Art that moves

For our second issue, we’ve broadened our submissions call, and, instead of looking at an individual artist, we’re concentrating on a theme that can mean so many things artistically – movement. To get you thinking, we spoke to an artist for whom movement is the very essence of self-expression.

My first understanding of movement in art was very simple – my grandmother took me to see the classic ballet Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House for my ninth birthday. The emotion I felt as the curtain lifted and the dancers began to move was raw. I may have even cried. I definitely cried 15 years later during the first few minutes of Darcey Bussell’s performance in the same ballet at the London Coliseum.

My point is not that I’m a big cry baby, but that when I watch someone dance it unlocks emotions that make me feel as though I am experiencing something elemental. Somehow the dancers speak a language without words that we can all understand.

I’m not the only one, either. When Janille Hill first encountered step dancing at her church, almost 20 years ago, she found herself “captivated by the way this group of people moved so powerfully.”

Step is a form of percussive dance that uses the body like a musical instrument to create sounds and rhythms. It’s usually performed in groups, can often resemble military formations and has its roots in South and West African dances, such as gumboot dancing, which was developed by South African miners after the authorities outlawed drumming. It also grew out of song and dance rituals practiced at historically African American colleges in the US, and it is first mentioned in 1925 in the Howard University newspaper The Hilltop. “It was said that people were dancing in the yard to a beat that only they could hear – that they were creating,” says Janille.

As The Hilltop suggested, step’s power comes from its collective experience – rarely do you see an individual stepper – and it is what makes it so mesmerising to watch. But it is also a dance that allows for self-expression.

Janille explains: “If you look closely, you’ll see each individual putting their own style on the moves. It is super synchronised, but you can sense the different personalities. I’ve been teaching step for about 10 years and there are pieces of choreography that I have done over those years and passed on to my students that I am still learning from. It is a continual process of exploration. Likewise, the dancers with the most potential are those who take my choreography and make it their own. They let it flow through their body. We often find that someone watching us will be drawn to a specific dancer because what they’re doing speaks to that person directly.”

Today, step groups can be found across the US, in schools and colleges, in films like Stomp the Yard and, thanks to Janille and her group Momentum, at Paris fashion shows.

“I got a call from a colleague asking if we’d like to come and take part in Rick Owens’s Paris fashion show in 2013,” she says. “It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Rick really fell in love with step and instead of simply getting models to learn the moves he asked four groups – two professional and two from college – to come and perform their own pieces while wearing his collection. I felt like our dance was really honoured because of that.”

What makes step, and other dance forms like it, so interesting is that it isn’t just visual. Listening to the rhythms, feeling them vibrate in your chest, is as important as the uniformity. What’s more, one elevates the other, taking the listener/viewer on this incredible sensory journey through someone else’s story. “We had a lady come up to us after one performance and tell us how moved she was by it, and how she felt as though what we were doing pointed to something bigger than her. As a Christian group, to have someone pick up on the essence of who we are and what we represent by the way we wear the dance was a special moment for me,” says Janille.

Sometimes, in art, the beauty of a moment is found in stillness – the musical pause, or what is not said, can be as just as powerful as sounds and words themselves. Stillness might seem an odd notion in a dance that is so dynamic, but, says Janille, it is something that she enjoys exploring. “It’s hard because if we’re not making sound and simply performing gestures at what point does it just become modern dance? And, if we don’t have the right language to talk about it we risk doing a disservice to each form. That said, we’re playing around with different volumes; we can go high and low, quieter and louder. It’s about how to create breathing space while staying true to what is meant to be a loud, powerful dance. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun to play with.”

Momentum’s approach to step is a little unusual in that their pieces tend to last around a minute, rather than more traditional quick fire bursts. “Sometimes, when I watch other performances, I’ll see something I love, but they move on to the next beat so quickly that I don’t get the chance to soak in the message they were trying to convey. It’s important to us to take our audience on a journey through our music.”

Great step looks effortless, as if the dance is moving through the individual rather than simply being performed, but it isn’t a question of just putting a few hand claps and foot stomps together. It has to flow. “I may have a movement that I really want to add in, or a vibe or a bass rhythm that I really want to work into a move, but it has to fit the overall beat and complement the wider dance,” says Janille. “You can’t just throw things in for the sake of it.”

It also has to support the all-important collective experience and Janille sees her choreography as a collaborative effort.  “I share my choreography with my group, get their feedback and try to create something that feels right for all of us. I think when you make collaborative art you have to be fairly comfortable in your own skin. I see it as a very open, loose process. My heart and soul is represented in what we do, but this is more powerful than one person, it’s about what we create together.”

When we talk about great art, we talk about being moved by it. When it comes to dance, particularly one as visceral and joyous as step, it is the very movement itself that we are moved by.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Visit stepwithmomentum.com to find out more about Janille and her team.

Our thanks to Janille for all the amazing photos that you see here. © Momentum.

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Hopefully, this has got you thinking about movement in your own work, but if you need an extra nudge try this: head for somewhere alive with movement – anything from train station to a river – and just be present in the moment.

Perhaps it will spark new ideas. If so, we can’t wait to see them. How can you represent that movement in your art? Words, pictures, music, your voice, your body – a dance or even a combination of forms? We want to see it all. See our submissions page for more details on sending in your work.

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