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Youtube and the formation of cult-like fan bases

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“Iz u gud? Iz u okay? Cuz I wanted to noe.”

Over the past several weeks, I unleashed myself into the annals of YouTube, amassing a borderline-insurmountable stack of videos that I would try my best to watch. I became a “Nerdfighter” and a “Hopeful”, a “Beard Lover” and a semi-passionate member of the “Nermie Army”, all in an effort to understand the fervor of the members of these groups and what exactly makes them tick.

For the record, I am still unsure. But the key feature of these groups is their undying loyalty for the YouTubers they watch.

On August 3, Shay Carl’s trailer for his new film Vlogumentary went live on YouTube. An in-depth and personal exploration of the tropes of video-blogging (or vlogging), the movie aims to discuss the effect vlogging has on the vlogger and his/her audience.

Shay Carl, who is one of YouTube’s most successful content creators, interviewed many other popular YouTubers for his film, including dailygrace, vlogbrothers, and wheezywaiter, most of whom have millions of subscribers.

However, a point not mentioned in the trailer is that perhaps the most important feature of YouTube popularity is the audience’s impact on the creator.

Take YouTuber Alex Day. In December of 2011, he launched a campaign on his channel nerimon to get his single “Forever Yours” to the top of the UK’s Christmas number one list, which is dominated by larger bands. Unable to attract the attention of radio stations, he turned to his YouTube viewers, asking them to buy the song and its eleven remixes on iTunes and proceed to spread the word.

Consequently, “Forever Yours” slowly began climbing the iTunes charts, surpassing songs by One Direction and Adele. The music video, directed by Charlie McDonnell of the YouTube channel charlieissocoollike, gained over a million views in its first week with the song eventually reaching the number 4 spot, at the time the highest ranking for any unsigned artist.

The incredible success of this song is largely, if not entirely, due to the voluntary participation of several hundred thousand people across the globe. Alex Day gave a ted talk in San Diego discussing the project, mentioning “Forever Yours” high spot on the iTunes charts of many different countries.

The power of his fans, who are dubbed the “Nermie Army,” earned him the title ‘future of music’ from Forbes magazine.

Similarly, the vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green, have incredible influence in the YouTube world. With over five channels collectively boasting over half a billion views, their supporters, nicknamed “Nerdfighters,” are arguably YouTube’s most powerful fanbase. The brothers’ most noteworthy projects include the This Star Won’t Go Out (TSWGO) campaign and  the Project for Awesome (P4A), both charitable endeavors. tswgo aims to raise money for families with children who have cancer and works to alleviate the cost of living expenses, allowing families to focus on their ailing child.

According to the p4a about page, “the Project for Awesome is an annual event that sprung out of various YouTube communities to support charities and other ways of decreasing the overall worldwide level of suck.” On December 17, YouTubers from all over the world upload videos talking about their favorite charities and the top 5 most popular videos dictate which charities will receive the money raised that year.

What makes the vlogbrothers so influential is the response rate of their subscribers and their willingness to participate in theses charitable campaigns. The content creators feel the effects of their participation but, in this case, the effects are just as important to underprivileged families, ailing children, and a whole host of other people.

Benjamin Cook of YouTube channel ninebrassmonkeys started a fantastic, half hour, 12-week segment called “Becoming Youtube” that seeks to understand the rules of YouTube and the work put in by content creators. A recent episode discusses the flip side to large fan bases and the sense of entitlement that exists within passionate groups.

However, there is much more to be said about the positive effect fan bases have. The “number one rule” of the internet ­— never read the comments — can be challenged by the lovely remarks made by those who watch Soul Pancake.

YouTube has a lot more to offer than cinnamon challenge fails and slenderman reaction videos; it is an insight into our need for interaction, and it highlights the many positive possibilities of collective effort.

“We love making videos and one of the best things about Youtube is that we have that direct contact. You inspire us as well!”

Review: Toronto Fringe Festival

The Toronto Fringe Festival (Fringe), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is an annual celebration of all the wacky, heartfelt, and profound artistry that Toronto has to offer. With a staggering array of 148 shows — including buskers, bands, and visual artists — Fringe is a two-week-long art bonanza that is a staple of Toronto summers.

Trying to whittle down the shows to a manageable number to review, we decided to focus on what really seems to make  Fringe unique: the strange and unpredictable. Two shows that stood out this year were Fracture and Erotic Tales of the Old Testament.

Fracture is a modern dance production put on by the Good Women Dance Collective from Edmonton. Featuring two pieces,  “POD” and  “Shatterstate,” this dance troupe uses contemporary dance as a medium to explore relationships. While “Shatterstate” provided a fun and whimsical approach to the feeling of déjà vu, “POD” was the highlight of the show. This act conjured an image of a living organism that separated into two entities struggling to leave behind the safety of their home environment. A crumpled, opaque plastic sheet covering the stage opened the piece, pulsing with both light and the movements of the dancers within. The futuristic yet animal-like soundtrack served to heighten the eerie, corporal feeling evoked by the piece. With raw emotions and refined dance steps, “POD” bared the most primal instincts of human beings on stage, reminding us of our ever-present connection with the animal kingdom.

Erotic Tales of the Old Testament, a raunchy burlesque show purporting to  display the strength of the female characters whose names the Bible besmirched, took on a completely different tone. Although the lead narrator was a weak link, the show overall was a resounding success. Performed in the open courtyard of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church, audience members reclined on the grass, savouring a seemingly endless supply of grapes while being serenaded by a violin. Featuring burlesque acts interspersed with a musical number and a magician’s tricks, this performance far surpassed the realm of entertainment. Vivacious and bawdy, the dancers brought into focus the otherwise taboo topic of sexuality in the Old Testament, attempting to make the audience understand that in the right hands, sex is just another tool to attain power.

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs until July 14, 2013. 

Review: Carmen @ The National Ballet of Canada

Review: Carmen @ The National Ballet of Canada

It’s not everyday that you can describe a ballet as a wantonly carnal affair. Yet the National Ballet’s newest production, Carmen, takes sex to a whole new level.

A contemporary retelling of the traditional French opera, this version follows the story of Carmen, a gypsy intent on living her life as a free spirit and not subscribing to any moral or social code. Acting upon her most basic sexual instincts, she soon becomes entangled in a messy love (or rather, lust) triangle, which ultimately climaxes in tragedy.

Featuring a diverse array of musical numbers, ranging from tear-jerking solos to riotous cross-dressing pieces, Carmen never ceases to entertain. While at times the emotion onstage lags, the ensemble dancing itself is exceptional.

Although the ballet was first performed in 1875, the National Ballet’s timeless adaptation proves that the issues examined are still very much relevant today. Make no mistake; this performance is far from bawdy.

With an altered musical score and fresh choreography that bring a contemporary tone to a traditional dance, Carmen is executed with a refinement and grace that serve to highlight the issue at the heart of this tale: the apparent need in our society to trap and limit female sexuality, resulting in a destructive end for women willing to do anything to preserve their freedom.

Dance and dedication

The connections created between teammates and rivals at the North American Culture Show

Dance and dedication

The end of February marks the beginning of a flurry of nerves, endless sleepless nights, and intense practice for South Asian Alliance Dance teams across Ontario. In anticipation of one of the biggest inter-university dance competitions in Canada, these teams have been preparing for months for their chance to take home the title of champion and the $5,000 prize that comes with it. This is the North American Culture Show (nacs).

The nacs is a show of tremendous size and proportion. The 10 competing teams, comprised of 30 people each, are mostly old hats at this game. Teams from Brock, Guelph-Humber, McMaster-Mohawk, Ottawa-Carleton, Ryerson-George Brown, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, UOIT-DC, Waterloo-Laurier, and York-Seneca participate. The rules are straightforward: each school must portray a theme in their 10 minute performance. No props. No sets. And most importantly, the dances must fit into four different genres: Bhangra, Bollywood, Classical Indian, and Fusion. Simple enough, right? That’s what I thought too.

When I auditioned for the University of Toronto St. George team in my first year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Sure, it was a dance competition, but how intense could it really be? By the time the competition swung around, I no longer suffered from any such delusions. nacs was intense, nacs was what we were dancing our hearts out for, and as the underdogs, nacs was our opportunity to shine.

This year, things went a little differently. For the first time, the University of Toronto decided that strength was in unity, students from all three campuses joining to create one powerhouse: Team U of T. As a choreographer, I knew the game was upped — schools were expecting big things from us, and we planned on bringing it. By this time, I was well-acquainted with the strange cult-like following the nacs inspires, in some cases being the sole reason for a student to take a fifth or sometimes sixth year of undergrad. With even alumni dancing on the team, there was no question that we wanted to win.

We started pulling all-night rehearsals a little after reading week. There came a point where I began to dream about when I had actually had time in between classes and dance for something else. But there was a flip side. If the nacs had become my life, then so had my team. Going through this trial of fire together, we formed a bond over our shared love of dance and our desire to win. Within the team, I found a group of like-minded individuals devoted to dance, some of whom were part of external dance organizations and companies. Entering the competition on March 8, I knew that no matter how we placed, I had built a strong network of people in the dance world that I could rely on.

nacs itself was a larger-than-life experience. While we ended up placing fifth, we won ‘Best Artistic Design’ and ‘Best Theme.’ However, what really stood out to me this time was the strong display of interconnectedness that was evident between the teams. Although rivals, veteran dancers knew other dancers from different schools, and even cheered each other on. I was approached by a student from York at the end of the nacs, asking if I wanted to be part of a team he was putting together for another competition at the end of June. This sense of camaraderie pervaded the entire event, and even extended to the judges, professionals in the dance world, with whom students could network with in the future.

The platform the nacs provides for students to foray into the professional dance sphere, connect with talented students at other schools, and create lasting bonds within a university itself, is undeniable. In the end, it’s about so much more than the dance or what you win — it’s also about the people you meet and the relationships you form.

I interviewed two veteran dancers, Tahir Ali Rana and Kishan Chouhan, from Team U of T, to further exploring the kinship that the nacs creates.


Do you see nacs as connecting people, both within and in between teams?


Within a team, you have 30 dancers … and they have to spend practically almost the whole school year together, and they have a common goal, and they know that they have to build towards that goal together and that each of them is an elementary part of that production. It connects them in that sense that each of them are dependent on one another, and it connects them in that everyone is in different years of study so you come to realize that you’re there to dance. But there’s other foundations from which people can seek assistance … you take more away from it than you initially assume to.


Well, within a team I believe you definitely build a unity. Definitely closer to the competition where [practices run] after classes, or even into the next morning you really get a sense of family with your team. With other teams, there are events such as socials and formals where you get to mix and mingle as well as the competition itself…


How do you see networks being formed within the competition?


A lot of students who participate in this organization are actually from certain dance teams. By interacting with those individuals, they’re able to recognize your talents as a dancer, and they are able to look to you … if they have competitions outside of nacs, if they have gigs or performances where they need additional dancers. There was the halftime show for the Raptors where a lot of dancers from many different campuses got together and created the halftime performance. Personally speaking, [with] last year’s Bollywood judge Puja Amin … this year we went to her seeking costume rentals for the show… You get recognized being on that stage, and you get to meet and introduce yourself to these judges… You’re creating a profile for yourself as an excellent dancer and getting recognized for that.


Definitely, since I have been in this competition for five years, I have had the opportunity to network with some judges. They would notice the work that I did, and they would contact me and ask me to help them or dance with them… Specifically last year the classical judge had a gig she needed dancers for, and she called upon our school… It was a great way to network and to get further opportunities because she still is in contact with me for other shows, to the point where she is able to fund professional classes to brush up on the dances for her shows, which is really nice…Also with other South Asian people in the gta, [nacs] definitely brings you together and makes you more aware that … there are a lot of other people, and you get to find out where you fit in. Networks always impact your life… I believe you are nobody without the people you know because they inevitably will get you where you want to be.

A new era of South Asian dance

The Kalanidhi Fine Arts festival at Harbourfront celebrates traditional and contemporary forms of Indian dance

A new era of South Asian dance

Although Bollywood dance is the purview of celebrities, traditional or classical Indian dancing is said to have originated among the gods. Based on archaeological findings of sculptures dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization, the Indian dance tradition appears to be well over 5,000 years old. Although it came close to extinction during British colonial times, this ancient art form had been steeped in the country’s bones for too long to give up easily. The beginning of the twentieth century saw a great revival in each of the many South Asian dance styles, sparking a new era of classical and contemporary Indian dance.

Boasting eight official classical dance styles today, these forms all take root in the Natya Shastra, a scripture written in classical India c. 200 B.C., and mostly focus on topics relating to Hindu mythology. The dance styles generally employ two main facets of dance: nritta or pure dance expression, and abhinaya or facial expression, in order to tell a story. But that’s where the similarities end — each of these dance styles has their own unique music, techniques, and objectives, with roots found all over India. Today, the official styles are Bharatanatyam from the state of Tamil Nadu, Kathak from Uttar Pradesh, Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Manipuri from Manipur, Odissi from Orissa, and Sattriya from Assam.

While classical Indian dance only arrived in Canada in the 1960s, it has had a pronounced impact, vaulting its way to the forefront of Canadian artistic consciousness. At first, there was a struggle to afford Indian classical dance styles the same recognition given to Western classical dance styles like ballet. However, once acknowledged and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, they found new opportunities in cultural hybridization. One company that was instrumental in ushering in this new era was Kalanidhi Fine Arts, a dance company founded by Sudha Khandwani. The company puts together a festival in Canada every year in an effort to disseminate both traditional and contemporary forms of classical Indian dance into the Canadian artistic mainstream.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Kalanidhi Fine Arts, and the 25th anniversary of its inception in Canada. A three-day long festival, it features local artists as well as dance companies from the United States and India. The lineup on the opening night this past Thursday seemed to encompass this vision, presenting three different dance styles by dancers from around the world.

The night began with an ode to tradition by Sujata Mohapatra, a renowned Odissi dancer from India. Opening with an abhinaya piece describing the god Shiva and his consort Parvati, the work played on the two variations of dance embodied by these gods: tandava, a vigorous and aggressive male dance representing Shiva, the god of destruction, and lasya, the graceful and feminine response of the goddess Parvati. Closing with a traditional nritta piece expressing the joy of pure dance, Mohapatra embodied the vitality of an ancient dance form that is still very much alive today.

The second performance began with a play on conventions generally observed in Indian classical dancing. Presented by inDance, a Toronto-based company that aims to present works that are a synthesis of South Asian and Western sensibilities, this piece enacted the Ramayana, a Hindu epic in a traditional Bharatanyam style. Tradition ended there, however, giving free reign to contemporary expression. Featuring two University of Toronto students as live singers, the dancing duo composed of Japanese artist Hiroshi Miyamoto and local artist Nalin Bisnath, who traded customary dance costumes in favour of a simple black shirt and yoga pants in an effort to pose the question: would we recognize God if he/she walked amongst us today? Although the dance performance fell a little flat with the audience, the live musicians stole the show with their powerful melodies that resonated in the theatre long afterwards.

The final performance was a true testament to the art of hybrid dance, blending aerial dance with Bharatanatyam and Kalaripayattu, a martial art form from the state of Kerala. Performed by Samudra Arts, an Indian troupe, “The Sound of Silence” was a powerful piece that explored the dialogue between movement and sound, body and soul, and of course, tradition and modernity. With feats of aerial acrobatics and complex rhythmic schemes, this dance performance ended off the first evening of the festival with a bang.

The continued presence of the Kalanidhi Fine Arts festival ensures that Toronto remains one of the world’s artistic leaders in the cultivation and growth of diasporic Indian culture, an ever-changing global art form that is climbing to great heights.

National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet breathes new life into an old story

New production captures the tragedy and comedy of Shakespeare's work

The National Ballet of Canada has breathed new life into a classic story with their current version of Romeo and Juliet. While theatres rarely restage a play, the ballet world operates differently due to the astronomical cost of each production. To curb costs, ballet companies typically cycle through their repertoire every few years. In celebration of the sixtiethanniversary of The National Ballet in 2011, artistic director Karen Kain commissioned a new Romeo and Juliet from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, to replace the previous version which had been performed  for nearly four decades.

Fortunately, Ratmansky has risen to the challenge of balancing old with new. While thoughtfully updated to suit the twenty-first century, this version nonetheless pays its dues to the Shakespearean source material and to classical ballet.  It feels simultaneously classic and modern, as graceful pas de deuxs contrast modern physical comedy.

This successful juxtaposition is echoed in Tony Award winner Richard Hudson’s set and costumes. The garments are lush and exuberant, marked by an exaggerated silhouette in rich velvets and brocades. The youthful spirit and excitement of Romeo and Juliet is encapsulated in the trappings of the production, rendering the tragic ending of the tale even more devastating.

Ratmansky’s choreography demands significant work from his dancers, both technically and emotionally. The relatively inexperienced Elena Lobsanova, a first soloist, may seem to be an unusual choice for a new ballet, until you see her on stage. She is light as a feather and completely believable as a teenager on the brink of womanhood. She is playful with her nurse and sullen with her parents, and, of course, head over heels in love with Romeo, played by the ever-romantic Guillaume Côté. Another stand-out is Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio. Stanczyk’s physical comedy brings levity to the ballet, even during his death scene, which, while tragic, has the audience chuckling.

Whether you’re already a ballet aficionado or you’re looking to see a performance for the first time, Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet is not to be missed. If you are under 30, you can get tickets for the show for only $30, instead of the usual price tag that runs into the hundreds of dollars, through the National Ballet’s DanceBreak program.

Native tradition, new theatre

Discussing community, ceremony, and cacao with director Dr. Jill Carter

Native tradition, new theatre

Comfortably perched in her desk chair, Dr. Jill Carter laughs as she huddles around the warmth of the large Second Cup coffee that she holds in her hands. “Sorry about that!” she says smiling, having just been bombarded with a myriad of questions from eager students waiting outside her office.

Carter, who identifies herself as Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi, is a faculty member in the Aboriginal Studies department at U of T. She also describes herself as an actor, a writer, a playwright, a student, and a mentor. While lecturing is her full-time job, she makes sure to include time for her greatest passion, the theatre, and for the stories that can be created on stage.

As an integral part of Native Earth Performing Arts’ newest production, Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, Carter knows all about stories. The play incorporates creation stories of different groups of indigenous peoples from all over the Americas — specifically the Haudenosaunee (Great Lakes region), Rappahannock (Virginia), and Guna (Panama) peoples — in an attempt to reclaim indigenous cultures through art. Focusing on the elemental females portrayed in these stories, the play is centred on Chocolate Woman, a Guna feminine spirit associated with the cacao plant.

Carter, who recently received her Ph.D. from the Drama Centre at U of T, is the remount director of Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and has been involved with the play since the beginning of its production. Nestled in the warmth of her office on a blisteringly cold day, she spoke to The Varsity about Native Earth Performing Arts, and the role of theatre in the reclaiming of indigenous cultures.


How did you become involved with Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional native theatre company? 


 I suppose being a young native woman, I was drawn to them… My first experience with Native Earth was seeing Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, and I remember very clearly how it galvanized me. I came up in a time when a lot of Native artists came up — you know, people who wanted to be theatre professionals [but were] not seeing their role models and… Not seeing ourselves at all on stage. And if we did see ourselves on stage… or saw what purported to be us on stage, we often saw some very ugly pictures, so it wasn’t something to be proud of. Seeing The Rez Sisters changed everything, and it changed everything for a lot of native artists, but also for mainstream [theatres]… It really put Native Earth on the map.


So you think Native Earth Performing Arts has been instrumental in jump-starting Native theatre?


Oh I would say so… Although it had its financial struggles, it has been the cornerstone, I think, of native theatre in Canada. It’s been the place where artists got a voice, and where artists could become developed. They have a Young Voices program, and in that program they invite young people who are interested in playwriting… to work with professional dramaturgists… and they do a lot. I mean, they help young native artists through every stage in their careers. It is really ground zero, so to speak, still today.



One of the mandates of Native Earth is to encourage the use of theatre as a form of communication and dialogue. How or why do you see this as being especially important in communicating experiences unique to native peoples in contemporary society?


Oh, that’s such a layered question! Twenty years ago, Canadians did not know who [natives] were. Canadians had an image of us, [but] they knew nothing of us… So having our artists come out and speak to Canada in our voice, about our concerns and through our lens was and is still crucially important today… To be the one who tells your story, that’s important. It’s interesting though because the issue has changed. Yvette Nolan [former artistic director of Native Earth] said, and I think quite rightly so, [that] at one point, the struggle — or the question — was, ‘Who gets to speak?’ Now the question is, ‘Who is listening?’  Is anybody listening? It gets awfully exhausting, educating the main populace… And many [artists] are pushing back against that and their plays are not necessarily for mainstream Canadians. Mainstream Canadians are welcome to come, to receive, to be affected, to learn, but their plays are for their own people.

I often think of theatre as urban ceremony, in the sense that it unites a scattered body politic. The best of it creates communitas; it creates that sense that we in the audience are connected to each other… The best of it offers real healing, and permanent transformations, in that we can come away knowing something we didn’t know before… I mean, I’m not saying, ‘Go see a play’ and you’re fine! But, go see this play and something begins to work within you, that medicine begins to work within you. I think it can also be a gateway to our culture. So many of us have been separated from our communities, our languages, and a venue like this can be a gateway in. It can get us understanding a little more about ourselves and [make us] curious, eager to push further and go further.


There is a lot of silence surrounding the Native community in Canada, especially for the average citizen who doesn’t go out of his or her way to become informed. Do you see Native Earth playing a role in filling that silence?


I think it is, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. We don’t necessarily live in a theatre-going nation… So there are those that love the live experience and who come to see the theatre. But there are many who don’t, and we know that, and that’s certainly been an issue with Native Earth, an issue that is shared by theatres across Canada. The one thing you hear from [Canadian theatres] is the struggle, dare I be crude, to get bums in seats, and to bring people out… So there is always that struggle and certainly Native Earth has not been immune to that. But when we think of how many people in Toronto will be touched and educated by a piece, [it’s] not many. So Native Earth is part of something that must be larger. However, the thing about Native Earth is that in its support of plays and artists… it allows that work [to maintain] life after the production… These plays are published texts, they have a life in remounts and on tour, other theatres take it up, and I think this can all be traced back to the ministrations of companies like Native Earth.


Can you tell us a little bit about the idea behind Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and how it goes about reclaiming Indigenous cultures through art?


I’ve been involved with Chocolate Woman since its inception in 2007… It began before that however as a drive, or a need that Monique Mojica [the play’s author] had. Monique was going through a very serious… Time in her life. [She] required healing, required something to get up and go on, and began to look back at Creation stories, and the elemental females of Creation. And I say Creation stories and elemental females, because Monique is Guna and Rappahannock… She is also by marriage and adoption Haudenosaunee. Since she has all of this cultural material to draw on, the show is an interweave.

Chocolate Woman is a Guna figure, an elemental female, I hesitate to use the word goddess because it’s not the same thing, but she is this feminine spirit that is associated with the cacao. Cacao for Guna people is a medicine… But it can also work at you from the outside in, can shield you from your enemies. So this cacao is really important. [Mojica met] with a Guna consultant and traditional teacher, who taught her these songs and stories. Rather than adopting Western theatrical form, she went back to tradition and ceremony to figure out how to… tell an ancient story to a contemporary audience, with contemporary expectations, in a contemporary venue, but to be able to affect the audience as an original rendering of the story would have affected traditional people.

Follow my lead

Social cues on the dancefloor

Follow my lead

Why do people dance? Some do it for the sake of art; others for ceremonial and traditional reasons. Most of us dance because it’s a good way to lose some of our inhibitions and just have a good time. But a lot of people dance because it’s simply one of the best ways of connecting and communicating with another person.

I probably wouldn’t have given that answer a few months ago, mostly because dancing was something that I didn’t really care much about. In fact, I generally considered dancing somewhat distasteful, and even a little crude. Of course, this opinion was based mostly on ignorance and inexperience. Social dancing — especially swing and blues — has completely changed my perspective.

Social dancing is essentially any partnered dancing with a leader and a follower. Ballroom dances such as the waltz, and the tango and jazz dances such as the Charleston or lindy hop are all types of social dancing. The leader often guides the dance, and the follower mirrors their actions.  All social dance forms have a series of basic steps that must be known by the leader and the follower, which are then converted into moves that the dancers can embellish as much as they want. The success of these dances hinge on the ability of a pair to communicate with each other, which is often done through touch and subtle movements.

Partnered dancing was first treated as a high art form during the Renaissance (at least in Western culture). Noble courts took folk dance forms and formalized them — even adding codes of etiquette for each dance. Despite the formal attributes and high social status of such dances (which would continue into the nineteenth century), social dancing has still managed to remain relatively informal and naturalistic. Later dance genres like ragtime, blues, and swing jazz all have a freedom of expression and level of accessibility that ensures that they remain popular today.

In fact, it is these social dance forms that first evolved in black communities throughout the United States in the early twentieth century that best illustrate dancing’s power as a form of dialogue. Ragtime, blues, and jazz dances have cut across social, economic, religious, and even racial barriers. You continually switch partners during social dances, which means you get to meet a diverse group of people in a friendly atmosphere. The power of social dancing to completely disintegrate ideas of superior social status has often made it a catalyst for change. This is identified by Mark Knowles in his informative (and hilarious book) The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances as one of the reasons why political and moral authorities have been so opposed to dancing throughout history. For example, the Charleston — which became a national fad in Canada and the United States in 1925 — was often criticized as crude, lewd, and even bad for your health. Naysayers worried about the kind of openness a dance like the Charleston was able to foster. As a big fan of the Charleston myself, I have to say its critics just didn’t know how to have a good time.

A good case in point for the power of social dancing can be found in my paternal grandparents, who met each other through social dance. My grandfather was a recent Scottish immigrant who came to Halifax after serving in the Royal Air Force in World War II. My grandmother was a Mik’maq who grew up on the Millbrook reserve outside Truro. My grandfather took elocution lessons after an embarrassing incident trying to order ice cream with his thick Scottish accent. My grandmother briefly called herself Mary Picton rather than her actual name of Marie Pictou, fearful of potential prejudice from the other nurses she worked with. But such worries or distinctions completely vanished when they met each other on the dance floor. They were just two young people out having a good time. I’d like to think they were on to something special.