I got a small revelation at Quaker meeting this morning, thinking about the Dance Parade yesterday. I was replaying in my mind the spontaneous dance circles that formed all over Washington Square Park as more and more dancers and spectators started pouring into the square after the end of the parade. Walking around the park you could witness small knots of dancers performing their own styles of movement, from hispanic folkdance to krumping to hustle.
It reminded me of everything that is good and frightening about dancing.
In many styles of dance there is a tradition where the dancers form a circle and people spontaneously enter in the center to do a short improvised routine. Hip-hop dancers call this a cypher, lindy hoppers call it a jam circle, hoofers call it a tap jam. You can find them in capoeira, African dance, krumping, and myriad other movement forms.
Here’s an example of a lindy hop jam circle. Notice the wonderful mix of ages, skill level and styles.
Here’s a breakdance cypher:
I’m terrified of dance
circles. I see some of the most amazing moves thrown out by advanced dancers and I think, that could never be me. I imagine a hundred pair of eyes scrutinizing my every move and I get heart palpitations. I want to wow the spectators, but most importantly I don’t want to fuck up. So I stay out of the circle.
I realized this morning that these circles aren’t really about "the pros" showing
off their best moves, it’s about people expressing with their bodies the inspiration they get from the music. Frankie Manning writes in his autobiography Ambassador of Lindy Hop about how spontaneous jams that would break out at "rent parties" in Harlem during the Jazz Age:
When they played hot music — fast music, ragtime or charleston-type music — if someone started getting a little wilder than everybody else, the crowd would back up and form a circle. Everybody would stand around clapping for the people in the middle, who would start shining, what we called "showing off."
Then, as now, it wasn’t about a "pro dancer" performing for the amateurs, it was recognizing someone doing something special and everyone backing up so everyone can get a look. Sure, there are always onlookers who can only see the flash and not the inspiration. And there is always some aspect of competition involved. But mostly it’s about going out there and doing your best effort, whatever that is.
And always, no matter how ungainly or ill-coordinated someone’s attempt, if someone is brave enough to go in the circle, everyone claps at the end.
I am starting to imagine that dancer in the circle being me.