Scene: 79th Street Bus. A young man sits with book in hand contemplative in his quietude. The title on the cover reads “The Negritude Poets”. Earbud deposited firm in the crevice of his listening canal crafting an impervious wall of sound. He is focused and moving dispassionately towards his destination.
Scene: Sam Ash Music. The checkout counter is never the place to begin considering price. The young man stands before a stringy hair and bearded cashier with items in hand; a wooden block, cowbell, striker, cabasa, claves, and his prize find, a $16 agogo bell. He calculates his purchase while considering concurrently how he will work the strengths of each instrument into future improvisation. The clerk asks “So are you primarily a percussionist?” He pauses for a moment mulling over the question before responding “No. I’m a dancer. These are part of my repertoire.”
If I am recollecting my childhood correctly, the obsession began with Morris Day’s “Color of Success”. The intro to the song leads in with a winding music box before the drum and electric keyboard burst through with that particular brand of mid 80’s orchestral carelessness. I remember a fragment of a moment in which I am holding a blanket over the whole of my body as I lay fetal upon the living room floor. When the instrumental break arrived, so did I, exploding up from carpet turned stage moving in frantic abandon to the synthesized soundscape while my mother, siblings and whomever else was in the room experienced deep, joyful, belly bottom laughter.
This moment was closer to age 10 and a performance reserved solely for family. It would be another 5 years before the act became safe for public consumption. In the meanwhile, I busied myself with the accidental discovery of what I considered a talent for writing poetry. It became another art carried on in the private space of my thinking quarters exposed only to the blinding daylight when mother would come a calling and wonder at what I had been working so placidly.
Communication. I was then and remain in many ways now a very shy young man perpetually caught inside of this odd paradox where poetry and movement come easier than mere conversation or the pure, unfettered expression of one’s feelings. I can discuss game theory, the politics of Negritude, social justice activism or co-parenting with greater latitude than I can contextualize the love for my child, mother or significant other. Writing and dancing at once become the singular stream of communication flowing outward from me when words find me otherwise silent and unable to communicate.
The year was 1995 and I was 15 years of age. The homecoming dance was in full swing when we arrived. I was accompanied by my date, Theresa, and my cousins Kathy and Pharies. For the event that evening, I had hijacked my stepfather James’ red and black collared shirt which had a black mesh on the left side that upon close inspection displayed the faint outline of my chest. Yes. I thought I was that tough. Pharies had borrowed my grey suit with the speckled white tie. This, my first high school dance, was the grandiose coming out event of my youth as the DJ cascaded down slow dance, line dance, and bounce music while I played the star of a one man show. Incidentally, a cop car busted the two of us later that night for running a stop sign as we made our way home following an illicit visit to the domicile of two young ladies we had picked up after the dance.
DC in 1998 was a time of reinvention. I no longer wanted to be Michael. I came there with the plan to become someone else entirely. On the first day of AmeriCorps NCCC orientation, when asked my name, I announced “Michael, but folks back home call me Mackadolcheous.” This would be the first of many a future experiment in personal identity transformation. The most liberating aspect of this practice was that I was no longer shackled with the burden of casting off any of the baggage from my previous persona. It was like a clean credit record after 30 and I took liberties to exploit every opportunity available to me.
Dance moved from the simple vanity play of a lonely and confused high school teenager into the thread weaving between multiple identities tying together the shards of my disassembled sanity. It was no longer sufficient to move only on the occasion when others were also moving. I needed to dance when I was lonely, angry, happy, hopeless, searching or somber. My arsenal was a small white battery operated stereo gifted to me by my mother before departing for DC and a backpack filled with compact discs. I had attached the stereo to a chain which could be slung over my shoulder and chest . I used this contraption to launch an exploratory mission around the DC Village Campus which sat fixed between Bolling Air Force Base and the Job Corps facility all of which was a short walk uphill to Anacostia. I would dance in the woods behind the Village or on the building’s rooftop. I used the brick edge around the pond to test my balance during movement. While on a short trip from DC to Philadelphia, I danced nearly everyday on the stage outside of the Ile Ife within the Village of Arts and Humanities to the delight of a few neighborhood children.
Chicago saw me chase away the persona known as Mackadolcheous. With his departure was suppressed my desire to dance for I was again searching now filled with an immense discomfort about how much I had transformed during my time in DC. Alcohol was a factor. On one night in particular, I indulged myself into a toxic coma. I was carried by friends from room to room to prevent discovery of my condition by the Resident Advisors which would mean suspension from the program. I managed to confuse my destructive behavior and dance as being a twin malfeasance. Through church, mosque and temple, I ran. On a single loose night while I was chasing away from the problems in my then relationship, I found myself in the House of Jah Rastafari with a melodious reggae tune on blast as I impressed some young woman with my best moves which even I hadn’t seen in 2 years.
Fast forward then to when I stopped searching. The Funky Buddha caught sight of my hips a few times before I moved away from them for greener and cheaper pastures. The Wild Hare had known my steps halfheartedly. But it was not until the Debauchery Ball at the Pleasure Dome in 2009 that I would discover how far my body was willing to go if I stopped trying to hinder it behind this facade of self consciousness. It wanted to move. It had been craving real movement since the wild days in DC and has not missed a Debauchery Ball since that hour of first dawning light. Soul Poetry Cafe found itself another milestone for it was there that I met Tracey, the first real dance partner that I ever knew. I thought I would ever be alone in my desire to get down with such exacting intensity, but between our moves at the Cafe and the Soul in the Hole set later that evening, I knew this was a new world which I had only begun to unearth.
These days on the floor would lead to my first collective indulgence of House Music. Yes. I said first. I am born in Chicago yet I was raised in the land of New Orleans where brass rules everything around me. I can’t say that dancing in a Second Line or putting Four on the Floor has the space of much difference between them. There is still improvisation involved, but the slower natural pattern of jazz allows you stretch out particular movements for longer periods. Upon my reintroduction to House Music, I became obsessed with not simply the dance, but the language of engagement and interaction that is involved with people in the construct of dancing. This particular study of people at play lead me to the purchase of the instruments that opened this article and to my theories on communication and dance.
In recent studies, I have been engaging the nuance of words through three works of poetic prose and another text on the history of the English language. The three poetic works include Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago, The Negritude Poets and Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. The fourth work of linguistic history is a textual gem entitled Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter. Reflecting on the lessons of these works collectively has shown me how nimble and yet inadequate words can be in grappling with the expression of emotions.
The work of John McWhorter speaks to the fluid and permutable nature of language as different cultures interact with the language, learn it and leave millions of tiny traces of their dialect scattered about which are then picked up by other speakers of said language hence his description of English as a “bastard tongue”. I have also come to the notion after reading his text that Negritude and Neruda will ever be slightly beyond my capacity to comprehend to the extent that there is indeed and in fact a thing which is lost in translation. French and Spanish grammar have a rigorous specificity for conveying meaning which include masculine, feminine and gender neutral word classification as well as copious means for expressing tense that English is ill equipped to know. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter much because we have already lost meaning when we attempted to encode an emotion into a word when the thing itself defies description.
Dance is for me a higher and more subtle form of communication. In both writing and dancing, I am searching for a certain minimalism. I want each of us to reach an understanding in the shortest number of words or steps possible. We should seek a common ground upon which we stand and when we move together, it is seamless, soundless, timeless and eternal. Dance is cooperation in these close confines where each of our internal communities may commune together and determine where we fit. Our steps are measured yet playful. The eyes are fixed upon your partner for they are comparable to a compass telling you which way they intend to go. Dance is a language without words. Dance is raw emotion made manifest. Community organizing is a dance. Political activism is a dance. Parenting is a dance. Each of these dances has a grammar and a language which must be learned if one is to move successfully. I believe in dance. I believe that dance can change the world.