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As part of the 18th Annual Festival of New Dance, Montreal b-girls JoDee Allen and Helen Simard of Solid State take on this question. Their latest show Take it Back combines the music and moves of breakdancing and swing while trying to find trying to find a new dance for a new generation of couples.
Bryhanna Greenough got in touch with Helen Simard in Montreal to talk about the upcoming show.
Where did the idea for Take it Back come from?
JoDee and I were interested in looking into the history of break dancing, as well as where the idea of solo dancing came from. We found a lot of strong links between breakdance, Lindy Hop and the whole swing dance movement.
What’s Lindy Hop?
The Lindy Hop is a partner swing dance. You have a leader and a follower, but it’s freestyle, which means both partners are improvising. Traditionally at that time the leader was a man and the follower was a woman.
Then, on the other hand, you have breakdancing which is a solo freestyle dance. B-boying is the proper term because there were only men, historically. In breakdancing everyone is a leader because everyone dances the way they want, when they want.
So you had a partner dance, then you take out one of the elements: the follower. Then, all of a sudden, all of the women disappeared. We were used to being asked to dance. When people stopped asking, did it mean we just stopped dancing?
So women just turned to the male role?
That’s it. For women to excel at breakdancing they have to take on a masculine persona. We thought that was interesting. But it’s sad too because you can’t have two leaders improvising the same way together as you can have a leader and a follower. If you want to dance well together, two people trying to lead doesn’t work.
So we started to ask ourselves “what is it about our generation that we feel we can’t follow someone?” We’ve devalued that idea. We all want to be independent and strong and now we’re so independent and strong we can’t even dance together any more.
Can we find a way to dance together and to take back those roles of leading and following without assigning judgement or gender onto them? In other words, saying that a leader is more important that a follower. Or that a leader is a man and a follower is a woman. Can we take that away? Is that what we have to do to not only dance together but to exist together as couples? It’s a dance that looks at those issues.
The title of the show, Take it Back, could be women taking back their place… or taking it back to old traditions… or the idea of trying to take back something that was there before and make it work for us.
How did the show come together?
JoDee and I did about 10 months of research before we even started. Not dancing, but totally nerding out: reading up about the history, the musical movements of the time, and how the music influenced the dances. We talked to people and tried to get ideas about how people felt about the concept of following, and what following means in our generation. We took swing dance classes and tried to learn a bit more about that culture. Then we spent about a month in studio, just the two of us, working in an improv-based way. We felt it was really important to the process, since they’re both freestyle dances.
What’s really beautiful about breaking is when someone doesn’t know what song is coming on next and somehow they hit the right beat with some crazy move, and they land right when James Brown goes “Ha! Baby!” it’s not even the moves, it’s the spontaneity that makes it great. It’s having a connection to the music.
It’s the same in the Lindy Hop. What was even more interesting is it was being done to live music, so you had musicians and dancers improvising at the same time to create something really spontaneous.
There’s this term in Lindy Hop called ‘ecstatic shine’ and that’s what they said came out in a dancer when they danced, someone who was really dancing. They had their moment of ecstatic shine. We want that shine in our show.
When did you have your first performance?
We performed it first in 2006 and the show has kept evolving since. We’ve had a couple of cast changes, since dancers often have different contracts and go away for a couple of shows and then come back. So the show has been really neat for us. We’ve been learning more and more about our show as we have to keep teaching it to new people. It makes you clarify the idea behind it.
We’re really excited about the version we’re going to be touring this summer because we feel we’ve made some pretty key changes that are really going to make strong statements about how we perceive movement—or even perceive life.
A man and a woman may do same thing but we see it differently because of who they are. We play with that concept.
“What does it mean when he does that?” “What does it mean when she does that?” There must be a lot of those questions going on in the show.
Oh yeah. And there are really subtle differences. Sometimes it’s just the way you have your feet placed, or your shoulders, that’s more feminine or masculine. …Or what we’re wearing. JoDee and I are costumed in an old fashion. We’re wearing dresses and we have our hair done like ladies but we’re standing on our heads and doing flips. So is that feminine or not? I’m a girl, I want to look pretty sometimes, but I also want to have bruised knees and put my head on the floor if I want to.
I think a lot women of our generation feel that way. Why draw a line that says you can’t do something just because of your gender?
Exactly. I’m a big feminist myself, but you realize we’ve completely devalued what our role was in the first place. And it’s a completely valuable role. If you want to dance with someone, well, someone has to follow. It doesn’t mean that role we were forced to have was a bad one—but it was bad we were forced to have it.
We have to remember sometimes you have to look back to see that things did work well a certain way, but that we can change roles. We can change in certain situations.
We want to let men know, too, sometimes it’s okay in modern society to have a strong woman to tell you where to go and take you by the hand and spin you there. We’re trying to give comfort to both groups.
That’s what was kind of neat about the process too. JoDee and I are directors, choreographers of the show, but we’re working with two male dancers. It’s flipping the dynamic that’s usually there. In dance, more often you see more female dancers and more male choreographers. The guys were kind of joking, “you’re the bosses, the leaders here.”
Do you think it’s possible for there to be a contemporary couple’s dance?
I really think it is. I think what’s necessary is for us to release our own perceptions, our own prejudices about what that means. Following is really, really hard and that’s what we realized right away when we started going to these Lindy Hop nights, trying to learn how to dance that way. Here I am, someone who has been dancing my whole life, and can go to a class and a learn a choreography or a style of dance… but for the life of me I had the hardest time following.
I’m used to doing what I want, when I want. I want to go here, now, and that’s what I do.
The leading can be so subtle and you have to dance with the partner you’re dancing with. Sometime you might dance with someone who is very obvious and leads you to where you’re going, and sometimes someone is being very subtle; giving you very gentle indications, and you have to be really, really open and receptive to that. It made me realise my own patience, my own ego, my own thinking.
Some people tend to say it’s easy to follow since the leader does all the work. That’s really not true, especially in Lindy Hop, where the follower improvises as well. It’s not set. They’re putting their own style and flavour into the dance.
So you’re working off each other.
Right. A good leader will respond to the choices their partner is making. The leader asks a question, the follower gives a response. If you have a good leader, that lets them ask a more interesting question, maybe. A bad leader does exactly what they want all the time and doesn’t pay attention to the follower.
The point of a social dance is to make your partner look good. You want to dance well together and you want to make not only yourself shine, but your partner shine too.
Both roles are really important. If they don’t listen to each other, if you have somebody leading who is just doing what they want, and the follower can’t follow or can’t understand what’s going on, it’s not working. There is a way to make partner dancing for our generation and maybe it’s something we should work towards as well. We noticed right away in the preparation, going to dance events, even trying to dance with the guys dancing with us—that we live in this world that’s super liberated and open, and you have half naked people on TV all the time, but just standing close to someone and just asking someone to dance, or being asked to dance is a completely terrifying notion for our generation. I think our generation could use a good dose of learning how to stand close to someone without feeling uncomfortable
Solid State will be performing Take it Back as part of the Festival of New Dance late night show and closing party on June 22 at the Masonic Temple. Starts 10pm. For more information visit the festival website at neighbourhooddanceworks.com