, naahhh, he liked me after all. Yup.

Anyway, I find myself wonderin’ how many white people are watching BET right now. I rarely watch it for the same reason I rarely watch So You Think You Can Dance. It’s too close to home and too far away at the same time.

He is not under any delusions about BET really representing anything other than stereotypes. However, I must admit, sometimes those stereotypes are damn funny, like the way the word “ambulance” is pronounced: am-ba-lance. When you got a bunch of black folk at a skatin’ rink, you know somebody gettin’ shot. Gotta call da ambalance.

Perhaps I been drinkin’ too much Old E, but I find myself imagining Mr. Balanchine watching BET. Trust, if he was still around, he’d be tunin’ in to dance crews battling On Demand and Stomp the Yard. And if he didn’t have a hand in choreographing the group skating sequences on ATL, best believe he’d be stealin’ from it. New York City Ballet dancers be roller skatin’ on pointe next season.

I do think that Mr. B liked colored too. When I danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a letter between Balanchine and Kirstein was circulated to the company in which Balanchine stated that he wanted an equal number of white and black dancers. He saw something in black dance and music that he wanted to bring to ballet. Call it “the jazz.”

Obviously, it never happened. But aside from that letter, I intuitively felt Balanchine’s funky bent when I was dancing his choreography. There is a kind of attitude, rhythm and swagger that resonated with me that had nothing to do with what I got from SAB. I am speaking primarily of the so-called black and white ballets.

At Dance Theatre of Harlem, ballets such as Agon and The Four Tempraments had a kind of attack that I never saw in other ballet companies. There was a heaviness to the movement that they  didn’t get, or rather, interpreted differently.

My intent in writing this is to not put one group above another. There are dancers that I love from NYCB and elsewhere.  True artists. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Balanchine’s original vision could be brought to life. How that would evolve the art form…and humanity.

I have a dream…

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Labels, Teaching and Introducing Fairy Sista

I have a brother. Those of you with brothers or who are brothers understand the brother’s impulse, perhaps the genetic programming, that makes them tease their sisters. For life. My brother is exactly a year and a day older than me. In our forties, he still gets a kick out of calling me to order “Tai” food. Get it? Haha. So you can imagine my surprise when one day he offered me a compliment.

“And what was that?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“He said that he didn’t think of me as a dancer. He thought of me as an explorer,” I respond.

Right on, bro. I have tended to resist labeling myself. Words like ‘artist’ (pronounced ar-teest). Ballerina. They are at once too great and too confining. To identify with such a label would give it some measure of power over me and I want me to rule me. Whoever that is. Whether I am busy artsy-fartsying, as my brother would say, or not. But I’m ok with the word ‘explorer.’ It doesn’t evoke a strange snotty subculture. It’s a word that leaves everything wide open. ‘Explorer’ is hardly a label at all.

“It is a label, but oh, you do love semantics!” oozes Mr. Octopus.

“That’s what my ex-husband used to say.”

“You could make a semantics ballet in which someone is trying to say something, but the other person chooses to argue with how they are saying it to show that they are smarter. All kinds of delicious mayhem would ensue.”

“But how would you do that if there’s no talking in dance?”

“What do you mean by talking? There can be actual talking, why not? Also, there is the language of gesture–”

“I am essentially having a semantics argument with myself right now, aren’t I?”

“Isn’t that what philosophy’s all about?”

Sorry. I digress. I got a B- in philosophy. A bit of a scourge on my otherwise impeccable record.

“What were you saying about snotty subcultures?”

I am aware that sometimes one has to lose their balance around the issue of identity in order to regain it. There was a time when I did identify too closely with the ballerina label and…I broke myself. My over-identification took the form of anorexia/bulimia.

“But now you know that dancing never required that of you. It only required you to do your best. And even though you cannot change the past, you can apply what you know to your life now,” says Fairy Sista, her voice a twinkling of silver chimes.

“Better late than never,” sums up Mr. O, steadily twirling his moustachios around a pointed tentacle.

“Word.”

This realization is crucial now that I can add ‘teacher’ to my repertoire of labels. I see a lot of students with a mixture of fear and hope in their eyes, wanting a magic word from me. A promise of some sort.

I can point out strengths and weaknesses, provide tools, direction and hopefully inspiration, but whether or not they dance professionally is between them and the god of their understanding. They have to be willing to stand alone with their vision. They have to take full responsibility. I would not dream of robbing them of that. Of stifling them with my labels, essentially, for I cannot even dream of the world they are.

In other words, teachers can only teach from the past. They can’t teach from the future. There are things that this generation will face that I did not. They will have to eventually rely on themselves in order to face their unique challenges. I would never tell a student that they don’t have ‘It’ because I cannot know what the ‘It’ of the future will be. All I can do is basically recognize the spark and blow on it.

Of course there are times that I suspect that someone doesn’t have ‘It.’ But firstly, there are rare instances when I see someone miraculously transform and find their inner ‘It,’ and one must always leave room for that. Secondly, the decision of whether or not to dance is personal. Some who do not dance professionally or who have very limited careers may express their love of dance in other ways, such as writing, choreographing, physical therapy etc.

Nevertheless, teachers can get caught up in labels just as much as impressionable young people. It’s pretty dangerous. They hold onto their good students and wear them like a badge of honor. And if you don’t fit into their potential-ballet-star criteria, you are simply not worthy of their gaze.

“Talking from experience, arrre we?”

“Fortunately, the voice inside of me said otherwise, and I decided to listen to me.”

“Yeah, well, you showed that jive turrrkey.”

” Actually, I’m sort of grateful to him. If he had told me I had what it took, then I would have been stuck listening to him instead of learning how to listen to myself. Also, I learned how to learn from everything, even a situation that seemed like the opposite of learning. This is a valuable tool.”

“Yes, but there’s a difference between surviving and being nurtured,” says Fairy Sista. Twink twink.

“Yes, but we can’t always expect to be nurtured. We have to learn how to nurture ourselves,” says me.

Ultimately, one has to embrace the paradox of becoming one with their dance, but of not identifying too closely with it. To identify is to become closed-minded. To lose power. To lose balance. Nothing is that big. Any relationship worth having is one that you can walk away from if you need to…

“You learned that relationship bit in therapy, didn’t you,” asks Mr. O.

“Yeah.”


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