Magazine

The Storyteller

Storyboard P takes jaw-dropping contortions and physical illusions beyond the streets of Brooklyn.

 

 

As the street dancer Storyboard P sees it, his body is separate from his spirit. The extraordinary Brooklyn improviser specializes in a style of flex dancing he calls mutant, where forms smash together to create the look of animation. He studied ballet briefly at Harlem School of the Arts, but his main training came from the streets, where he honed his performance quality in dance battles. He’s since performed at Sadler’s Wells in London and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. More recently, he was featured in the video for Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby,” and is in a new Sony commercial that was released this spring.

 

Storyboard begins his day with tai chi so that his body can pick up vibrations in the environment. “I do it subconsciously,” the 24-year-old explains in a phone interview from Ohio, where he is visiting friends. “That’s how I create a lot of my material.” As a dancer, he exists on a rarefied plane. The tremors and oscillations that course through his lanky frame are microscopic; as one connects to the next, it creates, well, a story.

 

 

Where did you grow up in Brooklyn?

I grew up on Eastern Parkway, where every block had its own style and form, and you would go around and collect styles—like a video game almost. You would collect skill sets. Dancing was like someone fighting their own demons. You could see dancers having conflicts with themselves as they figured out who they were; it showed in their art, in how they moved and in what song they played. You saw them struggle and then break through and take control so that they were jumping in and out of aggression and then into serenity. It’s a balance, and that happens as you keep channeling.

What do you mean?

When the dancers first start getting into it, it’s like a form of possession. They’re revealing themselves, and they have so much on their chest. It’s deep. It’s psychological.

How do you get your ideas when you’re dancing and improvising?

When I play a song, I have to just record and run through a whole song. It’s like I pick up the vibrations, but I won’t necessarily be dancing to it. I’m not doing moves yet. I’m more seeing what it feels like and then capturing the vibration and premeditating on it, so when I do go, I can start compartmentalizing everything. I put a little step here and a little step there and then I just sit on the beat, and then I put a little step here and a little step there. It’s like I’m building layers. It’s like recording music on a big machine. You’ve got to do levels with your body.

Do you have a sense about how you’re going to move before you consider the action? Does the feeling come first?

Yeah. It comes in the middle of my forehead and in the back of my head. In my pineal gland. It’s like light patterns. It really looks like wind or like smoke that’s telling me how much momentum I should give a certain direction. It’s telling me where to end the motion and where to start from. It’s like my body—my spine, my kundalini—locks up, and I’m able to coil into whatever shape I want to coil into.

What else influences you?

What inspires me most with movement is pedestrian form. Pedestrian is a layer that’s hidden in my style. It’s in modern dance: regular things that you do throughout the day. Our form is urban pedestrian. It’s us showing our feelings and our emotions and animating them and making them move how we want to, because it’s supposed to be lifelike. There’s always a story involved. It’s like you’re really breathing, you’re really getting into it. With popping, you don’t have to tell a story. It’s just a technique. But with flex, our way is about talking with your body. It’s about saying something. And if you don’t say anything, what you’re doing doesn’t make sense.

You must be extremely sensitive to dance the way you do.

Yeah, I’ve very sensitive—if I touch an apple and it has wax on it, I start breaking out. It’s one of those things. That’s why I’m in Ohio right now. The environment is better for me. I’m going to buy some land out here. I always have these more whimsical ideas, but this is more spiritual. I’m repositioning myself.

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Storyboard P in the music video for “Drop the Game,” by electronic musicians Flume & Chet Faker; courtesy director Lorin Askill.

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.

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