Dear Huffington Post:
I hadn’t seen that video of The Company’s routine at Vibe IX in Irvine California. But I’m thrilled by it. I’m a former b-boy (c. 1981, Majestic Force Crew, NJ). Old head like me, I’m not really a fan of choreographed hip hop, but I can appreciate it. What I have a question about is your description of the dancers: they “might be robots”; “looks like they are sharing a collective consciousness”; and your Facebook headline reads, “There’s No Way These Dancers Are Human”. (At the bottom of the article, you have a slideshow titled “Robots, Cyborgs, and Droids from TV and Film.”) I don’t find it offensive exactly, but these are really the only observations that Sarah Barness makes about The Company’s routine. And her language has a whiff of that really tired (and persistent) stereotype of mindless, robotic Asian-Americans. You know, we don’t have a mind of our own; we are obedient and unfeeling.
I’m not making an academic argument here. If you’ve ever danced for three minutes – I mean danced hard – choreographed or not, if you’ve ever caught a groove on a dance floor or subway platform or dollar-store aisle, let me tell you, there’s few things more human than that. You can’t just move to be a good dancer. You have to feel.
There are so many other ways to comment on this video. Yes, “incredible”. Yes, “amazing”. But “robot”? A “collective consciousness”? How about the fact that so many of the bodies wouldn’t nearly make the cut in a European dance tradition like ballet? How about not just the synchronization, but the synchronization of varied body types? Slender and thick. Tall and short. Isn’t there a metaphor somewhere in there? Isn’t there some democratic wish embedded in that performance? And how can a big crew like that dance without feeling?
Years back, an aunt I loved very much died. We were eating at her house in between viewings at the funeral home. My cousin (daughter of the aunt who had just passed) and I were sitting next to each other with our Styrofoam plates on our laps. The room was grim, silent, but she suddenly stood up, put her plate on her seat, turned around to face the half dozen of us sitting against the wall and started to dance. No music – at least no music the rest of us could hear. She just danced – with her whole body, hands, hips, and hair. She kept going until she was almost out of breath.
A year or two later I asked her about it and she said, “Sometimes you just don’t got words. So you dance.” We trace our family to the Philippines. My cousin was born there. In the video of The Company’s performance, I count faces I could easily see in my mom’s barrio or in the provincial capitol. They are Southeast Asian and East Asian. I’m going to bet there are a bunch of Filipino dancers in the crew. I bet they come from some really similar traditions as my family, which is to say, we were taught, if you got sadness or grief or exuberance or confusion, you work it out through the body. Sometimes that leads to fights. Sometimes it leads to song — and dance. I’m telling you, the dance is human.
Instead of relegating the work and love of these young dancers to a robotic mind and body, it would be terrific if you profiled the dancers themselves. I would like to know what love drives them – and what troubles too.
I get that Ms. Barness was trying to be ironic. But the irony comes a little too quick and too easily. If I understand it properly, true irony must contain its opposite, which is ardor. In Ms. Barness’ piece there is little to no ardor, and so her irony fails. But the dancers, it’s clear to me, they themselves are fire.