The communal Mambo: Chicago Dancing Festival partners with Chicago SummerDance

It’s been a little over a month since my mother has passed. One of the many things i miss is her dancing. Unafraid to release all inhibitions, she ‘cut many a rug’.  Of any event this week mom would have loved to attend, it would be “Dancing Under The Stars” : a special evening presented by Chicago Dancing Festival in partnership with Chicago SummerDance.  Partnership is the theme of this event. A communal partnership. An intimate partnering. Mambo style!

learning the basic step
learning the basic step.

Arriving a bit late, i was compelled to catch up on the ‘lesson’ being taught by Del Dominguez & –  his partner for this instruction – Laura Flores. note not Laura Flores, the acclaimed Mexican actress, but the equally charismatic co-founder of Mixed Motion Art: a space for dance & fitness.  Actress Flores (whose birthday happens to fall on the same day as this event, the 23rd) probably wishes she could Salsa, Mambo & Cha-cha as well as dancer Flores! 

Back to the lesson.  Throngs of folks peppered the specially-laid outdoor dance floor, eager to learn the ‘basic step‘.  The basic step in this case involves stepping forward on one foot, stepping back on another with some transitional lift of the feet between or as Del would count out  “1-2-3, 5-6-7”.  Singular at the moment, each person was assuredly focused on capturing the footwork.  All ages represented. All skill levels. All determined to get every nuance of the “1-2-3, 5-6-7”.  Even in their seats on the outskirts of the dance floor, people looked on and ‘moved’ with the dancers.

“How we doing?” Del asks to the community.  Smiles, giggles, some shaking or nodding of heads and further explorations of the step were the response.  In protocol with social dance forms, often one is taught first the ‘vocabulary’ or basic step, before the more intricate moves are added.  Sans music, he and Laura continued on to ‘coupling’.

Hands touching angled in the air.  Pressed not too tightly to allow for subtle shifts of body. Tipping with turns to be mastered. Men leading women. women with women. young girl leading younger girl. Women leading men in the men’s leading of women.  All embracing the directions of the lead teaching partners.  “Leading a partner…” Del advises is “less ‘swagga’, more attention to the person you are leading…. Be chill.” His smooth delivery of the next line undercuts its sting to the ego of some of the men ‘handling’ their female counterparts – “Not like you’re jumping rope”.  Furthermore, both he  & Laura offer that there will be time to “show off” later. To use your hips and add your own ‘flava’.   But for now “just flow.”

1-2-3, 5-6-7. the momentum of the steps pick up speed. and so does the intricacy of the partnering.  “1 of 3 things could happen…” Del cautions when instructing on how the man(leader) would turn themselves after guiding the woman(leadee).

1.  You could ‘break’ the shoulder.

2. Put your Butt into it {“Don’t do that!” Laura interjects}

0r 3.  Lower your hand.

#3 being the preferred option as long as you understand how to lower the hand, effectively releasing your partner’s hand; only to gracefully retrieve it and continue to Mambo.  Ironically, Del ‘tweaks’ his shoulder while working through each of these options. “All for  art” he quips, shrugging it off as they call out for “musica!”

the mechanics of the mambo
the mechanics of the mambo.

“Earl” the “Maestro” slows down the tempo with a ‘Cha-cha’ inspired rhythm.  The instructors suggest that this is the entry way to the Mambo.  Soon the communal dancers will be able to “jazz it up!”. As the instruction comes to a close, the partners move methodically and sometimes mechanically through each ‘lesson’ of the hour.  An accomplished & beautiful communal exchange has occurred. Everyone who has been witness or dancer inside this experience has something to take away.  Del and Laura leave the platform. The dance floor clears out.  People move off to the side to partake in food or beverages, rest or persevere through the steps; hoping to get inspired by the dee-jay set that will take place momentarily.

During this transition, genderization of the partnering is eschewed in favor of  fun infused playfully-coupled dancing.   Lips pressed, one young woman, relentlessly practices with her female partner; finding the connection to the internal rhythm of the beat to the steps of her feet.  Incidental moments of heel tapping betray the connection, but she is determined. Others break from the moment by goofing off and mock dancing movement from other periods in time such as the ‘Jerk‘ or the ‘Robot‘.  An African contracted poly-rhythmic movement exchange happens not far from eyesight, while – gum in mouth- a flustered young woman still works to get the “1-2-3” of the Mambo.  Around her people picnic. Less cellphone than engaging one-on-one or group live conversations permeate  Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden.  Some choose to ‘catch up’ with each other and recollect on past ‘lessons’.

“It didn’t matter if you messed up”  Nikki points out.  A resident of  Auburn-Gresham, she brought her aunt tonite to share her love of “Latin music” and of course to dance.   Nikki got “hooked on dance” watching ‘Dancing With The Stars‘.  This is her 2nd time coming to SummerDance.  i ask if she has heard of the Chicago Dancing Festival and is met with an ‘of course’ look; schooling me on when and where the upcoming event  – Celebration of Dance – will be.

Rosie, Nikki’s aunt,  lives in Walnut California, famous for Disneyland…”well I am about 10 minutes away”.   She reminisces about dancing with her husband who has passed away some years ago…loving how they took cruises together and “made fools of [themselves] at the disco lounge.”  A moment passes. In my mind some tears release.  We take in the late comers to this event; though they may have missed the lessons, these people are ready to dance! With smoldering looks and summer crisp linens, one man saunters onto the floor, inviting  into this festive atmosphere  exciting coupled possibilities the evening shall bring.   The music  emerges and the dance floor is becoming alive again.  “She looks like she wore her salsa shoes [for this occasion] and dress” Rosie observes.   Before long, niece and aunt take to the floor and dance.  “1-2-3, 5-6-7” Who needs a ‘4’ or ‘8’ when you are enjoying being with each other as these two are.  i am reminded of my mother seeing them inside their joy.  Another moment passes. real tears are released.

Nikki (left) & Rosie dancing under the stars
Nikki (left) & Rosie dancing under the stars

For Paula –  one of the last people i encounter before heading back home – “there is no better backdrop than Michigan Avenue or being in good company” in speaking on why she came to ‘Dancing Under The Stars” or referring to co-worker and friend Ade; who sits and ‘fans’ her in between her dancing ‘shifts’.  It was lovely to capture Paula in her mambo glory, as a fitting exit to my time here.

Paula in her dancing glory.

The dancing was far from over. The night seeming to have just begun.  And the stars have yet to arrive.  i travel to my apt heart full of the treasured wonder  from witnessing the evolution of this dancing public; from just a basic step to meaningful and intimate partnering within an expansive communal force.

Back at my place, far from the crowd and my nervousness, i take my chance to dance the Mambo… in the quiet solitude, i speak the counts as instructed:

1-2-3, 5-6-7…1-2-3, 5-6-7…1-2-3, 5-6-7…one two three, five six seven…

part 2 of  The dance eclectic, the dancing electric part 1:Chicago Dancing Festival places the “Everyday Chicagoan” on a world class stage coming soon…

Gateway to dance: exploring possibilities of communal exchange within the Chicago Dancing Festival

Dance has always been part of the vibrant cultural landscape of Chicago & my communal upbringing as a young person living on the south side in the 70’s & 80’s.  Upon returning here after a 20 + year hiatus, i am excited to begin looking more closely at how dance has permeated the everyday culture of this distinguished city.  What are the multiple ways in which dance can be experienced here?    How can Chicagoans explore dance as a communal exchange?   Enter Chicago Dancing Festival:  “From August 20-25, 2012, the Chicago Dancing Festival will present six days of FREE dance programs by artists from Chicago and across the country, to an anticipated audience of 20,000!   [The] mission is to elevate awareness of dance in Chicago and increase accessibility to the art form by presenting a wide variety of excellent dance that will enrich the lives of the people of Chicago, provide aspiration for local and future artists and raise the national and international profile of Chicago, furthering Chicago as a dance destination.”

Oft the most valued exchange in this contemporary society involves money. Communal exchange asks that one is not consumed with the expectation that they get their money’s worth, but look to the possibilities of what is being reciprocated, offered and experienced. With Chicago Dancing Festival providing an exciting array of  events at no charge, this opens up the possibilities that any and every Chicagoan can experience dance in multiple ways; without the money variable.  My particular focus will be on three interactions that highlight compelling dimensions of communal exchange:

Bolero dance Chicago, Larry Keigwin & Dancer’s ultra community collaborative project that includes the ‘everyday Chicagoan’ will be presented as part of the festival’s opening program, “Chicago Dancing” at the Harris Theater, Monday, August 20 & again as part of the Festival’s grand finale program, “Celebration of Dance” at  Pritzker Pavilion on Saturday, August 25.

Bolero Chicago prepares
Bolero Chicago prepares

– Choreographer Nicholas Leichter’s intriguing work with select young dance artists from the Chicago community program, Afterschool Matters, showcases alongside Bolero and other Chicago based companies including Giordano Dance Chicago, opening night of the festival,  Monday August 20th at 7pm.

After School Matters prepares

“Dancing Under the Stars” open community space, where ‘you can dance if you want to’ with a live orchestra’  immersed in the beautiful surroundings of Grant park on Thursday, August 26th at 6pm. Polka!

i would also like to take note  of the “Chicago Now”  discussion on the current state of dance in Chicago, Friday August 24th at 6pm.  Moderated by journalist and former dancer Zac Whittenburg, it features : Lane Alexander(Chicago Human Rhythm Project)Ron De Jesús (Ron De Jesús Dance)Carrie Hanson(The Seldoms) and Julie Nakagawa(DanceWorks Chicago). The program will also include brief performances by The Seldoms, Ron De Jesús Dance and FootworKINGz.  This evening complements the concept of communal exchange by giving essential insight to the artists’ experiences and process in ways, an audience may not get to learn of by just witnessing the work.

In looking at these multiple opportunities to experience the dance through communal exchange,   implicit is the cultivation – even inside just the act of witnessing a performance – of a meaningful relationship. Temporally this may only last an hour or two, but nevertheless both artist and audience participant are left with  lasting impressions. These moments go deeper into other aspects  & possibilities of communal exchange for Chicagoan to experience.

How might one  further define communal exchange?

For the past two decades i have been exploring communal exchange through my performative work with D UNDERBELLY, a network of artists of color from a vast spectrum of experiences.  Within the core of this concept is consideration for  the deepening of a vital relationship that draws upon the aspects of equity in which there are certain expectations to be met,  governed by our responsive energy to each other and cultivation of a shared space for thoughtful interaction.

If one becomes part of a communal exchange there is a illuminating experience where both audience/participant and performer are active and vital. building of a community takes place surrounding a common thread – in this instance dance.  We come to actively witness the process. We may get opportunity to learn ‘hands on’ from the artist the particular aesthetic or tradition;  allowing us to embrace its complexities and feel the flow of its moving force.  even dance the dance.

How might Chicagoans experience this communal exchange?

From now til the end of the festival,  i will be exploring more in depth discussion on what it means to be part of a  communal exchange inside the landscape of Chicago Dance Festival through witnessing & conversing with those involved in  Bolero dance Chicago, Nicholas Leichter & After School Matters, as well as  community members who wish to dance the Polka “Dancing Under the Stars”.

Returning back to my youth experiences on the southside, communal exchange was the gateway to dance for me; getting to witness the community i lived in construct performances, learn dances not from a ‘technique’ point of view, but ‘a-community-gathers-&-just-celebrates-moving-together point of view, dancing on stage to Gloria Esteban/Miami Sound Machine for “Footlites”, be simultaneously embarrassed yet inspired by my mother dancing at church functions and trying my hand at choreographing. It was such an important part of my upbringing, informing my professional inroads into dancing and art.  It allowed me to understand how dance can be part of the ‘everydayness’ of culture.  Chicago Dancing Festival can/may be that for many Chicagoans… A gateway…