For more than 20 years, clubgoers have reveled in the sounds of house, a form of electronic dance music that emerged from underground nightclubs in the early 1980s. This style of music sparked house dance, which is characterized by complex footwork and acrobatic moves. Until recently, this artform has been less well-known than other urban dance forms such as breakdancing and krumping, in part because house music is primarily an instrumental genre and few house music videos are seen on mainstream TV. Now, house dance is on the rise as practitioners are taking their evolving artform from its traditional club setting and putting it on the concert stage.
House dance began in a Chicago nightclub called the Warehouse, also the birthplace of house music. Club dancers who grew tired of the pop disco of the late 1970s began gravitating to cutting-edge beats crafted by DJs out of drum machines and samplers. (Underscored by a four-on-the-floor kick drum that drops on every quarter beat, house music’s disco roots differentiate it from the funk and soul music that spawned breakdancing; however, both musical genres emphasized heavy drums and basslines.) By the mid-1980s, house music had spread to NYC, London and Paris.
From the beginning, the house dance scene embodied themes of unity and liberation. Clubs that played house music became venues where people from diverse backgrounds came together to dance, resulting in a cross-cultural mix of salsa, tap, African, jazz, hip hop, hustle, Capoeira and other forms. This fusion of styles, unified by the spiritually uplifting house music message, ultimately became the new artform of house dance.
From its inception, house dance has emphasized fast footwork and upper-body moves. Early on, comparisons were often made to tap, as both forms incorporate a series of slides, kicks, cross-steps and heel-toe moves. The upbeat rhythm of house music, ranging from 120 to 130 beats per minute, inspired house dancers (some of whom came from a tap background) to revisit the complex footwork of tap legends such as the Nicholas Brothers.
Jacking, the basic upper-body movement, consists of a strong thrusting of the chest forward while moving the arms in an upwards jogging motion on the 4/4 beat. Voguing, a technique popularized by Madonna, is also considered a classic house dance form, combining postured arm and hand movements with displays of intense flexibility. Floorwork and acrobatic moves are also key components: A technique known as lofting demonstrates athletic ability through handstands, swan dives and rapid floorspins that at all times maintain fluidity and control. In recent years, a style known as Afro-house has developed that emphasizes floorwork.
Parallels have been drawn between house, breakdancing and Capoeira. Not only do the three forms share movement vocabulary, but all are often performed in circles that surround individuals or pairs. House differs in that dancers are likely to collaborate in the circle to tell a story or maintain the flow of movement, whereas breakers often compete head-on through a series of power moves. A true house dancer uses the body as an instrument to play the music—to navigate the sonic landscape provided by the DJ. While the proper execution of moves is important, it’s the dynamic sense of rhythm, unique style and emotional release that ultimately define the artistry of the house dancer.
House dance, by definition, is performed to house music. However, the act of dancing to house music doesn’t necessarily make someone a house dancer. Like other dance forms rooted in urban culture, house is more than a social activity; it’s an emotional state-of-being and expression of soul. The life philosophy of the house dancer reflects the nature of the music itself: spiritual, dynamic, sensual, upbeat and liberating.
Ejoe Wilson, a renowned NYC house dancer and choreographer who’s toured with Mariah Carey and is on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, explains the spiritual nature of his artform: “Think of your body as a map folding and unfolding on beat, mixing centuries of cultural and unconventional movements to sound, while the spirits of the past speak stories through each emotional step—every limb disconnected, ever reaching to points unseen, yet held inside the host body until unleashed.”
House dance is making the move from the nightclub to the stage, as dancers form groups and perform choreographed presentations in a concert setting. Vibrant house scenes exist in Chicago, NYC, Paris, London, Toronto, Tokyo and South Africa. The annual Winter Music Conference in South Beach, Miami, is a gathering place for many of the world’s top house dancers (wintermusicconference.com), and the first ever House Dance International NYC festival will take place in July 2007, featuring showcases, competitions, workshops and seminars. For a list of house dance groups and places to take classes and see house in performance, visit dancespirit.com/.
Chicago native Santiago Freeman is the host of Brooklyn Mecca, a presenter of house dance events, and the founding director of Dance Warrior Project, a house dance company. He can be reached at [email protected]