A Dancer's Take on "This is America": Is The Dance A Distraction Or Something Deeper?
When 59-second clips of "This is America" began to take over my Insta feed last week, I didn't know how to feel. Graphic images from the music video showed the execution of a man with a guitar and the mass shooting of a church choir.
What truly struck me was physical and facial animation of Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino, as well as the gaggle of children shadowing his movement. Many saw the dance as a distraction from the mayhem in the background.
Not many people analyzed Sherrie Silver's choreography and her use of African and social dance. In an interview with Pigeons & Planes Silver explains that the only guideline she was given was to include the Gwara Gwara from South Africa, which she did, along with the Shaku Shaku dance from Nigeria, Alkayida and Azonto from Ghana, as well as dances that hail from Uganda, Angola and her own Rwanda.
What were your first impressions?
"There is a lot there to unpack and to be honest, I'm still processing it all. I saw flashes of the past and present, African-influenced sounds and dances.
"What sticks out the most to me is that he's dancing throughout the scenes. I love that.
"When I read the Pigeons & Planes article, I was sad to learn that people are saying to ignore the dancing. Sherrie Silver is giving us both a historical and contemporary lesson of the dances from the continent and its diaspora. If you ignore the movement, then you ignore the commentary in its entirety.
"The vehicle that drives the narrative is dance.
"It is a very rich commentary on America."
People have picked up the reference to minstrelsy in that first pose he strikes when he shoots the man in the chair. But I don't think they are connecting it specifically to the movement.
"Minstrelsy was a form of entertainment—people telling jokes, dancing and performing—and that is what is Glover is doing. Dance was part of the entertainment factor of minstrelsy. The social dance supports the commentary of black people being 'lazy,' 'happy' and 'dim-witted.' There is an underlying grotesqueness."
Photo via Wikipedia Commons
This reminds me of what you were getting at in Mr. Tol E RAnce.
"Yeah, especially in the beginning after he shoots the guy and sings, "this is America." His facial expressions in particular really stood out to me. It reminded me of the idea of black people constantly having to be in a performative state. The smile drops and comes back. It's the mask of double consciousness. In the midst of chaos, the black body fights for its humanity. It is both the smile and the movement that (for me) propels that narrative.
"Underneath, what is America supposed to stand for? Black bodies are being shot in backyards, in churches... When he's running at the end I feel like that is what he has really been doing throughout the whole video, but you're just seeing it literally played out."
The children in the uniforms dancing immediately reminded me of the Instagram videos of African school children dancing, and the perseverance of black joy in spite of circumstance. What did you think?
"I thought about the brilliance of black people. You see videos of these kids in Africa and Cuba, the way they are moving with sophistication and clarity—we always find our groove. The Lindy Hop is one of the most explosive and virtuosic dances but it came at a time of segregation—decades before the civil rights movement. Black people have constantly been able to generate power without skipping a beat.
"The children in uniforms also reminded me of the importance of our youth and how kids contribute (and are affected by) what's happening. Throughout history, the voices of the youth have always been strong and powerful. Dance-wise, they received the information from the past and translate it their way."
Some read their dancing and smiling as them being oblivious or desensitized. I felt their "smiling" was not real organic "joy," but more like a frenetic drive to keep moving to distract themselves from the violence. We all do that through dance, music, technology. For the children, it's an involuntary action, but Glover knows that he is using it as a tool of disconnection.
"It's complex. It could be read as children's innocence and being oblivious. (I read that's what the director and Gambino were going for.) Watching the kids dance with joy also speaks to the history of black people constantly rising in the midst of pain. We will never stop. We will always press on. That's the brilliance of black movement and this video."
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Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.