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September 25, 2013

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Strut Yo Stuff

Everybody has one style of dance that resonates with them. They may see house, or locking, or waacking, and immediately know that's what they want to do. For me, strutting clicked. I'm not particularly good at it, because I don't practice enough, but I'm tall and have a good memory for shapes and angles. The "feel" of strutting, too, is something I seem to grasp easier than when I was first learning b-boy toprock. In DC, I had a pair of knowledgeable mentors, Rashaad and Future. But in Seattle, there aren't a lot of people for me to crib from, so a few weeks ago I went to San Francisco to learn from the original strutters.

Strutting is not particularly well-known, even in the dance community. You're certainly not going to see it on "So You Think You Can Dance" any time soon. But it was hugely influential in its day — it was one of the precursors to popping, and from there a lot of hip hop movement — and it's made a bit of a comeback in recent years, due in part to the advocacy of a dancer named Lonnie "Pop Tart" Greene.

The descendent of a San Francisco style called boogaloo, strutting combines party dancing and "posing" with its own particular attitude to create something different: it emphasizes strong shapes and angles formed at punctuated stops. Strutters don't pop, they "dime-stop" by halting their motion right on the beat. If you do this fast enough, or with enough force, your muscles tend to contract hard enough that your body shakes a little — that's where the pop originally comes from.

You can perform solo, but strutting's defining feature is that it's a group activity. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line, strutters competed in neighborhood talent shows and dance competitions for the length of an entire song: long, complex displays of synchronized and syncopated rhythm. Even today, while certain moves like the Fresno and the Fillmore have broken out into solo form, the best way to watch strutting is in its group form.

Here's a couple of videos from the BRS Alliance celebration I attended. In this one, Playboys Inc. runs through a pretty incredible routine. Watch out for the dominos, especially: the way they create a set of interlocking shapes, and then double the tempo, is a signature of strutting.

(Warning: the audience in these clips is extremely enthusiastic.)

Rashaad and Future also showed up with something they've been working on. It's a little rough, but I really like how they combine their newer styles with strutting. It's especially interesting the way they put more three-dimensional movement into their routines to compensate for only being two people.

A lot of what I learned on the trip, technique-wise, is evident in these two videos. It's not a specific movement — it's the feel of strutting, which combines a party swagger with sharp precision. As I mentioned, strutters and boogaloo dancers don't "pop" the way we think about it now. Instead, they just stop moving so precisely with the music that it creates the illusion of popping.

Along with that incredible dime-stop proficiency comes a real intentionality for all their movements. When the really good strutters make a movement, they commit to it completely. Their gaze extends along the arm or leg, and their body leans into the motion. I've always known that this was important, but seeing people whose dancing was so stripped-down, without all the surrounding technique that poppers have built up, was revelatory (and a lot of fun to watch).

I wasn't the only person who traveled for the weekend. People came from New York and DC to take part in the celebration and take classes from Pop Tart. You can tell that's a lot of pressure on him, and on the other dancers who were teaching that day. I've met him before, when he came to Soul Society, so I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I'd love to hear what the other visitors thought.

On first (or second, or third) glance, it's easy to think that Pop Tart is a little crazy. He gets names wrong in funny ways, and he's prone to outbursts about hip hop, which he feels took over and obscured the history of strutting. He's obsessed with his own biography, a relentless self-promoter who has written, directed, and filmed a movie in which assassins from the future are sent back to kill him and keep him from teaching other people the original Oakland styles. But to fixate on these things, which are undeniably a little nutty, is to misjudge the man.

Like almost all American folk dance, strutting and boogaloo comes from poverty. Unlike b-boying, which had a period of exploitation that its pioneers managed (with varying degrees of success) to turn into sustainable business, strutting stayed poor, and so did its innovators. For a long time, Pop Tart was forgotten. He and the other members of his crew, PT-3000, performed on boxes in Fisherman's Wharf as living statues and robot men. This is not a career that puts you in touch with a lot of other successful artists. You don't pick up a lot of social media tips.

If I shake off some of my deeply-ingrained prejudices as a middle class, white, East coast person, Pop Tart's eccentricities look less like craziness and more like ambition. I don't think he knows exactly how to get from where he is now to the kind of fame and influence he'd like to have — but then, who does? In the meantime, he's hustling as hard as he can, and the results are not unimpressive. Sure, his movies are shot on what looks like an old VHS camcorder, but he's working to document his culture the best way he can. He digs up footage of groups that everyone else has forgotten. He records interviews with the dancers that are still around. In fact, at the BRS Alliance dance celebration, he made a point of bringing back the original dancers, having them tell their stories, and presented a bunch of them with awards to recognize their influence, even in just a small way.

If anything, I learned as much from the stories these dancers told as I did from watching them move. It lends context to the movements, like learning that the distinctive cross-stepping motion used during a strutting routine comes from old Meow Mix commercials, or hearing how inventions like waving and popping traveled out of Oakland and into LA. I heard from the first dancer to use Kraftwerk as a backing track, which (given the dominance of electronica in modern popping) is kind of a big deal. Indeed, that context reaches beyond the dance itself, because strutting and boogaloo are very much the product of their times.

One of the oldest dancers I've met from Oakland is William "Mr. Penguin" Randolph, an original member of the Black Resurgents. Randolph is an incredibly kind, good-natured, grandfatherly gentleman. He is impeccably well-dressed, as you would expect from someone who emulated the Temptations and the Supremes.

But it's easy to imagine a time when Randolph would not have been seen that way by mainstream America, and not just in the sense of being a black man from Oakland, CA. Look at the names of the boogaloo groups: Black Resurgents, Black Messengers, Medea Sirkas, Demons of the Mind... these are names that reflect the black power movement in which they were created. The dancers weren't necessarily political, except in the sense that W. Kamau Bell once commented: "If you're black and you have opinions that don't rhyme, you're political." Their costumes and movements took inspiration from TV and movies, but also from their surroundings (there's a lot of pimp- and gang-inspired moves in the strutting repertoire).

Now, of course, these are just old guys from a bad neighborhood, trying to figure out where they fit and ride the (admittedly small) wave of rediscovery. They're still proud of where they come from, and simultaneously frustrated at having to be "rediscovered" in the first place. Lots of the speakers spent part of their time griping about Soul Train, which was kind of hilarious, when you think about it: dancers in most of the country see Soul Train as the program that helped bring African-American dance and music to a wider audience, but the Oakland dancers couldn't afford to travel down to Hollywood and dance in a studio for free, which means that strutting and boogaloo never reached the same prominence as LA styles like locking.

The boogaloos have a strong sense of regret about being passed over, even though there's probably nothing they could have done about it. Pop Tart even made a mini-documentary about the groups that never left San Francisco, called The Day Before Hip Hop. It's really obvious to them that history is written by the victors — except, can you have victors if there wasn't really a war? Nobody fought against strutting, it's just that nobody at the time really fought for it, for a whole variety of reasons only tangentially related to the dance itself.

In fifty years, when Pop Tart and Will Randolph and the other dancers aren't around, how much of the character will survive? How much is being preserved? It's a common concern troll by would-be hip hop academics that we need to set down an authoritative history for the culture, and to some extent they're right. But would a cut-and-dried account really be able to capture how weird and wonderful something like strutting can be? People like to say that the same dance moves recur throughout history, but of course that's not entirely true. The way you put those moves together matters, and it has a unique flavor from style to style.

We might as well ask how much of this history is reliable in the first place. How much can we believe? Was Oakland really the original home of huge swathes of hip hop dance? Or is it just myth-making in progress? At times like this, I like to remember the approach taken by Joe Schloss, NYU professor and late-blooming b-boy, in his groundbreaking work of hip hop dance history, Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip Hop Culture in New York:

The uprock debate embodies the benefits and liabilities of the b-boy approach to history. Full of mystery and apparent contradictions, it was never meant to be comprehensive. Each person has his or her own perspective, and each perspective is an important part of the overall fabric of urban dance history. If these stories resist being assimilated and smoothed over, perhaps that itself is where the significance lies. I would argue that b-boy history, like b-boying itself, has to be contentious. Any history that pleases everybody would-by that fact alone-lack important elements of b-boying: competition, ego, self-aggrandizement, battling. The goal of b-boy histories, like the goal of b-boying itself, is to represent yourself and your community. Is the Bronx more significant than Brooklyn? Are African Americans more important than Latinos? Is uprocking a gang dance or an anti-gang dance? It depends on where you stand, and it should.

In a way, I think it will almost be a shame for the woolly oral history of strutting to be tamed into a single, conventional narrative — even though such a simplification will probably help preserve the dance for the future. Strutting should always be a little unsettling, I think. True to the name, maybe it should strut its stuff, strike its poses, and then — when the song ends — step back into dangerous obscurity.

And as for me? Where, as Schloss says, do I stand? I have no particular authority on strutting, of course, but that doesn't mean I'm not invested. There's a lyric from Yasiin Bey's "Fear Not of Man" that I love, where he says:

People be asking me all the time,
Yo Mos, what's gettin' ready to happen with hip hop?
(Where do you think hip hop is goin'?)
I tell 'em,
You know what's gonna happen with hip hop:
Whatever's happening with us.
If we smoked out, hip hop is gonna be smoked out.
If we doin' all right, hip hop is gonna be doin' all right.
People talk about hip hop like it's some giant
Living in the hillside
Comin' down to visit the townspeople.
We are hip hop.

Sometimes it's hard for me to tell where I stand in regards to dance. Unlike a lot of people in Urban Artistry, I don't really like going to clubs. I don't battle as much as I probably should. I'm a little introverted. But while I'm not a part of strutting's history, it is part of mine. Its context — from black power to funk music to urban sprawl — is my context, as an American. And so while it's sometimes difficult for me to figure out how to represent strutting and popping respectfully, the journey is near and dear from my heart. I came back from Oakland a little more knowledgeable, a little more uncertain, and a little closer to understanding. What more could I ask?

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