Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Editorial: Building a Library of Street Dance Knowledge

This isn't a new idea, but it's one worth exploring: the archiving of street dance knowledge and history as told by well-respected, established OG dancers. Even during this time of technological innovation, much of our history and anecdotes from the past still remain within regional borders. Online forums have helped spread information but there is few organized efforts to make organized historical information on street dance publicly available. How do we build a framework for this? The benefits would be tremendous for such a project. (Photo above is from a Google Images Search for Walt Stanchfield's Drawn to Life series.)

Let's take a look at the current lay of the land. For most aspiring street dancers, online forums remain a go-to place for information, comments, discussions and posted videos. For a community of dancers who know each other in real life, forums are a great way to accentuate already established relationships. Youtube is a secondary source but remains problematic due to the anonymity of users on its network. When you don't know the identity of users posting comments, it's hard to tell who is a credible source in terms of parlaying knowledge. In the end, Youtube comments pages often look like long lists of flame wars between anonymous opponents. Occasionally, we do see documented interviews with OG dancers conducted by independent media outlets or videomakers. But these are rare and have not been organized into one location online. The result? A vast media landscape left to explore which could be confusing and potentially misleading for an aspiring dancer without informed guidance.

If misinformation on our culture and aesthetic techniques is a danger, then we need to move towards an organized archiving of our information. By consolidating this wealth of knowledge, it can help create a training ground for hungry bboys, poppers, and lockers. Here's an interesting example in another field that we can learn from. In the 1970s, American animator Walt Stanchfield began establishing a training program for animators at Walt Disney Studios along with animator Eric Larson. Weekly drawing classes were held accompanied by lectures, creating a fertile learning environment for many animators who would later go on to define the Disney Feature Animation Renaissance in the early to mid 1990s as well as the boom of Pixar Animation Studios. John Lasseter, Brad Bird, John Musker, Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Mark Henn, and Andreas Deja are all well-known animators and filmmakers within today's animation industry who were former students of this program. Learning together led them to become better graphic storytellers through peer competition, personal mentoring, and consistent challenges to their intuitive sensibilities. Walt Stanchfield would take his favorite pick of sketches from a gesture drawing class and attach them to handwritten notes, which were passed on among many circles within the animation industry. These notes amounted to virtual artistic gold and would later be published in a two volume series called Drawn to Life. While Walt Stanchfield passed away in 2000, his insight and influence lives on in his students as well as the documentation of his artistic ideas.

For many street dancers in some parts of the world, there is a near vaccum for established knowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in cities with thriving street dance cultures have the opportunity to study with OGs. But many other dancers around the world aren't as fortunate. It's possible that they may never have the chance to learn in person from a well-respected source. And for some isolated mentors who rarely share their specific style, their craft may actually die with them when they pass away. Our street dance culture is still very young, only having been in its presently evolving form for thirtysomething years. So it's easy to not have foresight of the future. But what about the next thirty years? What about a hundred years from now? Understandably, there are members of our community who will want to keep the artforms underground to maintain their raw feel and nature. But is that looking backwards in terms of how street dance is being understood and exposed nowadays through faster communications technology? The question still remains: Don't the benefits of archiving street dance knowledge outweigh the disadvantages?

If the Disney animation training program is taken as an inspiration, it would change the face of street dance education. If there were OG mentors who formally took on students and trained them in groups, the level of our styles could increase dramatically among the younger generation. So much time can be wasted by an aspiring dancer when you're trying to figure out what is the most effective way to learn a technique. Why not accelerate the process by learning it directly from a mentor? So if a formal training program is set up, the information given by an OG could also be catalogued and presented in a book, video, or online media format. Aspiring dancers in the far corners of the world would be given the opportunity to accentuate their personal education by reviewing this material. No, it's not like school. But it's simply making the information available so that an individual can choose to access it if they want to.

What would this archive look like? Video interviews and demonstrations by established OG dancers. Discussions between OGs on history. Critical commentary on dance videos that help us to deconstruct a dancer's method and preparation. An in-depth analysis and clear listing of principles to consider when approaching popping, locking, or bboying. This gives a definite checklist for students to ponder during their own experimentation. Right now, many young dancers simply don't know what to look for because they haven't been told. All they need is a little push to send them along a rewarding path.

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