Act 4: Verily, a Veracible Vestige of Vintage Vernacular

An Audacious Attempt at Authenticity?

Choreography by: Brenda Bufalino

Arrangement and Adaptation by: Emily Oleson and performers

Performance by: Raha Behnam, Michele Chia, Adrian Galvin, Marianne Goris, Chelsea Freeman, Ashley Haymaker, Shanna Lim, Amy Scheer, Connor Voss, David Yates

Music Performance by: Count Bassie

Music composition: “Lester Leaps In” by Lester Young

The biggest thanks to Ann Kilkelly, tap dance historian and professor of Performance Studies and Women’s Studies at Virginia Tech for passing this dance of Brenda Bufalino‘s on to me!  Brenda Bufalino studied and performed with the late Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, and founded the American Tap Dance Foundation with him and Tony Waag in 1986 under the name the American Tap Dance Orchestra. Here is their mission statement:

“The American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF) is a non-profit organization committed to establishing and legitimizing Tap Dance as a vital component of American Dance through creation, presentation, education and preservation.” -http://www.atdf.org/mission.html

This dance was choreographed to Count Bassie’s song “Lester Leaps In” so we have kept it with its original score, if you will, though I believe a slightly slower version than Bufalino originally used.

My idea with this piece was to represent Bufalino’s choreography three different times, mirroring the structure of of the recording we were using which plays Lester Leaps In three times.

The first time, we do the choreography with minimal changes, trying to represent the Vernacular Jazz that Bufalino would have been learning from  Coles and his contemporaries.

Photo credit: Matthew Olwell

The second time, I have made a compilation of video clips from You Tube that I hope can act as “moving citations” for the movement vocabulary.  Again, Al & Leon feature heavily.  I have arranged the clips so that the movements are in the same order as they are in the live choreography.  Meanwhile, the cast creates a post-modern frame for the video, deconstructing some Jazz maneuver that holds special somatic information for them . . . there are three groups, and each group has a different phrasing of accents, or a movement cadence if you will, that we based on the rhythmic lyricism of three different artists: Rahzel’s “scratch” breaks from “It’s a Must,” Inspektah Deck’s verse in “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ to F*** With,” and Method Man’s verse in the latter song as well.

The third time, we turn the movement into what my friend Junious “House” Brickhouse at Urban Artistry would call “Thrash Jazz” – like Street Jazz, it has clearly been influenced by the edges in hip-hop dance, but it is not authentic hip-hop movement vocabulary.  Still, it was very interesting for me to take the Vernacular Jazz movement, and see how well it lent itself to a more “contemporary” treatment.

Through working on this piece I have come to a new appreciation of both “authentic”/vernacular jazz and hip-hop and other urban dance styles as techniques quite apart from the way I had understood the terms “jazz dance” and “hip-hop dance” at the beginning of this process.  In the relatively few jazz classes I had taken in my life, even at a university level, there was absolutely no reference to the 1920s Harlem scene which produced the dances people were doing to early/hot jazz music.  (I had heard about Gus Giordano and Bob Fosse in these classes, but no mention of George Snowden, Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Leon James, Marshall Stearns, Ernie Smith, Mura Dehn, or any other vernacular jazz dancer or historian.)  The movement was always original choreography by the instructor who seemed to be creating sequences inspired by recent Broadway shows or music videos.  We usually danced to contemporary pop music, like Brittany Spears.  This was sometimes a fun diversion, but it was never my favorite thing, so I never dug any deeper, being completely unaware that there was a specific history to the form outside the theatrical context.  The same situation pervaded the hip-hop classes I took in New York City and London; no mention of history was ever made, and music always came from the top 40 R&B charts.

On a trip to London I met b-boy Ude Okoye, who explained to me more about the ways in which hip-hop was “a culture, with principles and artistic foundations,” and was way more than what I was hearing on commercial radio – this became a recurring theme in my research: whatever impressions one might have of an art form based on exposure to a commercial version in the mainstream media is probably only a small, and possibly distorted, slice of the big picture.  I could immediately believe that I had been missing the big picture all along, because I had just had to re-examine another art form and my latent stereotypes about it: old-time music and dance.

As an adolescent in rural Virginia, I had an intrenched resistance to the aspects of culture around me that I associated with racism: confederate flags, rednecks, cowboy boots, clogging, country music, and even country-sounding music with fiddles and banjos.  I didn’t have any close friends who espoused any of these things, or made the most of drive-your-tractor-to-school-day, so I had formed a gross stereotype about the kind of person who might enjoy fiddle and banjo music.  And then I met a cadre of cloggers and old-time musicians who not only defied my stereotypes, but were incredibly like-minded: socially and politically liberal, concerned with ethical aspects of their art form, and happy to go to the hip-hop dance party after the old-time jam.  The background of this subculture is another story, possibly for a different post, but the point is: I had not seen this new hipster old-time culture portrayed in any media, I had to find it in person.

This became another thing that urban dance and rural Appalachian dance had in common in my mind, when I started taking a comparative look at flatfooting and hip-hop dance, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself . . .  In early 2006, I was at a dance in Elkins, West Virginia, the Wild, Wonderful Dance Weekend, when I first appreciated the banjo’s capacity to be funky.  I had grown up listening to Michael Jackson, James Brown, Whitney Houston, and other commercially successful (but awesome) pop artists, and I wasn’t really expecting old-time music to hit me in the same place.  Maybe it was because I had so recently converted my thinking about both hip-hop culture and old-time culture, that I started seeing and feeling little similarities in the dance forms, hearing relevance in the music, and wondering how I could get to the “authentic” communities to learn information that was legit.

The word “authentic” is highly problematic – some things that are considered authentic, which some people might take to mean “old” and “original,” have been carefully constructed fairly recently.  The line requesting “authentic gaelic dress” in registration forms for Irish step dance competitions comes to mind:

If I were asked to name the elements that are “authentic,” I would have to begin with my own question: authentic to what?  to whom?  for what reasons?  Even then, in this case, I”m not sure I could come up with a logical explanation, but that’s a different story . . .

Looking for an authentic connection between old-time flatfooting and hip-hop dance led me from both directions to Charleston, Lindy Hop, Tap, and Vernacular Jazz (and yes, I capitalize like A.A. Milne, subjectively, when something seems extra-important).  I went to Ann Kilkelly in Blacksburg, Virginia to learn some vaudeville-era tap material for my thesis concert.  We had been on staff together at Dance Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in 2008, and I had seen her vernacular jazz class and thought it looked like so much fun that when she offered to teach me a vernacular jazz dance of Brenda Bufalino’s as a warm-up for our tap dancing, I jumped at the chance.  Though it wasn’t part of my original plan, I decided that I should include the vernacular dance as part of the thesis concert – when I realized that we wouldn’t be able to use tap shoes on the floor of the Gildenhorn, it seemed like an even better idea.

Still, I was totally new to authentic jazz.  Should I be studying it?  Should I be teaching it to undergraduate dance majors to perform?  The Lindy Hop community seems to be the group of people who are most invested in preserving vernacular jazz as an art form, so what claim did I have?  The only claim to authenticity I have on the work is being actually and deeply interested in it, both because it forms an important bridge between two other genres I was studying, and because I immediately found it fun to do and got encouragement from my teacher.  Personal authenticity is something that I had encountered in modern dance improvisation, and in the technique of Authentic Movement.  Could I bring the argument that it “felt right” and “made sense” to me, as I would justify postmodern choreographic decisions or choices in my improvisation, to a historical form?

When I was a little girl, my mom wanted me to take ballet, but ballet was too girly for me, it didn’t go with my identity as a tough tom-boy – I didn’t do it because it didn’t feel authentic to me, even though I was happy to watch it when my best friend did it. Even as a five year old I did not buy into the idea that ballet was foundational; I didn’t want to base my movement training on those aesthetic values. I loved hip-hop music from the first time I heard it as a nine year old, but when I started going to a rural high school and hanging out with the hippie/goth/theater techie sub-culture, I stopped listening to hip-hop because I didn’t feel I had a right – and at the same time I wouldn’t tolerate country music, even though I was surrounded by self-identified “cowboys” and “rednecks.” Neither thing felt like “me.” It was only after starting to look at cultural artifacts as more utilitarian, noticing the effect that different art had on me, that I gave myself permission to start appropriating various aspects of various techniques. Even then, I resisted identifying as any of those things. For example, I am not Irish, and when I started Irish step dance- the first form I really studied in a focused, serious way- I kept my classes a secret for two years, and wouldn’t call myself “an Irish step dancer” until long after other people had been labeling me as such. I didn’t feel I had a right. But even struggling with the identity politics, the knowledge inherent in the form was overpoweringly attractive to me. I was depressed, my younger brother has been diagnosed with Autism and I had just lost my first lover – Irish step dance to me was about strength, speed, agility, flexibility, rhythm, musicality, and a refusal to wallow in the kind of overly dramatic “lyrical-ballet-to-over-produced-pop-music” that I saw my peers doing, which would have been much more accessible and cheaper.

I look at myself as an open system striving toward equilibrium. Having trained my body for years in Irish dance, steeping myself in verticality, narrow stance, and “lift-off potential,” I arrived at University of Maryland with my body craving dances that are grounded, wide, open in the arms and chest – and it happens that West African dance classes were offered in the program, which felt amazingly good, kind of like really nutritious food when you’ve been eating too many power bars. I look at different dances as culture/identity/politics, but I also feel they can be approached as different “subjects” as one would approach math, biology, or physics which seem less embroiled in identity politics. It is acceptable, even mandatory, to learn something about these subjects without a life of devoted specialization in that field. I know just enough about thermodynamics to extrapolate from the hot cup of tea I’m drinking in my cold bedroom that open systems strive toward equilibrium – I understand this just enough to draw the metaphor above – but I do not “pass” as a physicist.  The idea of “passing,” or being accused of trying to “pass,” for something to which you do not have an “authentic”claim is a fear that has plagued me throughout this project.

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