All That Jazz

Two Steppin’

“Oh shit, I’m going to be late,” I scream in my head as I’m dashing down Randolph, still unsure of where the Harris Theater really is. As a genius, I decided to go to my dance performance on November 21, 2009, the same day as the lighting of the Magnificent Mile. I am usually super early to performances, so this day I took a few extra minutes to do my hair and makeup, eat something before leaving. I was also going to a party for a friend afterwards, so I was looking forward to something light and fun to alleviate my awkwardness that I knew would come later to his going-away party (dancing? Yes. Social anxiety? Yes.). But no, the large groups of drunken high school students and puffy jackets that my mom calls “suburban coats” filled the “el” car that I was in, and I tried to read the book I had brought with me. My stuff was NOT going to get stolen, and I was going to get there!

Having already missed the chance to see Mikhail Baryshnikov (sp?), and many other jazz performances, I stuck with Step Afrika!, in conglomeration with the Chicago Human Rhythm Project. Not my first choice, but I was determined to enjoy it and learn something from the dance type.

I rush in and get a ticket, the man at the box office smiling, although whether it was because I particularly looked good, or because he could tell I was relieved to be able to buy a ticket. The ushers were letting people in, in between the performances. We could hear Michael Jackson echoing from the inside of the theater, so only the first performance by the drill team had begun. Based on the amount of Jackson’s songs that had been playing subsequently since his death, I concluded that I wasn’t missing much.

A big group of black women were in front of me, also just having gotten to the box office. We were ushered in, and told to take the seats furthest away, but closest towards the top balcony. I had bought the cheapest tickets, so I wasn’t expecting a good seat. However, this was still a good view. The Harris Theater is underground, and I’d never been before. It is such an interesting layout, and from the time I got there, I knew I’d love it. The women flew in next to me, and after the drill team had finished up, the Trinity Irish Dance School had come in, and performed very percussive and intense work. The lighting kept changing, and you could see the characteristic curly wigs that the girls were wearing. All I could think of was “When did these girls start dancing?” Did they have the same worries as I did about being in a leotard, or were they rail thin from the militaristic stepping that they were performing? I had always seen many similarities between my Polish heritage and the Irish, whether it’s the characteristic potato dishes, excessive drinking, or in this case, folk dancing. Judging from the form of these girls’ dances and the formation of the Polish girls that we see in the Polish Independence Day parades, I could now understand the key difference in weight between the two groups. Polka dancing is much more laid back, although probably carries the same amount of historic and cultural significance. I’ll just tell my Polish cousins to join an Irish dance troupe to stay slim abroad.

A quick glance around, and you could see a definite class difference in the audience. I was in with the super excited black women (and some men, along with their dates), while the majority of the “elite” white men and women were sitting with their children towards the front. I reflected on Shakespeare’s time and how the poorest of people got penny tickets to stand toward the front; yet in the case in this theater, the blacks were pushed to the back of the theater like a city bus in Birmingham, Alabama. A hyperbolic analogy perhaps, but I still wondered who the audience was “meant” to be here, and why ticket pricing was not just one general admission price, with first come- first serve seating arrangement. After all, this is based on African dancing, and if I wanted to see a performance based in white Anglo-Saxon tradition, I would’ve stepped over to the Lyric Opera a few blocks away. Although being a snotty, white opera fan, that kind of trip wouldn’t be completely acting out of character.

After the Irish Dancers left the stage, following a very cute little girl’s solo at about the age of 5, many of the women sitting by me either completely left the theater, or went for a closer seat. I look at the ticket I had purchased, and glanced over to see that someone else was sitting in my seat. “Oh well,” I thought and came back to the seat that I sat at for the first portion. Step Afrika! was about to perform soon. I noticed that I was in a row to myself, and all of my cheering would be met by silence around me. I didn’t care!

The dancers took us on a journey through a variety of step dances. They began with a sort of everyday, contemporary street dance style, and I felt like it was a watered down version of the dancing that might go on in the South Side of Chicago, or as they were basing it off of, Harlem, NYC. I’ve seen Save the Last Dance enough times for me to know that mainstream is definitely not the same, although I’d rather the white kids in the audience get a taste of the culture that they will probably never experience face-to-face. A dance off between the men and women ensues, and the audience gets to participate in the winners. No one was surprised that the women cheered for the women, men cheered for the men. Of course there is a stylistic difference between each set, and at the end there is a “tie.” None of the women onstage are the anorexic types that you see in Ballet, and sometimes Modern pieces. After seeing The Seldoms perform, and meeting the coordinator afterwards, I wanted to offer her a sandwich rather that a round of applause! Real women, performing in a very real way. Women have such a sass and sense of competition during dance performances, but in this way it was woven into the dance and made it less uptight, and more proud than restrictive.

They continued to give us a tour of what it was like for stepping fraternities and sororities. Go figure that my experience at Loyola didn’t teach me where the Greek system had provided an outlet for African- American stepping. Then they danced in a setting prompted by the diamond mines in Africa. I haven’t researched it much, but based on my old roommate’s review of Blood Diamond, I can only infer that the conditions were normally horrendous. The fake “master” of the mine in the dance is stricter in the laughable sense, reminding me of the parents from Disney’s Peter Pan: “A little less noise there,” rather than death threats, and who knows what else. Dancing was seen as a reprieve, and I had an instant appreciation for the group for informing me about this dance, and its function in a society that I know nothing about.

Onward and upward, to the last segment: tap. My dad had rented a bunch of videos from the library after we had learned of Gregory Hines’ death when I was a kid. “You just need to know about talent,” he told me, and I saw his incredible dance style that is rivaled by everyone in the tap industry. The solo artist in this piece wanted everyone to participate, and soon we were all snapping with him. I got to snap! I’ve watched West Side Story over and over, and snapping during a dance is a strange fascination that I have. Probably also reminds me of a Greenwich Village poetry jam, but that’s just one Jack Kerouac book away from making this performance something it’s not. The girls in the audience screaming “Oh damn!” behind me, and I was still so excited to see the tap, all by myself, in my own row.

The group finally got together and ended with a big tapping group, ending the performance. I walked away, thinking “wait…that’s it?” I wanted to keep watching, and wanted to hit myself for the times that I had missed out on other performances. I would say that I have a new appreciation for this type of dance, but sadly I predict that I’ll forget all about it, and my next performance will be that of another Anglo-Saxon performance. But I think I’ll at least try to go to something else in the future. At the very least, I predict that I’ll show my kids some tapes of African dance one day, likewise to teach them what talent really is.

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