Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble: Hot Strings and Flying Feet
by Christina Lindenmuth
I got more than I anticipated from my evening with Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. I expected a high-energy show, yes, tap dancing, yes, but the live music, the cultural history, and the undeniable urge to interact with the people sitting next to me were all pleasant surprises! The weekend of February 19th, Footworks presented Hot Strings and Flying Feet at Dance Place in Northeast D.C.. The production showcased different styles of percussive dance from all over America, and we learned how the cultural traditions arrived here from other parts of the World and influenced the concert tap we see today.
What is “percussive dance,” anyway? Footworks’ Founding Director, Eileen Carson Schatz was the first to coin the term so commonly used by dance enthusiasts. While engaging with us onstage, she mentioned that during her time traveling the folk festival circuit she was amazed at how many different ways people could “bang their feet on the ground” and make music with their bodies. This weekend’s show demonstrated a wide range of percussive dance, including flatfooting, stepping, and clogging. There was even a segment where the dancers sifted through a giant pile of trash and used the discarded plastic bottles to make their own music!
Some of the performances of the evening were done completely a capella, allowing us to fully focus on the sounds being made by the dancers. Others were accompanied by a dependable live band. The musicians’ ability to switch back and forth between such different styles of music was surprising. Each of the three musicians played more than one instrument (including tap shoes) and showcased their original music throughout the night. Their groove and humble presence made the entire performance feel more like an intimate night out dancing, than a stuffy jazz recital. The show would have been missing something without them.
A standout moment for me was a Vaudevillian era English clog dance. The duo entered the stage wearing shoes with wooden soles. They were holding long, thick ropes over their shoulders – props that I thought would be just for show, until they started jump roping while clogging. It was remarkable! Especially so because the two women were able to keep the ropes and the clogs in perfect time with each other, all while smiling and enjoying themselves.
Another favorite moment of mine was the Hungarian Boot Dance. A Footworks dancer, Agi Kovac, was able to learn this dance while visiting back home in Hungary. Before they began, she explained that it is traditionally performed by men in boots, and that they were “just girls in tap shoes,” but she hoped that we would still enjoy it. Right from the beginning the energy was upbeat and energizing. The dancers would keep one rhythm with their feet while clapping an entirely different rhythm with their hands. At times they would kick their legs forward at 90 degrees and clap over and under while jumping and keeping in time with each other. It was very impressive!
Of all the styles I got to experience throughout the evening, what made me smile the most was a style called hambone. Created by African-Americans as a way of making music without drums, hamboning is characterized by loose arm movements and the slapping of different body parts to make sounds, such as the legs, arms and chest. The hambone section of the show included a group of performers singing and chanting together to the beat of their body percussions, exchanging claps with their partners, and beaming with silly expressions. It was very informal in that they would talk and laugh and encourage each other throughout the performance. They made it look so carefree and easy, like I could have fun doing it too.
At a later point in the show, Carson Schatz taught the audience how to slap our arms and legs in a circular motion, like that of a rotary lawn mower. We started carefully and mechanically then slowly picked up the pace until the whole room was slapping and spinning out of control, and we couldn’t help but laugh! Upon returning home after the show, the first thing I did was show my roommates the cool new move I learned. The energy with my roommates was just as contagious as it had been in the theater, and they each started mimicking my movements until we were all grinning from ear to ear.
Something else I really loved about the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble was their authenticity. There was a special mention in each section of the program giving thanks to the person or group who taught them that particular style of percussive dance. It spoke to their character: the fact that they travel around and interact with other dancers in order to learn styles straight from the source and the way they have personal relationships with those people and their dance cultures make the dance truly genuine when they perform it themselves.
I think what I took away most from this weekend’s performance was a sense of interconnectedness, a sense of community. It became apparent during the many crowd-participation sections of the show that the audience members were reluctant to join in. At one point Carson Schatz stood center stage and was hooting and hollering at the top of her lungs and asked us to join her. The crowd members responded with a half-hearted attempt. “It’s embarrassing, isn’t it? But let’s get over it, let’s just be as silly as we can,” she explained. And I could slowly feel people’s walls coming down around me as the hollering got louder and crazier. People were looking at each other and laughing at themselves, and we spent the night singing and clapping along with the performers on stage.
Something as easy as sitting around with friends and singing and dancing is something people don’t really do anymore. We could all use a night with Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble to open us up to the benefits of human interaction through music and expression.