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March 12, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance


There's a striking pair of comments early in the TED video above. It's a demonstration by the League of Extraordinary Dancers, who also had a bit at the Oscars this year. Director John Chu comes out to give some background on the project, and at around 3:20 he naturally (given the conference in question) comments on the relationship of street dance to information technology:

I got to meet a ton of hip-hop dancers -- amazing, the best in the world -- and they brought me into a society, the sort of underground street culture that blew my mind. I mean this is literally human beings with super-human strength and abilities. They could fly in the air. They could bend their elbow all the way back. They could spin on their heads for 80 times in a row. I'd never seen anything like that.


Dance has never had a better friend than technology. Online videos and social networking ... dancers have created a whole global laboratory online for dance, where kids in Japan are taking moves from a YouTube video created in Detroit, building on it within days and releasing a new video, while teenagers in California are taking the Japanese video and remixing it with a Philly flair to create a whole new dance style in itself. And this is happening every day.

See the disconnect there?
  1. These dancers are superhuman. Their skills are hidden in an underground subculture, away from normal people.
  2. Simultaneously, this is a movement taking place around the globe via the same tools you use to play Farmville and put up videos of your dog throwing up. It is populist and multicultural, youth-oriented and commonplace.
Man, I can't think of a better way to discourage people from joining in the second category than by framing it via the former.

When I was a kid, I decided for about a month that I was going to be a magician. This was probably right after I wanted to be a concert pianist, and before wanting to be an astronaut. My uncle, who worked as an editor for various trade publications, somehow found a magazine for working magicians as a gift to me. I remember that half of it was advertisements for cheesy magic gizmos, and the other half was how-to guides for building your own cheesy magic gizmos. Even as it demystified David Copperfield shows for me forever, it also sent a message: I could do this, because (like any skill) magic isn't really a mystical power, but a combination of cleverness and practice.

I gave up on my magic career soon afterward, but one of my favorite discoveries from b-boying and popping has been the degree to which they both incorporate tricks--I mean, illusions.

(I love that line.)

That's not to denigrate the hard work and ingenuity that's required. It's hard to do a handstand freeze. It take a lot of effort and concentration to pull off a convincing wave. I can attest personally to the fact that you have to be in really good shape to do more than thirty seconds of footwork--and that you can be in a lot of pain the next morning if you try before you're ready. These things aren't easy--but simultaneously, they're sometimes not as hard as they look. And a lot of moves (glides come to mind) were created to look like the laws of physics are being broken, by misdirecting the audience on where the dancer's weight is located, or what body part is actually doing the movement.

I've never understood the thought process of people who think that explaining an illusion ruins it. It's not any less fun watching someone do a blow-up power move just because you know the steps that go into it. The illusion hooks you in, but it's the craftsmanship that makes it endure. In fact, sometimes showing what went into a skill actually helps an audience appreciate it fully.

("And a potato!")

So I think it's pretty cool that someone's gotten a bunch of great dancers together, and that they're doing a web series based on it. It's a neat idea, and a smart way to build publicity for people who probably haven't gotten enough recognition. But I wish they wouldn't tag it as "superhuman." It's the humanity of it--the hard work, talent, and the lack of special effects--that's what makes it interesting in the first place.

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