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Zadie Smith: dance lessons for writers | Books | The Guardian
"“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic – is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice rink, a bandstand. Gene’s centre of gravity was far lower: he bends his knees, he hunkers down. Kelly is grounded, firmly planted, where Astaire is untethered, free-floating.

Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields. Cyd Charisse claimed her husband always knew which of these dancers she’d been working with by looking at her body at the end of the day: bruised everywhere if it was Kelly, not a blemish if it was Astaire. Not only aloof when it came to the ground, Astaire was aloof around other people’s bodies. Through 15 years and 10 movies, it’s hard to detect one moment of real sexual tension between Fred and his Ginger. They have great harmony but little heat. Now think of Kelly with Cyd Charisse in the fantasy sequence of Singin’ in the Rain! And maybe this is one of the advantages of earthiness: sex."

"But both men were excellent dancers. Putting aside the difference in height, physically they had many similarities. Terribly slight, long necked, thin-legged, powered from the torso rather than the backside, which in both cases was improbably small. And in terms of influence they were of course equally indebted to James Brown. The splits, the rise from the splits, the spin, the glide, the knee bend, the jerk of the head – all stolen from the same source.

Yet Prince and Jackson are nothing alike when they dance, and it’s very hard to bring to mind Prince dancing, whereas it is practically impossible to forget Jackson. It sounds irrational, but try it for yourself. Prince’s moves, no matter how many times you may have observed them, have no firm inscription in memory; they never seem quite fixed or preserved. If someone asks you to dance like Prince, what will you do? Spin, possibly, and do the splits, if you’re able. But there won’t appear to be anything especially Prince-like about that. It’s mysterious. How can you dance and dance, in front of millions of people, for years, and still seem like a secret only I know? (And isn’t it the case that to be a Prince fan is to feel that Prince was your secret alone?)

I never went to see Michael Jackson, but I saw Prince half a dozen times. I saw him in stadiums with thousands of people, so have a rational understanding that he was in no sense my secret, that he was in fact a superstar. But I still say his shows were illegible, private, like the performance of a man in the middle of a room at a house party. It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening."

"The art of not dancing – a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers 20 times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.

People can be too precious about their “heritage”, about their “tradition” – writers especially. Preservation and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples – under the sign of love. Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was “not theirs” brings out new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drum beat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat. But it turns out you can also resist: throw up a curious angle and suddenly spasm, like Bowie, or wonder if that’s truly your own arm, like Byrne.

I think of young Luther Vandross, singing backup a few feet behind Bowie, during Young Americans, watching Bowie flail and thrash. I wonder what his take on all that was. Did he ever think: “Now, what in the world is he doing?” But a few performances in, it was clear to everybody. Here was something different. Something old, and yet new."
zadiesmith  dance  dancing  writing  fredastaire  genekelly  haroldnicholas  fayardnicholas  michaeljackson  prince  2016  janetjackson  madonna  beyoncé  davidbyrne  davidbowie  rudolfnureyev  mikhailbaryshnikov 
october 2016 by robertogreco

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