X-Treme Dance, Part 1

June 11, 2008

Whether escaping the boundaries of gravity, playing with fire or balancing a swirling hoop, dancers and choreographers are adopting elements from the fantastic, magical realms of circus, nightclub and even children’s playthings into sophisticated choreographic works, adding their own artistic stamp in the process. The cross-pollination is inspiring new ways of moving, expanding the audience for dance as well as the definition of a dancer and developing entirely new performance venues. In a two-part series, DS examines the latest trends in “extreme” dance, popular styles that are propelling the artform into the future.


Hoop Dreams

Spinning a large ring around your middle isn’t just kids’ play anymore. Like fire dancing, modern-day hooping (“hula” has been dropped from the name) emerged from the club scene; in the mid-’90s, the jam band String Cheese Incident tossed hoops from the stage. Audience members were hooked and the craze soon spread to raves and festivals such as the Burning Man Project in the Nevada desert. As practitioners developed a vocabulary of moves and realized the artistic possibilities, dance hoop troupes sprung up across the country.


Hooping has a long history: There is evidence of hoops being used as playthings in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, spun either around the waist or alongside the body with a stick. In addition, Native American traditions include intricate hoop dances involving multiple small hoops spun on different parts of the body. In 1958, Wham-O’s Hula Hoop became a nationwide fad, selling 25 million hoops in four months.


Today’s dance hoopers use much heavier, bigger hoops than the hula hoop. “It’s a big thing how you make your hoops,” explains Brent Van Dyke of the New York City-based Groovehoops. Custom-made hoops generally are composed of irrigation tubing wrapped in specialty tape. Some have holographic or phosphorescent tapes or even half a dozen fire wicks on five-inch spikes.


Hoop dance, which involves complex moves within and outside the hoop, can involve multiple performers spinning in sync or just one mesmerizing soloist. Hoopers Christabel Zamor and Anah Reichenbach often share the stage (sometimes within the same hoop) and Groovehoops includes four men and two women. But in terms of creative collaboration, first and foremost is the relationship with the hoop itself. “It’s a unique artform and it’s very personal,” says Van Dyke. “When you dance with a hoop, it’s like dancing with a partner, but it’s just you and your balance and your motivation with the hoop.”


Dancers report that rather than limiting their movement, the focus required to maintain the loop of the hoop actually inspires them to articulate their body in ways that might not otherwise occur to them. This absorption with the spinning hoop can lead to what Reichenbach calls “the hoop zone,” in which performers become completely absorbed in the spinning and can continue for hours at a stretch. “The feeling of being totally alive and saturated with energy is overwhelming,” says Zamor. “I’ve done a lot of other kinds of dance, but for me it’s remarkable how hooping creates a feeling of total freedom.”


Air Time

In aerial dance, soaring grand jetés can truly take flight. With upside-down arabesques and midair pirouettes, aerial dancers take circus traditions and infuse them with artistic élan, giving an entirely new meaning to the concept of moving through space.


Aerial dance had its beginnings in the 1970s when dancer Terry Sendgraff started incorporating a low-flying trapeze into her performances. Recognized as the pioneer of aerial dance, she invented the single-point trapeze in which ropes attached to opposite sides of a wooden bar meet overhead at a single point, enabling the apparatus to spin as well as swing. The growth and popularity of aerial dance has resulted in the development of a wide range of apparatus, such as silks (also called tissue), hoops, bungee cords and many others. Even rock-climbing rigging is used to help dancers fly: The Oakland, CA-based Project Bandaloop has performed while dangling off the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and off the Seattle Space Needle.


As dance has taken to the air, so has circus reconsidered high-flying acts. Dancers and circus performers have borrowed moves from one another and the distinction between aerial dance and circus has become increasingly difficult to define. “Ten years ago, circus aerial was more about the ‘ta da’ factor—it’d be trick, trick, pose,” says Elsie Smith of the Brattleboro, VT–based Gemini Trapeze. “Music might run in the background, but wasn’t as much a part of the movement quality of the act. That is not true anymore; there are aerial acts even in very traditional circuses that incorporate qualities of dance.” In aerial dance works, performers on the ground and in the air often interrelate, while most circus acts generally rely on performers remaining airborne. “When there is a connection between the person on the floor and above, it’s a beautiful marriage,” says Josie Walsh, artistic director of the Los Angeles-based MYO Productions. “I can create pictures from above and below.”


Aerial dance can provide a rush of adrenaline—for audiences and performers. “Being lifted on a partner’s shoulders is different than being 15 feet in the air,” says Nancy Smith, artistic director of Frequent Flyers Productions, Inc. “Both the danger and the fear factor are higher.” Safety precautions include knowing when to quit. “As soon as you go beyond a certain physical awareness and are dragging, you’re in a dangerous situation,” she continues. “You can only push so far, because you’ve got to be able to get safely back down to the ground.”


Aerial dance has become such a phenomenon that an annual festival is held in Boulder, CO, organized by Nancy Smith. It’s a place for dancers to share ideas, take classes and catch up with what other troupes are doing. For the moment, only the sky’s the limit. “Aerial opens up another world,” says Walsh. “It’s a real gift for a choreographer. It’s like having another dimension. It’s challenging for sure, but it’s very cool.”

Grace Under Fire

Fire dancing was one of the hottest millennial trends to hit the counterculture. Amidst the multitudes of hobbyists, professional fire dance troupes emerged, using a trail of flame to extend the flow of an arm in port de bras or to provide a radiant echo to a movement. These dancemakers draw upon the mesmerizing intensity of flame as a central element in sophisticated theatrical works.


Fire spinning is the most common way to dance with fire. Spinners use poi, an implement originally developed by the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, comprised of cable or chains with balls on each end. Fire poi replaces the balls with two kevlar wicks. Fire performers also draw on the traditions of fire usage in Chinese court performance as well as the fire eating of European commedia dell’arte. The list of possible apparatus has exploded in recent years, from staffs to hand votives, fans, swords and even flaming headpieces.


There are a few limitations—performers can’t be physically above the flames for long and, because burning time is generally three to 10 minutes, longer works need to build in transitions. Although fire dance is performed in many venues (and is often site-specific), it’s important to have a large space to allow the smoke to disperse. As concrete settings are ideal, performances are often held outdoors.


Safety precautions are essential. Performers need to be extremely familiar with the moves they will perform before they light the flame and it’s essential to make sure there isn’t anything flammable nearby (including hair, which should be tied back). Costumes are made of flame-retardant material. “It’s hot,” admits Paul Weir of Flam Chen, a Tucson-based fire dance troupe. “You get burned occasionally, usually very small burns you don’t even notice.”


Despite the hypnotizing power of flame, artistic content comes first for fire dance companies, who use fire to enhance the performance rather than just relying on the easy thrill of fire tricks. “We don’t try to be just fire spinners,” says Weir. “We try to make the shows as if all we had was dance and theater skills to tell a story. It’s easy to entertain people with fire, so instead we think about the movement as a whole.”