IN 1998, I GOT MY first experience of a New York club called Shelter, and was immediately struck by the vibe. There was a massive dance floor with hundreds of people dancing by themselves and hardly any of the partner booty-rubbing prevalent in clubs elsewhere. Everyone was feeling the music and grooving to their own style.
For the next few years I would visit Shelter, and continue to be fascinated by the dancers there. I came to find out later on that what I was witnessing was not just freestyle, but a specific style called “house dancing.”
You’ve probably seen it yourself. Never done by many, but usually 2 or 3 isolated cases of individuals really getting down. Or perhaps you’ve seen a music video (like Herb Alpert’s “South on 4th Street,” Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” or Big Daddy Kane’s “I Get Raw”) and thought of it as hip-hop dancing. I’ve incorporated some house dancing in all of my shows, including “Party Girl” this August at The HotHouse.
But let’s go back. As far as people know, house dancing began getting noticed in the early 1980s in the underground scene. When legendary Studio 54 in New York closed down, “loft parties started becoming popular,” says Carlos “Grace” Funn, a house dancer in Atlanta.
“The style of dance people were doing at these parties were more sensual, with lots of partnering. It was freer and involved a lot of floor work.” With lots of spins and slides on the ground, dancers would put baby powder on the floor to make it slippery. (To this day, some house dancers still do.) Many people called it “lofting.”
A big influence at this time was gay culture, which had vogueing and “wacking” (a dance that makes use of a lot of big arm movements.) Many artists frequented these loft parties, and so the atmosphere was one of being open and experimental. “It was about freeing yourself as a human being.” says Monte Jones, a house dancer in Richmond, Virginia.
Clubs were a breeding ground for experimental dance, including the Warehouse in Chicago and the Paradise Garage and Red Zone in New York. Back then, people were simply freestyling and dancing how they felt. “You had everyone from ballet, tap, jazz dancers and b-boys up in there.” says Tony “Sekou” Williams, a New York dancer. “There was a fusion of dance styles.”
For awhile in the mid-1980s, a lot of famous hip-hop moves came into play, such as the Running Man, the Alf and the James Brown. People started doing these moves and imitating what they saw in music videos.
A lot of today’s house dancers began as b-boys (better known as breakdancers). “A lot of us started out as hip-hop monsters” says Marjory Smarth, one of the most prominent female house dancers and someone with whom I’ve trained. These heads came up in the late ’80s when the influence of hip-hop “made the movements more aggressive.” Grace began with hip-hop; Sekou and Monte were into hip-hop and Brazilian capoeira. What they all share is a love of house music and the willingness to experiment.
The different coasts brought with them different interpretations. Chicago along with nearby Detroit was known for its harder “jacking” sound, with lots of techno and acid house influence. The East Coast had a lot of hip-hop influence, and the West Coast tended towards the more commercial music and had a lot of b-boying in their style. When asked why house dancing seems to have evolved on a larger scale in New York, Marjory answers, “Coastally, we were exposed to more cultural influences. We had the most struggles living in this city so we used creativity to deal with it.”
Eventually dancers were sharing, exchanging and inspiring one another from city to city. One of the basic movements of house dancing is the “Jack,” which is a movement of the torso in an almost rippling effect. Chicago is known for originating the Jack, which comes from the body grooving to the harder sounds of early Chicago house. A natural extension was a move called the “Farmer,” which looks like one is bouncing up and down while stomping their foot on the ground.
New York house dancers continued codifying these steps and had more terminology such as Loose Legs, the Train and the Skate. Monte, a Jamaican-American, mentions that Jamaican “skanking” (similar to a 2-step but with bigger movements) informed a lot of these steps. It was a dance a lot of the Rastas were doing, and much of the heel-toe steps seen in house dance borrow from this form.
Hands down, all agree that the greatest influence on what is now known as house dancing is African dance. The footwork, the movements of the torso, and the polyrhythms played by the drummers in African dance were attuned to the music. It made you listen not just to the obvious top beat, but to all the other rhythms within the song. “Every form of dance has its roots in African dance” Grace says. “If I listed all my influences, it would take up a whole other article,” says Marjory, “but it was the Carribean rhythms that were my foundation.” Also with house dance, a lot of tap influence can be seen, not to mention the graceful movements and acrobatics of capoeira.
Other countries have huge house scenes, with dancers from the US going overseas to share this dance style. Japan carries a huge following of house dancers, many who traveled in droves to New York to learn. Other countries with burgeoning scenes are France, Canada and Holland.
What is really interesting to see is a circle in which both b-boys and house dancers participate. A lot of the latter began as breakers, but the older they got, the more they appreciated the beauty of dancing instead of flashy crowd pleasing stunts. Many house dancers tend to be older than the b-boys. Some take a stern view and challenge: when the tricks and flips are done, can you dance?
Another interesting observation was made with regards to female dancers. “Women used to dance like women,” Sekou says. “You used your strengths, your femininity, as opposed to now where the women feel like they have to dance like men in order to keep up with them.”
Ultimately, there really is no strict definition to what is hip-hop dance or house dance. Sekou calls it “flowing free or free expression”, while Monte says it’s about “freeing yourself as a human. House is a feeling and a culture. It’s not something you put on in the club and take off when you leave. House has its pulse, but it has to live in you.”