Friday, April 10, 2009

So, you think black people can dance?

Ta-Nehisi has an interesting post up. Hat tip to Carmen Van Kerkchove for Twittering it before I had a chance to find it.
Anyway, he was saying that whenever he hears black people brag about being able to dance better than white folks, he has to laugh to himself. It's like a kid from Harlem bragging to some Wall Street dude about the width of his gold rope. "You have to be able to dance," my buddy said.  "because you have nothing else." On the contrary, when you see that white dude out on the floor, he's free to just enjoy himself. He has nothing at stake--nothing hanging in the balance. For us it's ritual. But for them--it's just a good time. And they're free to do that. Hell, we wish we lived in a world where we couldn't dance. Read more...
I don't think this explains the whole black people = rhythm meme--I think part of our seemingly innate ability to move our bodies to the beat comes from that fact that the music of African American culture (and the African culture of our foremothers) is rooted in strong rhythm. Many of us grow up listening to music with a heavy bass and pounding rhythm and so we become comfortable with it and learn to effortlessly move to it. I have met several white people who grew up in black culture and can dance far better than this black girl, who grew up listening to the lighter rhythms in rock and pop and who can keep the beat but really can't dance a lick. It's not race; it's relation to rhythm.
But there is some truth to the idea of white folks having a dancing freedom that black folks don't. (Te-Nehisi uses the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's Karen O. as an illustrative example.) In high school and college, there was something about so-called "white" dance parties that I found more enjoyable than gatherings of my own folks. White kids seemed free to flail and whirl to the music with abandon and enjoyment--a sign of physical freedom. At a black party, I felt pressure to do that era's equivalent of today's "stanky leg" and do it well. (i.e. the latest dance move. Yes, I have discovered there is such as thing as a "stanky leg" with an accompanying song, no less. Also, I just realized that I sound like a modern-day version of my mother--see the post below.)  That felt constricting to me. Dancing was not about freedom, but skill. If you had the skill, you had fun. If you didn't...not so much.
Check out Ta-Nehisi's post. What say you? 


Sassy J said...

Stanky leg--OMG! Like my sister's favorite song! The first time I saw that video, I was flabbergasted...that's creativity for ya (sarcasm here).

It's interesting, when I go out to a club or lounge and most of the cliente is black, I get very self-conscience of the way I move. I know that I have rhythm, but I can not "drop it like it's hot" like some of these folks can!

I've always loved African dance and when I was able to get into some classes, the teacher would tell me I was too stiff (I say it was because I was "thinking" too much about the moves). Ironically, the dance that I feel more connected too is bellydancing, especially the dances with the North African influence.

Tami said...

Sassy J,

I took belly dancing for almost two years and I LOVED it! You're right. It was rhythmic, but also involved the free movement of the body. I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Phooey on the "stanky leg." Give me some hip drops and shimmies.

Moni said...

If you think it's bad in American, try the Caribbean! I grew up in Bermuda thinking that I couldn't dance because the dances are so involved/intricate. I feel pretty confident dancing at black clubs in the US, but I feel most confident at white clubs. I have more confidence now when I'm at home in Bermuda, but I don't attempt any of the new dances (the basic whine will do).

HarrietteJ said...

Why do you feel you can only dance comfortably in non-black arenas? That's personal. I've found that I can do my thang regardless, because let's face it, most people hit the clubs or entertainment venues to escape the cares of life. Why in heaven's name would someone allow the expectations of strangers to crowd out a positive experience. As the fat fly chick, I'm suppose to be the one patting my foot sitting at the table, not in the middle of the floor, doin' what I can do. And please step move when I bring back the "Snake" or "Cabbage Patch." Drop the madness and let the good times roll!

Anonymous said...

Point of order: Karen O's part Korean, IIRC.

Tami said...

Thanks, Anon. I didn't know about Karen O's Korean heritage. Once again we learn how foolish it is to guess someone's racial makeup by looking at them.

Tei Tetua said...

One thing I liked about the comments on that thread was that there was a recognition that it's possible for white men to admire black women. Even "white frat boys" in the South! Maybe not with totally respectful motives, but definitely not assuming that black women are sex machines, or just there to be used. It links up with another theme here, black people as realistically sexual. More little steps in the the right direction?

Anonymous said...

Good theory about how music heard in childhood determines how you might learn how to dance.

No hope for me, I loved classical music as a child, so almost all pop music is kind of a pain to listen to. And I don't know a club that has minuets :-)

Miriam said...

i think some people regard BF so lowly that everything they do just can not have a valid reason. Ever. It just can't be right. Now, we found a way to chide the dancing ability that many have?

A white person may dance and just move or contort his body any which way, that could perhaps be because they see no deeper meaning in dancing.

Perhaps to some BF its an art. Just like Michael Jordan couldn't just handle the ball like any other player, he had to take it to new heights (no pun intended) with his air time, etc.

Many, I think especially many BF, have a propensity to take something and add splendor to it. Make it "better" make it different, (or in the case of negativity, make it worse and perverted).

Okay so they dance and perfect it almost to a science, but now some apologist has to find a negative about it. Celebrate!

Now there is something that I agree w/him on. Its the rebuke. That needs to go, lol. Or for sure it needs to improve.

But I don't think its limited to dancing. Once I went to a Haley Ballet concert and it was wonderful! But then the audience all went to the valet parking to get their cars. Every car that got brought out was judged harshly and loudly. Some people with dusty cars were booed as they drove off. Some were laughed at as they drove their clunkers away. One person's car died on him -I'm sure he was mortified by the howls of laughter.

This judgement, this critical eye and merciless scoffing and mocking is too much. That can be loosed up. It spreads on almost anything a BP does.

Anonymous said...

Being easily physical, in any genre, dance or athletics, is also because of the predominance of short twitch muscle fibres. Short I think I don't have the research to hand. And it's genetic, there just waiting to be used, and honed by being 'in training' as athletes are, or dancers who just love to dance and see it as valid expression all around them (as you said). There is also an brain/endorphin connection to movement, especially with rhythm (and there is rhythm in a run, or even a walk--you know that I've read you on walking). So I can't comment on the other reasons Black people dance. I know, native people walk. It's my life, it's my mantra, it's my whole r'aison d'etre.



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