Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When they ask you "What's that dance," you say...

Today I had my first West African dance lesson.  

And then I read that sentence over four or five times.  Because the words have a weight that goes back centuries.  Like, what the fuck is West African dance?  What is West Africa?  Is that a country?  A tribe? A region delineated by the borders that France made?  And who am I -- or as my friend the English teacher might say, Who Is The Speaker?  Is she a she?  A racially marked she?  With a young body, but not a dancer's body?  Not a White dancer's body, slender and long; not a Black dancer's body either, muscular and curvy and taught.  Who is she who had this "lesson," an education in what her body secretly already knew but what the white girls in the room had perfected from months of head bobs and sarongs.  

Oh, all the white girls.  
I thought I was stepping onto that dance floor to get in touch with a piece of me still out of reach.  But damn, these white girls can pop and lock better than I can.  Are these really the same white girls huddled around the bar, afraid of the dance floor every month at Ships in the Night? Ladies, clearly your time has come to get down.  Why're you holding out - don't you know we want to see you mean muggin, doing that Harlem Shake until your knees get weak?   

I digress.  Europeans can be so distracting.  Especially when they seem to be able to do everything in more numbers and with less regard to the cultural significance of symbols and signs than you ever imagined.  Like opening up your eyes to the diversity of batik.  The striking thing about my dance lesson, though, was not all the White girls.  Nor was it the persistent reality that Women Are Movers and Men Are Noise Makers.  All seven or eight of the jamming drummers were men.  All thirty or so of the dancers -- save for the teacher and three brave souls -- were women.  When I was teaching movement and art to fifth graders in a basement in North Philadelphia, I used to do an exercise with them where they would close their eyes and imagine two worlds: in the first world, birds chirped, children laughed, parents hummed to their babies, stereos blasted bomb beats and everyone could sing.  But there was no dancing.  Not even a little bit, not even tapping fingers.  In the second world, ballerinas flew through the air, breakdancers lined the streets, people threw their heads back when they laughed, and everyone had rhythm.  But there was no sound, not even a whistle.  When I asked them to open their eyes and choose which world they wanted to live in, almost without fail the boys would go to the World of Noise Makers, while it was mostly girls who populated the World of Movers.  When a boy would show some interest in the Movers' world, he was usually laughed at by the other boys until he changed his mind and went back to his buddies on the other side.

So here we are as adults, and still, we women are the Movers.  Some of us, of course, will always live on the borderlands, straddling both identities whenever there are multiple identities for straddling, and perpetually finding that the choice would not appear as if it were ours to make.  Yet again, I digress.  The interesting thing about this rather unsurprising gender split was that at the end of the class the dancers are to individually show off their moves as a way of thanking and celebrating the musicians (I am told this is typical in African dance classes, and it's a tradition I imagine myself really enjoying).  The way this plays out, visually, is women dancing for men.  Of course, the men had been playing music for us the entire time, but somehow that felt more mutual.  I did not realize they expected us to thank them with our bodies.  And of course, none of the three men dancing thanked the drummers in this way.  Would they have been something other than men to do so?  

I bet I will go again.  Maybe next time to the one at Mission Cultural Center, to compare.  It was fun, it felt good, and, most excitingly, it was a moment to see someone else doing in a controlled way some of what I've always done on the dance floor.  Because what I've always done on the dance floor has only ever been an amalgamation of MTV in the mid-90's, youtube videos, and grade schoolers teaching me the Wu Tang.  My dance moves are just their dance moves, which are actually just West African dance moves, by way of the South or the West Indies and a century or two.  

The lady at the font desk told me this was the teacher's last night -- next time it will be a woman.  I wonder if she will be West African, like our teacher was.  Would the students tolerate a European American teaching them West African dance moves?  I would have never imagined it, but I think I would take West African dance from a White girl.  I mean, clearly these west coast White girls have some secrets.  Thank the goddess I will be back east in a few weeks -- where men are men, women are women, trannies are trannies, and white girls are not afraid to get down.

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