The night that I went to a club and watched them form a circle, I thought I might pass out. I thought I might lose it, for a moment, amidst rising tremors of joy. The first person to dance in the center articulated a pressing truth with his body and it struck me like a gong. It marked me.
In his uncensored movement I understood that we humans are also animals. Vibrating energy. Wordless light and shadow. Instinct below reasoning. I understood that we need to express ourselves against the backdrop of rhythm. We need to use our bones and muscles to process and purge. We need to dance and be witnessed. We need to be willing to be both the thing that contains the circle and the circle’s center. We need to practice movement outside of classrooms as much as we do inside of them. Dance, before it is anything else, is communal, spontaneous, unscripted and free.
The circle, or cipher, that took hold of me that night eight years ago, was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil inside a low-lit hip-hop club. The club was dominated by a group of street dancers who were passionately integrating hip-hop into their own cultural dance vocabulary. They were amplifying hip-hop’s growing presence on the global stage.
Whether we’re talking about a dance technique with roots in the spontaneous freestyle of a cipher or a genre predominately based in the classroom, I believe in the power of igniting our improvisational fire. I believe in the power of witnessing each other create movement, on the spot, from a deep non-analytical, internal sense. And I believe that if we are to come alive as dancers, this needs to be foundationally linked with our technique.
In Rio de Janeiro, I returned often to that club, with the same group of dancers who first inspired me. Whenever we made plans to meet, they always referred to it as training.
“Let’s meet on Friday night at the club to train,” they’d say. It took a few times before I felt the impact of that statement. Before I really saw how many different forms training can take and how important it is to broaden the contexts within which we associate learning.
In the studio classes I teach, I talk about hip-hop history. I encourage my students to find opportunities with groups of friends or in clubs (if they’re old enough to get in) where they can train in the art of freestyle. Where they can lose themselves in the movement and music and energy of the group. Where they can wrestle with the fear of being seen and experience the power of their own instincts. I know this fear and this power well. They are things I continue to encounter in myself every day, even as I teach.
In my teen class, we take about ten minutes each time to do an exercise I’ve come to refer to as Dancing in the Dark. I dim the lights, the mirrors go out of focus and the dancers move away from their usual positions on the floor. I turn a song on loud and let them go for it. Sometimes I call out instructions to focus the freestyle - qualities or styles or parts of the body to zero in on. Sometimes I say nothing at all. What I see in their silhouettes is uncensored vibrating energy. It’s their essence - climbing, crawling, screaming out through the movement. It’s their willingness to be present - to be guided by music and to be sensitive to impulse.
When I turn the lights on, the difference is noticeable. My student’s expressions are relieved. Their shoulders are lower. Their hips are relaxed. Their minds are loosened and remain loosened for the rest of class and choreography and repetitive technical drills.
At the end of class we take Dancing in the Dark into the next phase of training. We move into a group cipher, where we can experience being called in and out of the circle, looking right at each other as we dance, bravely sharing our instinctual relationship to music with our fellow dancers. I believe this second part is integrally linked with the first. We free the internal fire. Then we burn in front of others. The animal within can be contacted through the freedom of improv. The essence behind the human can be seen. The heart behind the mind. I’m certain we need both to create.
Every time I dance I remember those circles in Rio, during sticky tropical twilights, where I first tried to surrender and felt the thick texture of fear grip my muscles. I remember the moments when I let go and the incandescent lightness that consumed all my thoughts, that turned my body into a series of perfectly timed heartbeats. Every time I dance I think of those nights and I can’t wait to see what my fear and my animal have to say to each other. I can’t wait to see where the animal will lead me next.