Hip Hop Hooray for Hollywood: Jim Self steps out in L.A.

These are some highlights of my recent hip hop research trip to LA –the research is multi-faceted: — 1) New material for Hip Hop, Hollywood and Homemovies class; 2)ideas for 2010 Schwartz Center dance concert: Dance, Drama and the Disco of Desire; 3)trying to get a handle on exotic/erotic/ gogo dancing as public spectacle/private fantasy in the 21st Centtury; and finally, 4) an evolving area of exploration–club space as site of performance/ interactive transcendent exchange .

Highlight—Sunday night “Ballin” at Fubar in West Hollywood hosted by Hector Xtravaganza– grandfather of legendary House of Xtravaganza– and master Voguer — hip hop/house music, super friendly bartenders, some really great gogo dancers and a playful mixed race, age, gender crowd from L.A. and everywhere else.  I went to this club a few times, but the best dancing was on Sunday nights. Met Jason Xtravaganz, an up and coming Hollywood choregorapher and younger generation member of the Xravaganzas.  Jason and Hector set the glam tone with walking, posing, vogueing improvisations—are they posing/watching, or are they dancing/strutting?– both, all of the above and then some.  I’m loving how much this form overlaps with the moves and concepts of stillness, texture and level changes that are the basics of  post-modern dance improvisation. No surprise really—Vogueing and Hip Hop are quintessential po-mo dance forms.  This venue bills itself as East Village meets West Hollywood— maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable there– best of both worlds. When I was leaving the night before flying back to Ithaca, I thanked Hector for such a fun party. He said: “thanks so much for coming.  Tell everybody back in New York about us. L.A. is just getting it. NY knows.”   Later I’m thinking about what he meant— hmm— Maybe he means that NYC is used to mixing it up on the dance floor.  —L.A., dominated by “the INDUSTRY” struggles to get past ‘the image’ and ‘product placement’ consciousness– NYC has that and everything else.  People from all “walks” come together and evolve together on the dance floor.   That is one theory.  He could also have meant— ‘I miss the edgy, gritty long past NYC that spawned Vogueing and HipHop and so many other unpredictable dance scenes—not that the West Coast doesn’t have that, (think Krumping, Popping , Locking)–but it’s different. More on this later, after I’ve spent more time on the East Coast and Down South.

Another high point—“Angina,” reality contestant on Ru Paul’s “Drag Races,” hosts a screening of that show’s  first episode at Mustache Mondays/La Cita in downtown L.A.– “She” later performs a knockout lip-sync to Beyonce’s “Diva,” complete with butcher knife toting,  chest pumping –gender krumping (she is totally bald headed– but otherwise “feminized)—Angina is a tiny little “diva”— but packs a big whallop when it comes to drag performance– very perky and energetic. Her  pelvis, shoulder, and chest isolations are impressive and the theatrical “placement”  in her “number” is what makes her worthy of Ru Paul’s reality show.  I am reminded of Robert Wilson’s Murder, where a “mother/nurturer” feeds her two children milk, and then kills them with giant knife—all in slo-mo. I am also reminded of the 1980s East Village legend, “the Pyramid”  performance club, where the edgiest drag queens and other performance artists brought their material to life.

La Cita/L.A. is some sort of leftover “fancy Hacienda-style” dinner/dance club from early 20th century California ‘exotic-theme’ style.  It has seen better days, but still has character with lots of red over-stuffed booths and ornate wooden detailing.  The crowd that night was mostly gay latino/a with a very hip “straight” party crowd—- a lot of straight women who like to dance trying to get their boyfriends to appreciate queer club culture.  There were several gogo boys wearing elaborate make-up whose role seemed less erotic than energetic —(this is often the case when the dancers are more interested in getting the crowd going than getting tips)—the DJ was rockin with some of the nastiest lyrics I’ve heard  —super hard core  —After the “Drag Races” screening, the dance floor started heating up and got more and more crowded —midnight to 2 a.m. is the prime time for dancing in L.A.— just before the live show— and later just after last call.   I was ‘step trading’ with a few dancers before it got too too packed.  ‘Step trading’ is what I call the ultimate in dance communication.  Dancers are on the dance floor doing their thing not particularly paying attention to any one person, but picking up the energy and flow from the crowd— this is best when the floor is not too crowded and before the date couples are out in force focusing only on one partner…   Step trading (versus battle form) starts when one tries to match the steps of the best dancer on the floor.. It has to be done in a non-challenging way— subtly–somewhat peripherally—so as to not attract too much attention, but be visible to the other dancer.  If the dancer is into it right away, he/she might pick up the pace or complexity right off the bat.  I had two really good notable interactions that night— one, a young  dancer who had some formal training and was into recognizable steps — he upped the ante right away and pulled out his most aerobic moves— I had to work really hard to keep up the pace— but fortunately, I had a couple of new moves I’d picked up from b-boys Kujo the day before in his breakin class— the other dancer was impressed and we then did a head on fast footwork mirror play which exhausted us both and ended with hugs, laughter and  “you go girl” confirmations. The second interaction of note  was with a Latino “Los Angelino”–who was decked out in full “papi” attire — hat — chain– big tee— His demeanor was very cool, but his dancing was hot, short spurts of neo-vogue, waack, fast turns and hops.  When he was alone, he  ruled the floor, but when his boyfriend was dancing with him, he toned it down and played it small.  This kind of step trade is complex, because one doesn’t want to give the wrong impression—ie, not a come on, but an engagement  (this is why Fubar is so easy— everyone is ready to engage w/o drama)—- So,  the Latino dancer is there and then not there,  he is driven by the crowd and shines when all eyes turn to him. I just keep dancing in the area, and eventually I can tell he is responding,  it is not necessarily obvious to the rest of the club, but I can tell he has tuned in to the older white guy who has some moves. We gently and never directly interact. My gestures are gestures of appreciation and deference. I want him to understand that I respect and honor his dancing and want him to take it to a place that only a dancer can appreciate— that place where music movement and the energy of the crowd all align and the dancer and dance merge into one transcendent flow. Well, it seems to be working— I can feel the response, and the space we create is opening wider and wider and including all the dancers in between and around us.   Eventually we are speaking in flowing rounded gestures with syncopated footwork as accent. It is truly an “authentic” moment of uplifting connection. I finally feel comfortable enough to ask him directly—“are you a professional dancer?”—he replied:  “no, no man. I just like to have a good time.”—I say: “well, it is a pleasure dancing with you”— and he says: “same here, man–my pleasure”—-then he has to explain to his boyfriend who is standing right there what we were talking about.  Oh well, back to reality in an L.A. club.

Metro/Hip Hop Weds at Ultra Suede–frankly I didn’t really like this club– too much Beverly Hills/West Hollywood posturing and not a friendly attitude–This is mostly an African-American crowd with similar moves I’ve seen in different clubs— So why mention it?—Anything Beyonce sparks the crowd and the energy level spikes considerably— speaking of Beyonce (Southern Drag Queens are better at her than she is/special Florida updates soon)–all the dancers at Metro knew and performed the steps to  “Get Me Bodied” video–Since this is my favorite Beyonce video and one of my all time favorites, I decide to mention this club as a special case (twenty-five dancers doing the “alley-cat” in unison).  I suspect I may uncover something amazing in Orlando next week after seeing a visiting crew in Miami tear up the floor at Club Boi Saturday night.  I found out that there are 8-10 crews that battle on Sunday nights at Parliament in Orlando—but like I said– Florida report coming soon.

Special mention: bboy classes with Krazy Kujo and later with bboy Drew Looner–Hip hop class with Havic and Jazz Funk with Tovaris Wilson –my body aches just thinking about those classes, but studio dancing is really a different animal— there is a warm up and depending on the style– isolated  upper body and leg work—the Hip Hop and Jazz Funk classes are repetitive and choreographed. The bboy classes are more open-session style with empahsis on upper body strength and floor work.  Completely different sore spots and ache areas follow—

Circus Disco/L.A. –Tuesday is Latin Hip Hop night with crazy dancing all over the floor, walls, banisters, furniture and any available body –mixing break moves, krump, stripper dance– neo vogue– super fast booty/chest pelvic vibrations/isolations.  This club is a huge former sound studio in Hollywood with several floors and different music rooms—downstairs was trance/house and a drag contest– upstairs Hip Hop.  This crowd had the most energy of any I’ve seen. The more I think about it,  the more I realize that in a town that shuts down at 2 a.m., one has to party fast—unlike New Orleans and Miami where the crowd doesn’t really get going until 2 a.m.–

Final Saturday in L.A.–This day was a long and beautiful and filled with a total L.A. experience.  I met my old friend Barry Shils for brunch at his place right on the beach in Santa Monica. I’ve known Barry for about 30 years since he filmed my first promotional video in 1979 at Merce Cunningham’s studio, which I rented out for the day. Barry later collaborated as cinematographer and co-producer for “Beehive” in the early 1980s and went on to direct and produce “Wigstock: The Movie.” He also was a producer/director for HBO’s “Real Sexseries in the 1990s.  After brunch we went for a walk along the beach with his partner, Doran George, who is working on a PhD in performance at UCLA.  It was a beautiful day and we talked about life in L.A. vs. NYC and being bi-coastal. Barry showed me some footage from two episodes of “Real Sex,” which dealt with Black and Latino “exotic male entertainers” who dance exclusively for women. This was great to be seeing this documentary style show with the director, because he has so many insights and back stories on the performers, their motivations and personal dramas.

Later that night there was a Hip Hop party at the legendary Catch One/Jewel— a club that is just south of Hollywood in the beginning of South/Central L.A.  This is a crazy night — the moon is full —  February 9th.  I drive from my hotel in Hollywood through a very fancy neighborhood called “Highland Park,” which turns out to be the same area where Chris Brown and Rihanna have their big fight.  Catch One/Jewel is another cavernous multi-floored club with different themes. I  went there the previous night looking for Hip Hop, but it was a Mega-Post-Appocalyptic-Goth party with all black clothing on pale white skin and big spiky hair and beard weaves. It was quite a theatrical scene, but totally different than the all Black/Gay/Hip Hop party I was looking for. Another dissertation for another day—tonight I am in the right place.

As soon as I enter the biggest room there is a smoke machine and spotlights illuminating long liquid legs vibrating to the “stanky legs” song, which just came out. The floor was filled with groups of dancers, some in circles, some coupled off and many just bouncing to the beat. After I get my required Stoli and soda, I move over to a circle of what seems to be a group of lesbians and gay men. They are trading off dance steps with each other and laughing after each set. My attention goes to the platform where the “featured dancers” are performing.  The DJ announces the arrival of “Lady ?” and asks that people clear the way so she can get to her platform. I didn’t catch the full name, but I could best describe as the classic example of the “Venus Hottentot”— very tall, small upper body and waist, and very large thighs and legs. She is followed by a entourage of women that help her wipe down the platform and pole. These women also start the flow of dollar bills, which literally shower her throughout her set. “Lady ?” doesn’t dance with a lot of energy, but her performance is very intense and isolation of one butt cheek or the other, then followed by full pelvis/booty grinds at super fast speed.  One sees these moves a lot lately, but this performance is done by a true expert of “exotic” entertainment. The mostly female crowd is mesmerized and highly vocal.

Across the room a very small and strong “gay” gogo boy is showing off his pole dancing skills. He is quite good, but few people are paying attention, or paying dollars either.  I find this curious and watch for a while.  He doesn’t seem to be able to pick any momentum, and ends his set fairly quickly. Meanwhile, a very strong male dancer has taken the stage in another area and is pounding out a set of hip hop moves that at first make me think he is one of the teachers at Edge, the dance studio where I took some classes. As I get closer I realize it is not someone I’ve seen before, but I definitely want to see more. As the music heats ups and his moves get stronger and harder, a crowd of mostly women gather around and start the shower of money. Meanwhile, he is performing several push up style hip undulations mixed with upside down hand-standing grinds— very impressive and totally Hip Hop in every detail.

Last note: I really grew to love L.A. during the time I was there. This is the first  visit in several decades, and the only one which lasted more than a couple of days.  The club visits were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of getting to know the complexities of this amazing city.  It seems that everything one sees or hears about L.A./Hollywood/Santa Monica/Beverly Hills/Dowtown, etc, are true.  I could easily see spending a lot more time there, taking classes, getting to know the “Industry” better, as well as the nuances of each club and  the different groups that go regularly. I didn’t get a chance to really get into the local dance crew scene.  B-boys, Krumpers, Poppers etc. are all around, but that requires more time and more contacts than I had. photo-101B-boy Drew Looner had several workshops coming up after I left town, and there was a big Hip Hop exhibition coming in March. I hope I get back there sooner than later.  In the meantime— I’m down South now, with lots of new material to report— so watch for it!


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