Note: I was super sick on Sunday and didn’t get to go :( Maybe it was for the best since theTOUR was cut short and NJ Transit shut down shortly after due to Hurricane Sandy preparations.
tl;dr – Totally worth it, go to the inSight to get your money’s worth. Choreographers promote a supportive atmosphere and are more than willing to share their knowledge. Go there ready to learn any and everything. Recommended for those interested in pursuing a career in dance (industry or community).
The New Jersey stop was located in the Hilton Newark Penn Station which is accesible from the station via skybridge. I arrived a bit early and waited for my team (RiSE Dance Company) in front of the Garden State Ballroom. I was a bit nervous and intimidated by the prospect of dancing alongside some of the best crews on the East Coast, but as the collective caffeine intake increased, I realized I had mistaken morning grogginess for aggressive anti-social behavior. Although many dancers were repping with their crew there wasn’t a competitive or cutthroat atmosphere. There was something amusing about watching talented dancers desperately chugging Red Bull and struggling to tie their shoes. Soon registration opened as theTOUR staff collected waivers, snapped our headshots, distributed wristbands and lineup sheets. We shuffled into the ballroom, dumped our belongings in a corner of the room and stretched, eagerly anticipating the first class.
Location: My only major negative comment about theTOUR in New Jersey was the room we were in. The picture above gives you a good idea of what the space was like. Although the Hilton website boasts the 4,418 sq. ft. and the 425 person capacity, most dancers would first notice the several pillars in the room as well as the carpeted floor. There was a small temporary wooden floor set up in the middle of the room, but it kept falling apart during class, becoming a rather precarious dancing surface. I, personally, would have done away with the wooden floor and gone with just the carpet; it’s rather alarming when the ground falls apart beneath you as you dance. Honestly the low-lighting and lack of mirrors didn’t bother me that much since I think they diminished my self-consciousness. Perhaps a higher stage would’ve also been helpful, especially in a room where there are several pillars.
Quick Crew – “Eternal” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
Jaffar Smith – “Shut Up” by Pac Div
Devin Jamieson – “Euphoria ft. Swedish House Mafia” by Usher
Lyle Beniga – “Theraflu” by Kanye West
Laura Edwards – “Clique ft. Big Sean & Jay-Z” by Kanye West
While I can’t teach you all the choreography I learned, this post attempts to share some of the lessons I learned at theTOUR. Hopefully you’ll find some confirmation or enlightenment hear that you can apply to your own path in dance.
Watch & Learn: For dancers who are mostly studio-trained, the lack of mirrors might be disorienting at first. But after a while I found it liberating to dance without them. I stopped obsessing about what I looked like and focused more on getting the feeling of the choreography in my body. To be honest, the mirrors probably wouldn’t be that useful in a convention setting. I found myself looking for people to watch if I couldn’t see the choreographer. The really cool thing about theTOUR is that most of the teachers will learn the other choreographer’s pieces when they’re not teaching. Sometimes I would go stand by the other mL choreographers and just learn from them if I was having a hard time seeing the stage.
Laura Edwards mentioned that she likes challenging herself by trying to learn pieces in different ways. For example, she might sit down and see how much of the choreography she can absorb just by watching. While Laura wasn’t the most helpful person when she was sitting in the corner counting to herself, it was fascinating to see how world-class dancers like her learn other people’s choreography. During every class, the front rows were asked to sit down so that the back could see the stage. At this point, every choreographer would remind the front rows to pay attention and try to learn visually, focusing on the rhythm or musicality of the movements.
Listen & Feel: When it came down to performing the piece in smaller groups, the choreographers all emphasized the importance of really hearing the music and understanding what the piece is about. Although Suleman Malik of Quick Crew started off the class by saying that the piece was about control and timing, he really pushed us to try to understand what he felt when he heard “Eternal” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for the first time. Jaffar did something very similar and told us to not move while he played “Shut Up” by Pac Div for us twice. He wanted us to hear how heavy the song was and to perform the choreography with that in mind.
Both Suleman and Jaffar were trying to articulate something that Laura said best during the inSight portion of theTOUR. The current generations of dancers have become so concerned with choreography that we often lose the feeling of the music. Past generations complain about our generation because groove, the soul of hip-hop, has been lost. Laura really pushed on the idea that your movement should come from the way the music makes you feel, first and foremost. She was actually really happy when UFP opened the inSight, with what I believe is the set featured above, saying that that performance was full of the pure joy and passion for dance that she was talking about. Jaffar echoed Laura’s idea; he felt that everyone at theTOUR had the heart that he fears is so often missing from contemporary hip-hop.
Love & Community: For me, one of the most important things that Jaffar said was that you should dance because you love it and you just can’t stop doing it. He admitted that he’s had his doubts about his place in the dance world. However, every time he realizes that he can’t possibly stop dancing and he’s terrified that it entirely defines who he is as a person. Jaffar is concerned about dancers who do it just to get famous. Back when YouTube wasn’t around, the people he looked up to were dancing and going at it even though there isn’t a visual record of their effort. To Jaffar, these people are better representations of what it means to be a dancer because they didn’t get recognition for what they did and still don’t. He reiterated his point by saying that “swag is cool, but it’s not real. We’re people. Be real. Be honest and open. Treat your craft as your craft and put it out there, not to get shine, but because you love it.”
Why does today’s generation wanna skip their foundation/beginning and not put in the hard work/time. Nobody went straight to high school…. People are too focused on being famous. You’re either passionate about being known or are known for how passionate you are. Which are you? — Keone Madrid
Beyond one’s personal love affair with dance, all of the choreographers emphasized the importance of supporting one another and building a community. Perhaps the saddest thing that was said during the inSight was when Nasir Sirikhan of Quick Crew talked about the Norwegian dance community. The amount of people at theTOUR New Jersey was already three or four times larger than his home dance community, and it really isn’t much of one. Back in Norway, Nasir said that people don’t really support one another because there’s this invisible hierarchy that limits the interactions between dancers. He said that it feels as if supporting someone else would only lead to that person pushing him further down the ladder. Nasir just kept saying how much that sucked and how he really wanted to move to America. According to Nasir, international dancers see America as a dance mecca. He really wanted us to appreciate what we have and to not take it for granted.
That being said, many dancers in the room expressed dismay at the lack of community in New Jersey, in comparison to places like Southern California. Jaffar speculated that this difference is due to the fact that many dancers in California are also pursuing their own individual careers so there is a natural ebb and flow of dancers between teams. From what I’ve seen, I think that it is much easier to be an individual dancer on the West Coast than the East Coast, especially if you aren’t pursuing dance professionally. Here on the East Coast, it seems like it’s almost necessary to be on a team in order to be doing high level contemporary hip-hop. On the West Coast, dancers seek out teams when they want to dance in a more familial setting. While this isn’t likely to change anytime soon, the mL choreographers suggested that crews from different studios could build a community by attending classes and workshops hosted by other teams/studios. I mean, you can’t really expect anyone to come to your classes if you don’t go to anyone else’s.
Respect & Business: Jaffar seemed both amazed and bewildered by the progression of dance in the last decade. While he wants dance to succeed as an industry, he is worried that dance is getting big so fast that the integrity of the art form is being lost. Jaffar’s biggest fear is that some huge business mine that has no love or understanding of dance is going to move in with only profits in mind, destroying the community and industry that we love. To combat this Jaffar suggested that we should also be a conscious community that looks out for one another. This community building idea is really just an elaboration on the idea of mutual respect.
However, what isn’t always obvious is the importance of respecting yourself as a dancer. For Quick, this meant that they decided, very early on in their career, that they never wanted to be backup dancers. When Nasir said this, he immediately turned to Lyle and said “not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not something that we want to do.” He immediately justified this by going back to his description of the Norwegian entertainment industry. Dancers get looked down on a lot and are seen as secondary to musical artists. When Quick got signed to Sony Music, some of their friends that are rappers or singers said “Why did you guys get signed? You’re just dancers.”
Apparently at this giant annual Norwegian music festival, all of the musical artists get their own tent stocked with drinks and snacks while the backup dancers are thrown in some poorly lit corner behind the stage with a sad little platter of crackers. After Quick got signed, they were treated like true artists and given a private tent stocked with Red Bull and chocolate, said Nasir, gleefully. But he also noticed that the backup dancers were still being thrown into that dark corner with plates of crackers. Nasir hopes that this will change as the dance industry grows and allows dancers to stand on level ground with recording artists. He urged us to set high goals for ourselves and to not be content with being relegated to dancing behind a musical artist if we want more for ourselves.
Devin Jamieson echoed this point and said that if you’re dancing professionally, it’s important for you to treat yourself accordingly. This includes not just working on your craft and taking care of your body (Devin’s a vegan who condemns the consumption of sugar), but also properly handling the business aspect of it. The dance industry is interesting in that the dancer is the instrument, product and businessman all in one. Devin emphasized the importance of not selling yourself short and making sure you’re taking opportunities that are right for you.
Just Do You: Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the mL tour was the importance of treating oneself as an individual dancer. Devin emphasized the importance of challenging yourself by taking classes that are completely outside of your style. Laura agreed and admitted that she doesn’t feel like her freestyle is on par with her choreography, but she’ll still get down at a party or dance on a random street corner in London if “Ayy Ladies” by Travis Porter comes on. She thinks that her difficulty with freestyle is really just her own mental block, and that if you tell yourself you can’t do it, of course you’re going to clam up. Sometimes you just have to jump in and try or you’re never going to get better. That being said, Laura also agreed that some people are naturally better at freestyle and she isn’t one of them.
All the choreographers agreed that for most of them, the process of choreographing is basically freestyle, but Jaffar also said that there isn’t really one “right way” to choreograph. He’s seen people who just freestyle to a song until they find moves that fit, but he also has seen some choreographers who can sit in a car, not move a muscle, and then step out and teach a combo they just thought of to a class. It really comes down to the person and what works for him or her. Laura expanded this by saying not everyone is meant to be teacher or choreographer. She didn’t say this to crush dreams, but to point out that everyone has their own calling and that you should be aware of what yours is. It might not necessarily be in the industry. For example, you could have something really great to contribute to the community that will garner appreciation and regard that no one else has thought of yet. Terence Dickinson, the MC of theTOUR, ended the inSight by saying “as far as the future of dance goes, don’t ask us where it’s headed because it’s about where are you gonna go and where are you going to take us?”