In the course of researching this article I met, conversed and danced with a number of people within the Fabulous Ladies of Fitness/Cole’s Bar, Dance Dance Party Party and WERQ/Zumba/Chicago Fitness Parties communities. I enjoyed nothing but warm welcomes and willing project participation and I am respectfully grateful for everyone’s contributions and kindness.
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
an exploration of current Chicago group dance sessions
Dance is often a defining element of culture, demonstrating a society’s music, physical movement, roles, mores and histories. Despite Henry Ford’s best intentions[i], common American folk dance seems to be all but dead in America; but after my FLoF dance party experience I started thinking that this, and other popular dance forms, may be more than just good fun. Dance may be more than just supporting cultural definitions even! What kind of contemporary subcultures are forming around pop song group dance forms?
According to Rich Luker, veteran analyst of community trends in the U.S., the weak economy has affected many Americans’ physical activity choices since 2008[ii]. "Concern about high gasoline prices and the mortgage crisis (has) impact(ed) sports participation patterns and how American families spen(d) money to support their athletic interests… sports that cost more or take more involvement to play have taken a 'hit'... financial challenges have caused (families) to look for easier, inexpensive athletic outlets – which is reflected in the increased numbers of people who played simple to access sports."[iii]
And what could be a more simply accessed solid cardiovascular workout than reasonably priced drop-in sessions of dancing to great pop songs?
Last week I grapevined through the worlds of dive bar dance parties, Dance Dance Party Party dance jams and WERQ and Zumba group-fitness dance classes in order to investigate the communities being created in between beats and body rolls.
The Fabulous Ladies of Fitness: dive bar dance parties – Now with Jazzercise!
“We created the dance party that we would want to go to and I think other people want to go to it to,” says Jyldo, ½ of the dancing DJ team behind the Fabulous Ladies of Fitness (FLoF). The Ladies share a love for yacht rock, 80s-90s hip-hop R&B and dance hits of the last decade. Instead of hassling other DJs to play their jams, these groovy yoga teachers took their “passion and (made) it happen”, creating the Fabulous Ladies of Fitness. Starting as a joke DJ set with a slightly ironic soundtrack and fitness-themed sense of humor for a friend’s birthday party, the Ladies were surprised by the audience’s enthusiastic reactions and attempts to book them for future events. Soon Jyldo, a dancer, choreographer and group dance fitness instructor (psst! and former Jazzercise student :-o) discovered that people also liked being a part of group dances. “I did this Jazzercise at a friends’ party, and it was really fun and people were like ‘I want to do that again!’”.
In February 2011, FloF scored a monthly residency, DJing 2nd Thursdays at Cole’s Bar , and a venue for trying out more routines. Dance party themes so far include: Hall and Oates (March), Flashdance (April), Janet Jackson (May) and Top Gun (June), complete with DJ dress ups. According to the FLoF Facebook page, “You bring your spandex, sweatbands, and your sweet self, and together, we'll sweat out our winter doldrums on the dance floor...it might be too hot to handle, so wicking fabrics and proper hydration are encouraged.”
FLoF parties are more than just the new 80s night. “Mostly we want to create a space where people can feel comfortable being silly in. Where they can dance and not be afraid,” says Jyldo. J-Bo adds, “There’s no ego in this… The whole idea is goof off and don’t care, have a good time. Throw yourself around to Kenny Loggins, or watch other people throw themselves around to Kenny Loggins, just enjoy yourself.”
“In my twenties, I wanted to dance, but I think I felt self-conscious or uncomfortable,” says J-Bo. This isn’t uncommon. According to WSFF/Future Foundation, “42% of women feel that 'having more confidence in their body' would help them to take part in sport or exercise more often and 26% of women 'hate the way that they look' when they exercise or take part in sport.”[i] Letting go of ego and losing yourself in the music and movement is a common element of FLoF, WERQ and Dance Dance Party Party events.
FLoF sets the scene for people to let go of inhibitions and inexpressive or contained choreography by being the first ones to be silly. The Ladies break the ice by rocking dance party-themed dress ups and inviting others to join in uninhibited dance moves and pseudo-Jazzercise routines.
“Everybody wants to dance, but sometimes I think people need a little help,” says Jyldo. “I’ve found… sometimes when no one’s dancing, if I go out… and just start dancing silly, people will join me. I think it’s just (that) they need that one person to be… encouragement or an ice breaker,” and an “infection of enthusiasm, or healthy plague” soon follows.
“It’s been really fun, people like it and I love it. It’s so weird… in the front (of the bar) there are these bearded boys drinking beer and playing pool, and at the back there are all of these people dancing together.” J-Bo suggests that some people may feel a more comfortable being led and learning moves. In describing FloF Jazzercise routines J-Bo says, “There’s a feeling (that) it’s the whole group, it’s everyone coming together and I can’t believe how people jump in! Straight guys! Doing Jazzercise! People love it.”
I went to Cole’s Bar last Thursday night, not just for the music, but also to find these unknown others who apparently loved similar themes as myself. The community that forms on a FLoF dance floor is made up of people who have come together around the pretense of having fun and being silly. They may share similar senses of humor, levels of extroversion, geographical areas, drinking habits or propensities for the running man(ref), but the driver of this subculture is fun*. Within this lightened atmosphere of cheesy music and moves, there is ample opportunity to strike up conversation and make connections with others than can stretch beyond your deep lunge.
“It’s kind of a weird mix of people… people who maybe would normally never be together…are dancing together… to Ludacris! It’s really funny and great… I like that our parties are fun and bringing people together,” says Jyldo.
“It’s fun for people to have that moment of camaraderie like ‘We’re all doing this together’ but then be able to break away… and do (y)our own thing. It’s nice that people are responding positively (to the intermittent Jazzercise routines), but I also don’t want them to feel obligated,” says Jyldo.
J-Bo describes the group dance sessions as “bonding experiences. There is a feeling to moving in sync with a group that is so exciting.” The official Jazzercise promotional materials think the same thing, promoting a “general feel-good factor” that results from classes[iii] And I think we can all admit to loving a good group dance.
“I don’t know if people are necessarily aware that it is the group, that that is why it feels so good… (at FLoF parties) people say they haven’t laughed that hard in so long… there is something about the group moving all together.” This fun-focused dance party may have just veered into serious sociology territory.
Keeping Together in Time (ref) by William McNeill, one of the most widely read and respected historians in America, studies dance and drill in human history and finds evidence that rhythmic movement has played a profound role in creating and sustaining human communities[iv].
According to McNeill, shared movement is the mainspring of a sense of community[v]. A review of the title states that, “Coordinated rhythmic movement and the (resulting) shared euphoric feeling he calls 'muscular bonding', have been powerful forces in holding human groups together by endowing groups with a capacity for cooperation, which in turn improves their chances of survival”[vi]. The positive emotions shared by group members who move together make us feel good about ourselves, the group and our places as part of the group, thus creating a setting for social cohesion and group survival. Maybe FLoF parties really are a “social service” J-Bo jokingly describes them as.
These emerging realizations about the history of group dance fall in line with trends in contemporary art. “A sense of shared responsibility — of being in this together — is fundamental to art practice in the 21st century,” claims Kathryn Weir, Curatorial Manager of International Art and Australian Cinémathèque at the Queensland Art Gallery[vii]. This trend is evident in the recent 21st Century exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery’s Gallery of Modern Art (ref) (the best exhibition I’ve ever seen!) and other forms of diffused, collaborative and experiential Chicago art forms as Cheerobix**[viii], the Power of Cheer and flash mobs***. Jyldo and J-Bo’s histories as performers and interest in creating FLoF parties can be understood in this context.
*That said, I can testify that routine participation results in a strong cardio workout (likely intensified by fits of laughter) and J-Bo confesses she often has to ice her knees the day after a FLoF session.
**Cheerobix is “a heart-pounding, fat-blasting, smile-inducing workout consisting of simple pom routines, full body sculpting and the infamous ab-burning pom pass led by led by Mattrick Swayze and the Jenarator.”
Flash mobs were created by Bill Wasik in New York City in May 2003 as a form of performance art[xii]. Wasik has said that "the mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could"[xiii]. He has also stated that he created flash mobs as a social experiment to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity and of wanting to be an insider or part of "the next big thing".[xiv] However, as The Vancouver Sun argues, Wasik may have instead given "conformity a vehicle that allow(s) it to appear nonconforming.”[xv] Flash mobs have also made mass public gatherings more difficult as recent mobs have been convened for the purpose of criminal activities and police are dispersing crowds[xvi] and strictly enforcing event permit requirements[xvii] in some places around the world.
[i] “In the United States the industrialist Henry Ford promoted the square dance by organizing square-dancing parties for thousands of people, especially his employees and their families. In 1926 he built Lovett Hall, an enormous dance hall in Dearborn, Mich., to encourage square dancing, partly to counteract what was commonly seen as the lascivious nature of popular dances such as the Charleston. Until 2005 square dancers continued to meet at Lovett Hall.” Encyclopædia Britannica. “Folk Dance”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/212114/folk-dance. Accessed 19 May. 2011.
[ii] http://www.sgma.com/press/171_Team-Sports-Participation-Affected-by-Many-Outside-Factors. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[iii] http://www.sgma.com/press/171_Team-Sports-Participation-Affected-by-Many-Outside-Factors. Accessed 20 May 2011..
[ii] That said, I can testify that routine participation results in a strong cardio workout (likely intensified by fits of laughter) and J-Bo confesses she often has to ice her knees the day after a FLoF session.
[iii] http://www.jazzercise.com/pdfs/jazzercise_business_info_2010.pdf. Accessed online 20 May 2001.
[iv] Bibliovault. http://www.bibliovault.org/BV.book.epl?ISBN=9780674502307. Accessed 22 May 2011.
[v] Bibliovault. http://www.bibliovault.org/BV.book.epl?ISBN=9780674502307. Accessed 22 May 2011.
[vi] Bibliovault. http://www.bibliovault.org/BV.book.epl?ISBN=9780674502307. Accessed 22 May 2011.
[vii] Weir, Kathryn. 2010. “In this together: The aesthetics of inclusion”. http://qag.qld.gov.au/fullsite/exhibitions/past/2010/21st_Century/overview/productive_contraditions. Accessed 19 May 2011.
[viii] Cheerobix is “a heart-pounding, fat-blasting, smile-inducing workout consisting of simple pom routines, full body sculpting and the infamous ab-burning pom pass led by led by Mattrick Swayze and the Jenarator.”
[ix] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[x] "Definition of flash mob from Oxford English Dictionaries Online". Oxford University Press. 8 July 2004. . Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[xi] http://www.theblaze.com/stories/flash-mobs-of-bandits-and-looter-in-d-c-yes/, http://www.suntimes.com/5455561-417/teen-flash-mob-robberies-on-michigan-avenue-on-the-rise.html, http://www.kare11.com/news/article/909497/396/Mob-robbers-hit-convenience-stores-in-St-Paul, http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/116686374.html, http://news.softpedia.com/news/ATM-Flashmob-Robs-9-Million-103994.shtml. All accessed 20 May 2011.
[xii] http://www.theblaze.com/stories/flash-mobs-of-bandits-and-looter-in-d-c-yes/, http://www.suntimes.com/5455561-417/teen-flash-mob-robberies-on-michigan-avenue-on-the-rise.html, http://www.kare11.com/news/article/909497/396/Mob-robbers-hit-convenience-stores-in-St-Paul, http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/116686374.html, http://news.softpedia.com/news/ATM-Flashmob-Robs-9-Million-103994.shtml. All accessed 20 May 2011..
[xiii] Ian Urbina "Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message". March 24, 2010. The New York Times. Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[xiv] "Manifestul Aglomerarilor Spontane / A Flashmob Manifesto". December 5, 2004. Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[xv] McMartin, Pete (July 12, 2008). "Waterfight in Stanley Park, but are flash mobs starting to lose their edge?". Canwest Publishing Inc. Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[xvi] http://chattarati.com/neighborhoods/utc/2009/4/23/updated-police-officers-use-pepper-spray-utc-stude/ Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.
[xvii] "Flash mobs banned in Braunschweig". The Local Europe. 28 Jul 09. Referenced in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob. Accessed 20 May 2011.