I don’t worry about the look of it so much. Choreography comes later, when I’m putting together a piece. I’m into the sound; for me, when I’m hittin’, layin’ it down, it’s all about the sound. –Savion Glover, My Life in Tap
It has been a little over a year since Amiri Baraka passed, and still I hear the echoes of his presence. I am especially attentive to the ways his work has been carried on by those involved in recent black uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore. Powerful political poetics that have emerged from these events include work by Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine and the many contributors to blackpoetsspeakouttumblr.com.
And yet, part of what I’ve witnessed in the streets, actual physical spaces of public protest against police violence and systemic racial oppression, is an example of what Thomas DeFrantz has termed “corporeal orature,” or the ability of bodies to resonate throughout public space and shift political discourse. In these moments, the body talk of protesters is not simply the sound of clattering feet through city streets, but a commitment to the ways in which physical gestures can speak truth to power. I am especially interested in connecting Baraka’s legacy to the larger conversation about the aural kinesthetic that Imani Kai Johnson has proposed, and in teasing out the various dimensions and potentials embedded in that category.
For me, Savion Glover exemplified the lingering sound of Baraka’s spirit in his tap dance at his memorial service. Whenever I listen to the recording—which still brings tears to my eyes—I am reminded of the abundant sense of joy, sadness, and love that characterized Baraka’s service. Listening to Glover’s dance is an aural kinesthetic experience, like watching a comet pass across the night’s sky. I am reminded, too, of the way I clamored to record that moment, to keep a piece of the poet alive on my iPhone even after his public passing. And indeed, that performative sound of feet tapping, that measured excess of the body produced through movement, has kept Baraka alive for me; like his groundbreaking work, it is powerfully resistant to the proper rubrics of any one discipline except, perhaps for the study of sound itself.
So, this post then, is about tap dance and its ability to sound out Baraka’s name and life. But in a larger context, the intricate vibrations of Glover’s performance facilitate a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound and mourning, and a kind of mourning that is particularly African American, that is to say, American. It is a mourning that exists beyond the word, written text, or image and a sound practice that enables the bereaved to make a joyful noise and a mournful one at the very same time. So I ask, how do you write a eulogy with the body? How do you perform an embodied love? What does Black love and a reverence for Black life sound like? Sometimes, the answer is tap.
Audio Clip of Savion Glover’s Dance at Amiri Baraka’s Funeral, 18 Jan 2014
The dance explodes on stage like a burst of light. It begins with something approximating a drum roll – and then hard slow taps, hammering away like someone at a typewriter, I imagine, or a train gaining steam.
It is coming.
Slow, insistent and strong, with a little riff now and then, a little picking up of speed here and there. It is coming on louder now, that explosive thing, the tension you are noticing. He is doing the thing. And then there is that skillful, smooth, strong tap. Glover is at work, y’all.
As a tribute to Baraka, Glover’s dance bears numerous stylistic implications. Among them, I understand the rhythm of Glover’s tap as the rhythm of writing, an aesthetic that complicates the way his dance can be understood as a manifestation of the black vernacular. Sketching out the early connections between her son’s artistry and the percussive taps of the keyboard, Yvette Glover says. “‘I was working for a judge, as an assistant, when I was pregnant with Savion…And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he’d walk, he’d follow it, in my stomach. You could see him move” (39). He does it still. In the audio clip, Glover’s footwork evokes the dexterity of Baraka’s language, all the while telling a story of its own.
But what about the intensity of the dance, its crescendo toward the end of the service, a flurry of percussive steps beside Baraka’s coffin? Baraka himself reminds us this particular musicality is so necessary here. In his discussion of “Afro-Christian Music and Religion” in Blues People, Baraka notes that in Black diasporic religious services, “the spirit will not descend without a song” (41). Glover’s dance takes place at a moment in the service when emotion exceeds the power of language, but not sound. He uses his body as an instrument of sound in its fullest sense. His performance is a choreography of embodied sound: full-on and at-once body poetry, mourning and tribute.
Elucidating the use of his body as an instrument of sound, Glover declares:
It’s like my feet are the drums and my shoes are the sticks[…]My left heel is stronger, for some reason, than my right; it’s my bass drum. My right heel is like the floor tom-tom. I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound, not putting it down on the floor hard, but kind of whipping the floor with it. It get the sounds of a top tom-tom from the balls of my feet. The hi-hat is a sneaky one. I do it with a slight toe lift, either foot, so like a drummer, I can slip it in there anytime. And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet, full strength on the floor, full weight on both feet. That’s the cymbals. So I’ve got a whole drum set down there (19).
Combining his body’s drumbeat with the tic of Baraka’s keystrokes, Glover embeds the pattern of Baraka’s life in this tap dance, communicating it with the kind of deep and reverential love you are taught to have for your elders when you are young, appropriate and deep.
But as powerful as his body-poetry is, Glover’s silences are also key. In those inaudible spaces, Glover spreads out his arms, offering up the dance in a gesture of expansive love; the immensity of the silent gestures mirroring the immensity of Baraka’s life. He holds it out as a gift towards the audience, bows his head, too.
In moments of sound and silence, the audience calls out to Glover the way they would a preacher. At these moments, the dance becomes a call and response akin to the way Baraka’s life’s work was a call and response. A call to respond. A call to take what was given to you and make it mean. Listeners to the dance are called up out of themselves. We are changed by the dance and by the listening.
Tap tap tap.
Glover’s performance shows us how his specific blend of African and European dance traditions exists in a spiritual and artistic dimension. There is a religious explanation for this, too. In African Dance, Kariamu Welsh-Asante explains the function of the African funeral dance in definite terms:
All African dances can be used for transcendence and transformational purposes. Transcendence is the term usually associated with possession and trance. Dance is the conduit for transcendent activities. Dance enables an initiate or practitioner to progress or travel through several altered states, thereby achieving communication with an ancestor to deity and receiving valuable information that he/she can relate back to the community. Repetition is key to this process as it guides the initiates, or dancers, through the process of the ceremony. The more a movement is repeated, the greater the level of intensity and the closer a dancer gets to the designated deity or ancestor. Transformation means to change from one state, or phase, to another (16).
Glover certainly brought us close to Baraka. And yet, I would go a step further to suggest that this is, above all, blues dance. As such, it reveals continuing relevance of social dance and movement to Baraka’s political legacy. Baraka and Glover work directs us towards the propulsive nature of black social/percussive dance forms. These sonic gestures clarify the ways black life matters, impacts the public sphere and policy. The politicized nature of Black Arts Movement performances and the performative elements of contemporary Black protest are still linked through sound. Politicized Black aesthetics continue to offer us multiple opportunities to witness the convergence of sound and movement. Ras Baraka, affirms this in his own eulogy for his father:
Have you seen black fire it burns deep it never goes out you can try and extinguish it but it never goes out it never goes out it never goes out only up or out as in broad as in multiply as in blues black base of the fire dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone…
The power of the dance, of the Black Movement to move is still with us.
Featured Image, Screen Capture of Savion Glover dancing by JS
Kristin Moriah is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her critical work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moriah is completing a dissertation on African American literature and performance in transnational contexts at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin and the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative. She is a 2014-15 @IRADAC_GC Archival Dissertation Fellow and spring 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Sometimes she tweets via @moriahgirl.
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This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last week, Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture) introduced us to the sonic ratchetness of Baddie Bey; the week before you heard our Beyoncé roundtable podcast featuring our first two writers, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers)–as well as Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire) and Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), who will close out our series next week. Today, madison moore gives us not only great face but killer hair choreo. Mic drop. Hair flip.–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
“Which Beyoncé are you trying to do?,” a sale associate at Beauty Full, the largest beauty supply house in Richmond, Virginia, asked me. It was a good question, because the shop had whole rows of wigs and ponytails that conjured Beyoncé enough for what I needed to do. Choosing just one would be tough.
“This one is very Beyoncé,” he said, pointing to a style reminiscent of the huge, teased out curly Afro Beyoncé worked in the early 2000s. I wasn’t really feeling this particular style but I could tell my sales guy was living it. “It’s not fierce enough!” I told him. “I need something that really moves!” I’d been invited to give an hour-long lecture on Beyoncé at a university, one of my first gigs, and I was out at the last minute shopping for a wig to wear during my talk so that I could give the children a little sip of Beyoncé. That’s when I saw it: a long, black and dark brown two-toned wig with curls for eternity that I knew would look great on stage. Come on, wig!
I wanted to wear a wig “that really moves!” during this talk to demonstrate what I feel is the creative genius of Beyoncé’s performance persona: what I call “hair choreography.” Not unlike dance moves intended for the body, “hair choreography” is a mode of performance that uses hair to add visual drama to the overall texture of sound and it’s the special genius of Beyoncé’s stagecraft. On one occasion some friends and I were drinking wine and downing live Beyoncé videos on YouTube when one of us was like “I am living for her hair choreography!” I’m not sure we invented the concept but the phrase “hair choreography” has certainly stuck with me. Hair choreography is one of the secret weapons of the pop diva, those places in a live performance where she flips and whips her hair in exactly the right point, using “haircrobatics” to punctuate a moment, a feeling, raising the stakes, the sex appeal, and even the energy in the audience.
Hair choreography is exciting because it tells a story, but even more than telling a good story in performance “hair choreography” punctuates everything else happening on stage: the lights, the dance moves, the glitter, the sequins, the music. In this way, “hair choreography” becomes part of the spectacular offering of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. “Hair choreography” occurs in those moments of a live performance where the hair is flipped, whipped, dipped, spun and amplified during the most exciting, emotion-filled sounds and dance moves.
Even though many scholars still often approach them as separate practices, sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, as Jennifer Stoever has revealed. In this way, “hair choreography” builds on performance studies scholar Imani Kai Johnson’s call for the “aural-kinesthetic.” The “aural-kinesthetic” is not a method or a theory but simply a way for scholars to think about how music and movement happen at the same time. “Hair choreography” is about the relationship between sound, body and movement, and how each of those comes together to leave a visceral impact on an audience.
One video that shows the importance of hair choreography to Beyoncé’s package is her medley “If I Were A Boy/You Oughta Know,” a mélange of the soft hard rock her own track coupled up with the aggressive rock of Alanis Morissette’s iconic break-up jam of the same title. In the clip, as Beyoncé segues from “If I Were A Boy” into “You Oughta Know” the wind machines appear to blow her hair faster, and with every emotional note or beat she knocks her head to the side with attitude, forcing her straight hair with it. By the time Beyoncé sings “And I’m here, to remind you…,” the most emotional (and recognizable) transition of the song, the hair is already going full blast. Guitars and drums go off while strobe lights engulf the stage in a frenzy of chaos.
At “You, you, you oughta know” she falls to her knees and performs a choreographed head bang while sliding across the floor using only her knees. It’s important to note here that the singing has stopped because this is a moment of “hair choreography,” a transition indicating an impending change in mood.
Everyone loves Beyoncé’s hair. In her will the late comedian Joan Rivers requested “a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s.” There are countless YouTube tutorials showing young girls how they too can achieve that Beyoncé look with weaves, wigs and lace fronts. Even the comedian Sommore, who stared in the 2001 film Queens of Comedy , had something to say about Beyoncé’s hair:
Beyoncé is a bad motherfucker. Oh this bitch bad. Let me tell ya’ll how bad this bitch is. I went to see her concert in Atlantic City after she had her baby. I sat in the second row – this bitch was flawless. I mean I’m talking about the bitch was flawless. Only problem I had with Beyoncé…she had on too much hair! This bitch came out she had at least 18 packs of hair on. She came out I thought the bitch was the cowardly lion from The Wiz. I’m sitting there in awe of this bitch neck, I’m like, “This bitch neck is strong as a motherfucker!”
All jokes aside, the mystery of Beyoncé’s hair-–and all of the technologies involved in keeping it moving–is part of the genius of her brand image, particularly because it works to make her ethnically ambiguous.. Having various types of hairstyles allows her creole body to infinitely play with race, and this makes her marketable to nearly everyone. Is she black? Is she Spanish? Is she biracial? Could she be Brazilian or from Latin America? Yes. In this way, her hair choreography not only punctuates her sound, but it shapes the very way it is heard, enabling her to morph into more personalities and fit into more demographics than even Lady Gaga or Madonna. It’s why she’s able to sound sexy or inspirational, “hood” or “classy,” vampy or masculine, vocal or dance-y. Look at a video like “XO,” to me the most mass-marketable song on BEYONCE. First of all she looks fabulous, but I think it’s hard to watch that video and not feel like it’s specifically pitched to 15-year-old white girls in Connecticut. Everything about the video, especially her sweeping hair flourishes, positions Beyoncé as relatable to teenage girls all over the US.
As dance studies scholar Melissa Blanco Borelli sees it the mulatta body engages with a practice she calls “Hip(g)nosis,” or a type of hypnosis enacted by the yellow-bodied performer on fascinated audiences. This type of hypnotics, via the hips, “exposes the male gaze” by thinking through the “pleasure and consumption of the mulatta…” (She Is Cuba, forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Through hip(g)nosis Beyoncé has learned to use her ambiguous skin color and hair optics to her (monetary) advantage as a way to slide in and out of ethnic categories. Indeed, what does the fact that she is the lightest member of Destiny’s Child and also the groups’ most successful member have to do with her celebrity? The irony in all of this race play is that she was recently awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award after her jaw-dropping 15-minute performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and she is one of the few contemporary black pop singers who can play with race in the same way Michael Jackson did.
When I watched her recent MTV VMA performance I screamed a lot during her show, but the one moment I remember specifically, and still keep rewinding back to, happened right at the end of “Mine,” to me the best track on BEYONCE. She vamps “MTV, Welcome to My World,” and quickly spins and flips that hair back around baby, giving face to the camera, making millions of queens all over America scream YAASSS!!! at the top of their lungs. Beyoncé herself nodded back to queer performance and performers during a performance of “XO” this year on February 28th 2014 at the O2 Arena in London, after one overzealous fan threw a wig at Beyoncé as she sauntered off the stage and into the crowd (3:17).
When she turned around to pick the wig up she ad libbed “You got me snatching wigs, snatching wigs” into her microphone, knowing perfectly well that “Beyoncé snatching wigs” is one of the most popular fan-created Internet memes. In black gay male performance culture people often talk about “snatching wigs” or “coming for your wig,” and to this end scholars like E. Patrick Johnson and Marlon Bailey have done important work in theorizing the interplay between black gay colloquialisms and performance. If you’re “snatching wigs” then you’re performing better than everybody else while completely eradicating the competition. You’re seemingly indefatigable. Snatching a wig means a particular performance was highly effective or unique, and a snatched wig implies how an audience might surrender itself to a strong performer, as was the case with the aforementioned wig thrower. Beyoncé definitely understands the power of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. Filling up an empty stage with a single body is a lot of space to fill if you think about it. And making an audience focus on you when there are 10,000 other things are happening around you is an even more challenging task.
But “snatching wigs” can also mean you’re revealing someone’s deepest secrets, something you know they’re hiding. What’s underneath a wig but a secret – your real hair texture, a bald spot you don’t want anyone else to know about. A snatched wig can mean a break of the illusion. When I wore that wig during my Beyoncé talk to demonstrate hair choreography everyone knew it was fake – I put it on in front of them – but if the wig came off the illusion would have been broken nonetheless.
Part of Beyoncé’s monumental fame has to do with the fact that while she synchronizes, punctuates, captivates, and performs, she never lets us see underneath her wig. She just lets it whip.
madison moore (Ph.D., American Studies, Yale University, 2012) is a research associate in the Department of English at King’s College London. Trained in performance studies and popular culture, madison is a DJ, writer and pop culture scholar with expertise in nightlife culture, fashion, queer studies, contemporary art and performance, alternative subcultures and urban aesthetics. He is a staff writer at Thought Catalog, Splice Today, and his other writing has appeared in Vice, Interview magazine, Art in America, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and Theater magazine. He is the author of the Thought Catalog original e-book How to Be Beyoncé. His first book, The Theory of the Fabulous Class, will be published by Yale University Press.
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