It's hard to define blues. On a literal angle, it's the dance you do to blues music, generally involving lots of improvisation, closeness, and hip movements. While swing and blues have basics, frames, and moves... blues doesn't. There are gentle suggestions of what might work, but in the end of the day, you make the rules.
To me, blues feels like the ultimate partner dance. Anything that isn't you and your partner is burned away.
That said, a lot of my information has been recently gleaned. Until this year, most of my blues information involved Jake and Elwood Blues.
Woman: Are you the police?
Elwood: No, ma'am. We're musicians.
- Blues Brothers
The weekend before the workshop, Justin Emeka, a fantastic director and professor, created an original play called Black and Blues. The piece was built out of the blues aesthetic, explored the history of African-American dance, from slavery through the early civil rights movement. The piece was incredibly fluid, and very emotionally charged. Scenes hit like hammers.
Moreover, the narrative quality of the dance was fantastic. In addition to theater, Professor Emeka also teaches capoeria, which builds incredible strength. Students need to learn how to do handstands... slowly. He ties powerful acting to motion, guiding actors to move with grace and clarity. The piece was formed as short scenes and spoken word pieces: my favorite was about a trumpeter playing one note, beguiling and rousing his crowd.
The show illustrated the incredible talent in all different areas. Some of the school's top dancers, paired with amazing actors, directors, and singers in one place. Acts were often layered, with conservatory vocalists singing over dance or acting. On the sides of the stage, slides flashed media, tying the scene's individual conflict to larger historical ideas.
The show was overwhelming, in the best possible way.
Even after seeing Black and Blues, I don't have a solid definition for blues. But it emphasized other connections blues has, and as part of a progression of dance, from Africa, through America, taking a trip from blues to hip-hop.
Can you teach blues?
Jake: Where's the Caddy?
Elwood: The what?
Jake: The Cadillac we used to have. The Bluesmobile!
Elwood: I traded it.
Jake: You traded the Bluesmobile for this?
Elwood: No, for a microphone.
Jake: A microphone?
- Blues Brothers
Johnny Coleman, a professor in both the Art and African American Studies Departments, teaches classes on the Blues Aesthetic that I would give my left pinkie to take.
Johnny Coleman is a campus legend. Teaching in two departments, he supports students who love narrative arts. He's all about interdisciplinary learning, splicing history with music, art, and sculpture. All of my friends have discussed the hours they pour into Coleman's course and the intensity of the class itself. The blues dredges up some of the hardest history of this country.
I bet that if I took that class, the blues would make more sense to me.
What does a blues dance look like?
Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.
- Blues Brothers
At the beginning of the year, it was a ritual: blues followed swing. Either in someone's living room, or at the bandstand in Tappan, a flock of dancers would go and keep dancing. Everyone was relaxed: our hair messy, our clothes fitting a bit more loosely, our endorphins flowing. I'd been grinning for so long that my face hurt. After swing dancing, blues just feels natural. It's a time to be trusting, affectionate, and free... while dancing to great music.
The dancing was none too fancy—after a night of swing dancing, a lot of energy is shot. And though it's sensual, it's calming. Slowly, the room would fill up. Friends would text dorm-mates and bring a few others. People stopping by the bandstand would take off their jackets and start dancing. The windows steam up, and you can feel the tremble of footfalls on the floor, hear the beat in your sternum. Couples would accidentally bump into other sets of dancers.
More and more often now, there are blues dances... separate from swing. There were some leads whom I never danced with because I didn't want to disappoint them: dancers who spoke a new language of leg sweeps, salsa moves, and fancy dips. But now, without three hours of intense lindy beforehand, I actually have enough glycogen reserved in my muscles to execute moves. And rather than the blues dance as the small, sweet dessert after an exhausting feast, it's a now full, rich meal on its own.
Some folks will come to a blues dance who wouldn't want to go for a swing dance at all. Besides the "sexy" angle, blues is less intense than swing. There aren't so many moves. There's no lindy swing-out that will take months to make bearable. The idea of connection and musicality are always paramount. If balboa is a board game, and swing is a card game, then blues is playing make-believe in the backyard. There are more possibilities and a huge sense of play. You can be silly, dramatic and ridiculous.
Blues is also a more intimate dance. Happily, the Oberlin leads are really, really respectful. Outside of here, a lot of leads mistake a close embrace while dancing... for a romantic embrace. While I love blues dancing, I don't want to be taken advantage of. If I can't trust my partner, I can't enjoy the dance. At the beginning of the year, Oberlin students are indoctrinated with the consent policy: the rules for making sexual interactions safe, sane, and consensual. Sex happens in college. Hook-ups happen. But dialogue needs to happen; communication needs to happen. Dance, if nothing else, is a dialogue.
Dance, especially blues dance, gives me a different way to have conversations.
I think about the prototypical blues dance as the one this last Friday before Spring Break. It started around 9:00 in South Dance Studios, beginning with only a few couples, and ending with the room full. As the playlists continued, the room became more dreamy. I only saw my partner, whether it was Harris, or Yoshi, or John, or Henrick, Graham, Eli, Sam, Kendell... they're the one person in the studio.
And, because it's Oberlin, the music is a big deal. You hear some "standards":
- "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers
- "At Last" by Etta James
- "Cyclone" by Baby Bash
- "Bad Things" by Jace Everett
- and covers of "Fever" and "Fire"
Then things get interesting. Bessie Smith mixes with Portishead; Aretha Franklin and Imogen Heap; Frank Sinatra with Genesis; James Brown and Tom Waits; Nina Simone with Air. A foot stays planted in history, while the other moves into invention.
All photos credited to Fenna Blue. If you'd like to see more of the event, check out her collection here!
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November 29, 2022