On a Sunday morning, long before sunrise, dancers gather downtown at Club Shelter, New York’s most respected house party. No one is dressed up or looking for love—inside, they head straight for the dance floor with three changes of clothes in a duffel bag and . . . baby powder. “A little dab’ll do ya,” says Red, a confirmed house-head from the Bronx who’s co-directing the first annual House Dance International Festival NYC. “You’ll see a house-head with baby powder in a plastic bag, which looks totally like something else,” she continues. “And then you’re like, ‘What is this person doing? What kind of party is this?’ And suddenly they’re pouring it on the floor.”
The baby powder helps your feet glide and spin. A house dancer spins like a top, jerks and jacks his or her body to the beat like a pogo stick, quietly swan-dives nose-first to the floor, jumps into the splits like one of the Nicolas Brothers, and mimics the rhythms in the music with footwork so fast it looks like skating. Since its early development in the late ’70s, roughly coinciding with the rise of house and electronic music in Chicago and New York, house dance has codified a technique and a philosophy that’s now big business in Asia and Europe. The four-day House Dance International event will raise U.S. awareness about these developments, offering dance workshops at Alvin Ailey, dance competitions at the Sullivan Room and Club Shelter, documentary screenings, panel discus- sions, and parties.
“House dance parties go for eight hours,” says Hell’s Kitchen resident Santiago Freeman, executive director of the festival. “A song is 10 minutes. So, as a dancer, you have to be able to ride that wave. You have to build your vocabulary over time and tell a story.” Freeman’s Dance Warrior Project—using choreography that fuses house dance with folkloric styles from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil (“Some people call it Afro-house,” he explains)—is one of a few emerging companies helping to transition house dance from the clubs to the concert stage. “It’s hard to capture,” he says. “Because when you’re in a club and you’re freestyling, there’s this emotional release, and it’s hard to capture that when you’re in a dance studio. . . . At the same time, you have dancers who are amazing onstage, who can pick up any choreography, but you put them in the club in the middle of the circle and they don’t know what to do. So finding dancers who can do both is great. It’s a challenge, but they are out there.”
But 26-year-old Harlemite Linda Madueme, winner of this year’s freestyle dance contest at Miami’s Winter Music Conference and a member of the NYC house-dance collective Mawu, maintains that it’s important to separate house dancers from those who simply dance to house music. (Born in Nigeria and raised in Austria, her senior thesis at Princeton was titled Deep Deep Inside: The Ritualized Body and the Semantics of Dance in New York’s Underground House Scene as Contextualized Cultural Space.) “A lot of people come into house, and they love the feeling of house music and the freedom that it offers, and they come with a background in Latin dance or classical dance or jazz, and they feel accepted,” she says. “Part of what makes house music so special is that it’s accepting of so many different people—people of different ages, backgrounds—so you start to see a lot of dance styles within house that aren’t necessarily house, but still enrich the community.
“House dance didn’t make sense to me until I discovered jacking,” she continues. “Jacking is what made it all make sense to me. . . . Whether it’s a house step or a modern step or an African step, the jacking component is always there.” And for that, you may need a little baby powder.
The House Dance International NYC festival runs July 11–14, myspace.com/housedancenyc