Sunday, February 25

‘People who move together’: the social power of house dance | dancing

The closure of dance floors around the world during the Covid lockdowns didn’t harm the popularity of house and dance music. Instead it had a creative resurgence, as heard in albums such as Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, which gave an escapist sense of dancing in the clubs. Both musicians said they wanted to give people happiness during challenging times.

House dance moves, too, boomed in popularity. The tutorials given by Mike Bredy AKA “Noodles” on TikTok went viral. Like many, I couldn’t stop smiling while practicing as Bredy demonstrated basic steps such as the jumping, stomping “farmer” or the “skate” with its side-to-side leg and arm movements. Bredy, a 44-year-old New York native, Switzerland-based dancer and teacher, decided to provide a moment of fun for people to get through the pandemic – “even if it was just for one minute”.

Release … Berliners sing and dance on top of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AP

It’s been observed that during times of significant world change, the popularity of house music peaks as people look for a way to release all their pent-up stress and energy on the dance floor. Think of the German youth dancing during the fall of the Berlin Wall, inspired by the tunes that came out of 1980s Detroit and Chicago, or LGBTQ people finding a family in the face of marginalization in society.

House music and dance have accompanied recent protests such as the Freedom to Dance rally in London in the summer of 2021, to encourage the lifting of Covid restrictions in the music and hospitality sectors. At the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality and racism in 2020, people sometimes danced to the Electric Slide, a 22-step sequence incorporating the grapevine move. Such dances bring forth messages of community to those who are thought of as outsiders.

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“The way we communicate on the dance floor is non-verbal, and this is part of why it’s so important to society as it provides other ways of being together than our day-to-day lives allow,” says Ruth Pethybridge, a senior lecturer in dance at the University of Falmouth. “Relationships and communities are created between people who move together.”

Mike 'Noodles' Bredy leads dancers on TikTok.
Mike ‘Noodles’ Bredy leads house dancers on TikTok. Photograph: @mrbredydff

Pethybridge believes that house dance, a form of social freestyle dance, enables people to create their own signature styles through its high levels of improvisation and wide variety of stylistic influences. These include African dance (the rhythmic sounds of the drums, footwork and movement of the torso in harmony with the music); Caribbean and Afro-Latin dance; and Brazilian martial arts capoeira with its graceful acrobatic movements. Other influences include jazz, tap and voguing combined with fast and intricate footwork, jacking, lofting and floorwork similar to breakdancing. This mixture “is part of what makes it a community that can welcome difference and is often associated with ideas of freedom,” says Pethybridge.

House dance emerged from Chicago and New York clubs in the late 1970s and 80s as a descendant of the post-disco era. DJs were experimenting with new ways of mixing and remixing records to keep people dancing for extended periods. House dance was freeing, intuitive and unrestricted as it exists and evolves as a social practice rather than having set rules to follow, which can be the case in ballet and ballroom. Such formalized styles of dance incorporate technical systems and are designed for performance. Comparable to the disco genre, house is a counterculture transcending sexual and racial identity.

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Sekou Heru, a 53-year-old dancer and choreographer, started out as a B-boy at the age of 10 and moved to New York aged 17 to pursue a career in the mecca of dance. At that time, says Heru, most of the trendy clubs that played house music had drag queens on the door. “They were the closest things to knowing that you were going to be safe as they would read people at the door and deny access to certain people.” House dance spread around the US mainly due to the New York dancers who went to universities in places such as Baltimore and Washington DC, bringing club music with them and forming house music and dance communities.

Heru now teaches house dance around the world with a method he created called Rhythmmetrics which combines dance, fitness, martial arts and “sacred geometry”. Like other forms of street and social dance, house dance remains popular due to its ability to take different forms as our world becomes ever more interconnected – as demonstrated by the Haitian-Canadian record producer and DJ Kaytranada with his unique fusion of dance, house, electronic and hip-hop music, as well as the dancers who bring their own hybrid experiences to the dance floors.

“Dance styles like house resist becoming too fixed and institutionalized, meaning they have endless potential to evolve and change,” says Pethybridge. “Which is surely what we need for society too.”

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