Dance li’l lady,…. dance
by Preeti Verma Lal, Feb 15, 2015, DHNS
Dance is an art form that communicates like none other. Be it flamenco or tango, bharatanatyam or kathak, dance is the‘poetic baring of the soul through motion’. Preeti Verma Lal acquaints us witha few popular dance traditions from around the world
Have you ever wondered what God was doing when He was moulding you out of clay? I do. Not often. Only when I look at my feet. My left foot sure looks fine. It is left. When I look at my right foot, even that seems left. You know that thing about having two left feet. That embarrassing inability to not dance. I do not know what He was thinking when He sat in heaven with a clay dough to create me. He sure wasn’t reading Voltaire who said, “let us read and let us dance. These two amusements are never going to harm the world”. He could have listened to Voltaire and given me a pair of dancing feet. He sure wasn’t watching Martha Graham who had an amazing ability to defy gravity with magnificent leaps. She could stretch and spiral as if there was nary a bone in the body. Or, he could have borrowed the agility of Rudolf Nuruyev and stuck into my brown frame. He had a Michael Jackson or Josephine Baker options as well. But God just did not pay heed to any of that. And one winter evening, He dropped me off heaven, onto earth, with two left feet.
If He had paid attention to Martha Graham or Fred Astaire, He would have saved me the embarrassment with which began my first flamenco dance class in Spain’s Hacienda San Rafael. Wearing an asymmetrical brown flouncy dress, Veronica had cranked the music. The beats were foot-tapping and Veronica was delving into the history of flamenco, a dance form that was first mentioned in 1774 and probably grew out of Andalusian and Romani music and dance styles.
As Veronica twirled her brown dress, rhythmically stomped the wooden stage and gathered sadness in her eyes, I went back to 18th century when the first flamenco music was recorded, and then hopped to 19th century when the dance form that includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps) underwent dramatic development. A day earlier, in Seville, I was in the Flamenco Dance Museum where I learnt that flamenco borrows a lot of arm movements and musical instruments from Indian dance traditions.
Flamenco has several variations, but flamenco, danced informally at Roma weddings, is considered the most authentic form of flamenco. Classical Spanish flamenco borrows heavily from Seguidilla, a traditional Spanish dance. Modern flamenco is very technical and lays great stress on lightning-fast foot movement performed with precision. Flamenco nuovo is the latest flamenco style which is a more pared down version — men often dance bare-chested and women are in jersey dresses, a far cry from the elaborate dress of a traditional flamenco dancer. Joaquib Cortes, who was described by Elle Macpherson as “sex on legs”, is not only one of the best contemporary flamenco dancers, but also the one who cemented flamenco’s place in popular culture. Flamenco is changing with the time, but such is its importance that it has been included in UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List.
On with the dance
I was so bad at flamenco. Perhaps, salsa would be easier. I gave up on my two left feet and consoled myself. Could I possibly adhere to the four types of cave rhythms, the 3-2 and 2-3 Son claves and the 3-2 and 2-3 Rumba claves? I know these basic rhythms of salsa that take big cues from Cuba and Puerto Rico, but was actually born in New York. Like every other dance form, salsa too has several distinct forms. ‘Salsa dura’ is often called the real salsa. However, it is ‘Salsa romantica’, a soft form of salsa that emerged in mid-1980s and early 1990s, that has found more takers and also been more commercially successful. Of late, however, the lines between romantica and classical salsa are getting blurred with popular salsa performers blending with ease the classical and the modern.
Timba is the latest salsa style to hit the dance floor. Its content has stronger percussion and often incorporates rap as a way to give the song a different feel. Timba is very popular in Cuba. Elsewhere, other elements like Swing dancing, Hustle, as well as elements of Guaguanco and Pachanga (Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean dances) have also wriggled into salsa.
I was running through my fave dance forms when Marlon Brando popped in my head. Not him as Don Corleone or Stanley in A Street Car Named Desire, but as Paul, the American widower who does the Last Tango in Paris. That scene where he walks into a tango is etched in my memory. Tango, however, is not a native Parisian. A blend of African and European cultures, tango, a partner dance, originated in 1890s in lower-class districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and crossed over to Paris in the early years of 20th century when dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires travelled to the French capital. Tango soon became a rage in Paris, and soon London and Berlin also hitched the tango-wagon. In the United States, tango was applied to dances in a 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm such as the one-step. Soon, American Tango was distinguished from Argentine Tango, and by 1914, various tango stylings (including Albert Newman’s ‘Minuet’ tango) popped onto the dance scene.
The Great Depression pulled the rug from under tango’s feet. In Argentina, restrictions were imposed on tango and it vanished off the streets. With the return of Juan Peron as Argentina’s president, tango regained its lost glory. That, however, did not last long. As Argentina reeled under another economic meltdown, tango lost its rhythm again. Military dictators banned public gathering (tango fell under ‘public gathering’ list) and tango went through another bad beat. Interestingly, the fall of tango led to the rise of rock n roll which was not considered ‘public gathering’. Earliest tango that was known as tango criollo (Creole tango) that was born along Rio de la Plata, the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay, is now in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
If Marlon Brando could pop in my head, could Natalie Portman be far behind? I had seen her pirouette on 70 mm in Black Swan. The film was fabulous, and Portman was stunning. That was reel. My first encounter with real-life ballet was in Sydney Opera House where I saw a dancer walk on her toes and twirl with amazing grace. I was in a hurry and could not watch the Swan Lake, but that prompted me to know more about ballet that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts and then grew into a concert dance form in Russia and France. Ballet is an unexceptionally technical dance form that takes years to learn and has its own vocabulary that leans on French terminology. Ballet also refers to choreographed dance works that have classic music accompaniment, use elaborate costume and staging, and is very theatrical (though there are a very exceptions).
Any talk of ballet invariably leads to a mention of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, perhaps two most popular choreographed ballets in dance history. Swan Lake, originally titled The Lake of the Swans, premiered in 1877 in Moscow, and was initially panned for being ‘too difficult and unmemorable’. However, Tchaikovsky’s first ballet has grown into a masterpiece, almost synonymous with ballet itself.
Stomp the yard
The history of dance is replete with names of individuals, who, as if to dance, were born. But not many claim to have fathered a dance form. Cha-cha-cha, a dance of Cuban origin, is danced to music of the same name which was introduced by composer Enrique Jorrin in 1953. Cha-cha-cha (also known as cha-cha) is a rare onomatopoeic derived from the rhythm of the guiro (scraper) and the shuffling of the dancer’s feet. The rhythm of various cha-cha-chas differ. The traditional Cuban count is ‘two, three, chachacha’ or ‘four-and-one, two, three’ and usually involves the lead (usually, the man) taking a checked step forward step with the left foot and retaining some weight on the right foot. Many social dancers, however, count ‘one, two, cha-cha-cha’ and often find it difficult to make the adjustment to the ‘correct’ timing of the dance which does not start on the first beat of the bar. Cha-cha-cha may be danced to authentic Cuban music, or to Latin Pop or Latin Rock. The Cuban cha-cha-cha is very sensual and involves complex polyrhythms while the music for international cha-cha-cha is energetic but with a very steady beat.
Cha-cha-cha is very Cuban. However, it was Monsieur Pierre (Pierre Zurcher-Margolle) who is said to have invented ballroom cha-cha-cha. History tells us that Pierre, a dance teacher, travelled to Cuba in 1952 to learn more about what Cubans were dancing. Something caught his eye. He realised that this new dance had a split fourth beat, and to dance it one started on the second beat, not the first. On return to England, he created what is now known as ballroom cha-cha-cha.
In search of dance, I had traversed the world map, hopping from Latin America, to Russia to France and Spain to New York. My next stop: Turkey. To watch belly dancers shimmy, shiver and vibrate; their sinuous fluid body movement that are in perfect sync with traditional music. It is wont to identify belly dance with the Middle Eastern culture, but not many know that belly dance is a translation of ‘danse du ventre’, a French term which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era. ‘Danse du ventre’ perhaps originally referred to the Ouled Nail dancers of Algeria, who, like the belly dancers, used a lot of abdominal movements.
Not surprisingly, belly dance is succinctly described as a torso-driven dance with an emphasis on the articulations of the hip. Unlike Western dance forms that lay importance on movements of limbs through space, in belly dance, the focus is on the natural isolation of torso muscles. There are several standard movements in belly dance, but so far, there is no codified or universally accepted naming scheme for belly dance movements. A belly dancer could use staccato movements of the hip to punctuate the music or accent a beat. Fluid movements are used to interpret melodic tunes and include horizontal and vertical figures of eight or infinity loops with the hips, hip circles, and undulations of the hip and abdomen.
Ask anyone who has watched a belly dance performance and she’d rave about the shimmys and the shivers of the dancer; the dancer creating a depth of movement with small, fast, continuous movements of the hips or ribcage. Common shimmies include straight-legged knee-driven shimmies, twisting hip shimmies, bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, and relaxed shoulder or ribcage shimmies.
I read all about dance and then returned to my thought about what God was doing when He created me. If only he had listened to Friedrich Nietzsche who said: He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance. One cannot fly into flying. So, if I cannot fly. You’d know why. I can stand and walk and run and climb. But I cannot dance. I have two left feet. Don’t laugh. One winter evening, God threw me out of heaven with two left feet. He considers it a feat!