Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Flashback On: Flashdance

If you're a bboy, popper, or locker; you've probably seen the scene where Rocksteady Crew appears in Flashdance. This roughly two-minute scene has been quoted as an inspiration for generations of street dancers that have come up after the film's initial release. Premiering on April 15, 1983; the film starring Jennifer Beals is today's flashback feature. (Photo above is from its Wikipedia entry.)

Whether it was seeing Frosty Freeze hit a suicide or Ken Swift rock the concrete floor; this outdoor scene almost stands alone as a separate sequence from the rest of the film. Did it have anything to do with Jennifer Beals' story as a Pittsburgh steel mill welder aspiring to attend a dance conservatory school? Not really, but this sequence helped to expose the hip hop street dance styles to a global audience. Looking at the scene, the cinematography is very simple. The camera is static with a low horizon line. A long lens was likely used to create a soft focus background as we look down a long street. In the foreground, young members of Rock Steady Crew get down as Jennifer Beals, her gal pal, and many other neighborhood folks look on. Composition-wise, it's as if the filmmakers decided to simply showcase the dancers' movements without any rapid-fire editing or fancy camerawork. It's simple, graceful, and classic. For a global audience who hadn't seen street styles, these moving images were a revelation. Director Adrian Lyne and cinematographer Don Peterman used the film camera in a simple way: to simply focus our eyes on the fancy footwork of these dancers. The stage was set for a young generation to embrace what they saw on screen and to bring it into their daily lives.

But we hit some road bumps along the way. Perhaps the filmmakers knew they were on to something unique with showcasing these bboys. However, it's unlikely that they foresaw how influential the scene would be on the hip hop dance movement. We know that the 1980s saw a mad explosion of exploitative films and television shows jumping on the "breakdancing" bandwagon. And by the late 1980s, what some had considered a "fad" had died. Fast forward to the 21st century and we're now at the end of its first decade. We've seen a resurgence of street dance in global media. Will we face another similar reaction where bboying, popping, and locking are embraced only to be later shed as a trend of the past? What's different now is that there's a larger new school generation that embraces these styles as more of a lifestyle and art form. So the styles will certainly live on through them. But for their other peers who haven't embraced it as deeply, we may see a similar reaction as time wears on. It should be noted that our current hip hop generation is taking more preventative action. There are more initiatives to promote education of different elements of our culture. We're also taking things into our own hands by documenting, discussing, and broadcasting our own work with the greater accessibility of digital publishing, videomaking, and photo-creation tools. We can make books, create photo retrospectives, and make our own films about the culture we live and breathe.

So what about the rest of our peers who aren't firmly rooted in street dance culture? Is there anything we can do to be more inclusive if they want to pursue bboying, popping, or locking? Nowadays, there are disturbing trends of misinformation being spread through online video and forums. Sometimes, the best teachers aren't reaching the largest masses of students as the online world starts to work its way into dance culture. When Flashdance was released, there were dancers who sought out the best teachers to learn the styles at a high level. But there were many who didn't. This is happening again today. So it's even more important for those who are trained at a high level in bboying, popping, and locking to showcase their work and to communicate with others who are not informed about their artform. Granted, over time, the most dedicated and serious students will persevere and grow as artists on their dance journeys. Those who aren't as committed will move on to other things, which is completely their own choice to make.

But it will be sad to witness if street dance styles are thrown to the wayside as in the late 1980s. Perhaps we can hope for a future where these styles undergo a new evolution instead of disappearing. They may become more visible as part of our universal dance language. Flashdance only shows how powerful a film can be in carrying an artform outside of the Bronx to the rest of the world. It created a common experience for all of us dancers to share.

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