Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off": It's Only a Dance Party

Like, something kinda awesome happened this summer. On August 18, Country music superstar turned pop idolette, Taylor Swift, released a dance video in support of her latest single, "Shake It Off." The video, still in circulation, shows the young superstar in a self-parodying comedic romp through a wide range of dance styles: ballet, b-boy, emotive modern dance, Lady Gaga-esque robotic show dancing and twerkingframed by competitive rhythmic gymnasts leaping through their ribbon spirals and squadron of cheerleaders. The premise of the video is that these athletes and performers represent a closed society of hard-bodies and high achievers to which the deliberately self-deprecating Swift remains an outsider. She is a klutz. She falls when she attempts a ballerina’s curtsy. She can’t even make ribbons look pretty. It’s quite funny, a true satire with dance, in all its many-genered splendour, at the centre. Which in itself should be something to smile about. But instead the innocuous dance numbers, although joyously and satirically presented, have provoked controversy.

Swiftie, it was straightaway alleged by Los Angeles-based rapper and producer Earl Sweatshirt who rushed to condemn the video on Twitter without actually seeing it, calling it "inherently offensive and ultimately harmful." His beef is that the twerkers in the video – whom Swift, belly-crawling through their open-legs, laughs at, finding the whole bum-jiggling phenom inherently ridiculous – are African-American, and this, he maintains perpetuates black stereotypes. Except, if he had actually watched the video he would see, as the rest of us do, that only some of the butt-shakers are African-Americans. The others are representative of racial diversity. The tutu-clad ballerinas, on the other hand, are all white. Not a black among them. But that is actually more a reflection of the dance culture. It is not a misstep on Swift’s part.

Colour in the ballet blanc is very much an au courant issue, spearheaded, in large part by the black ballerina Misty Copeland, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, only the second woman of colour to have attained such a vaunted position within a world-class classical dance company. Her struggle to become ABT’s first ever black principal dancer is currently making the rounds in The New Yorker, The Huffington Post and dance blogs everywhere. Her artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, not blind to the hot topic dancer within his midst, just weeks ago allowed Copeland to dance the dual lead of Odette-Odile in the company’s production of Swan Lake while on tour in Australia. That Brisbane performance of early September is now considered a historic event. But note that the show took place far away from American soil, suggesting that a black ballerina in a white swan ballet may be hard for some in a country with a violent history of slavery and segregation, to take. So that’s the bigger controversy. And, ironically, the "Shake It Off" video, which contains the words, "the haters will hate, hate, hate," is, even unintentionally, drawing added attention to this imbalance within the dance world. It is also bringing more eyes to dance in general. Sweatshirt’s blindsiding of the popular singer’s latest work has served to make more people want to see it, of course, if only to understand what all the fuss is about. As of yesterday, "Shake It Off" had more than a million YouTube views, further proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The dancers and dance types depicted in the video would normally never get such an audience, so this exposure, like it or loath it, bodes well for the art as a whole.

Helping give dance a bigger platform is director Mark Romanek who at first glance would seem an unlikely candidate for the job. Romanek, for those who need reminded, is the award-winning creator of the way out there 1994 video "Closer" for Nine Inch Nails. No bobbing bodies there, only handcuffed and tortured ones, including a screaming monkey being crucified. Dark doesn’t even begin to explain it. Romanek also created the space-age "Scream" video for Michael and Janet Jackson, "Hella Good" for No Doubt, "Bedtime Story" for Madonna, "99 Problems" for Jay-Z and the heart-wrenching "Hurt" for the late Johnny Cash. The guy’s a genius. But he has never done dance before. So why is he doing it now? To explore new creative territory and score points with his kids, is the short answer. “I kind of pride myself on being able to tailor a bespoke style for just about any artist or genre – whatever's called for, really. In this case, the assignment was to create a purely fun, upbeat pop video. I'd never really done that, so it was a new challenge,” Romanek said in a recent online interview for “You know, I used to be the ‘Prince of Darkness’ and now I have two adorable daughters, so I guess I've softened up a lot. I want to make things that they might like, too. It didn't hurt that they're huge fans of Taylor's, so now I'm Super Dad.”

Director Mark Romanek
Elsewhere in the interview, Romanek described Swift as being a “very hard worker,” and a comedian in the physical style of Lucille Ball – which is no small praise – while crediting her for coming up with the idea of showcasing dance in the first place. “She said she wanted to shoot all these styles of dance and then be the individualist dork in the midst of these established genres,” Romanek added. Yet, Swift also wanted to shoot the dance in natural settings. It was Romanek who suggested giving it “a starker, more minimalist look.” He also came up with the idea of incorporating Swift’s fans (chosen via social media) for an ending showcasing non-professional dancers dancing for the sheer joy of it. The dances are all individual, even quirky, which adds to the video’s charm. They quite happily shake off other people’s expectations of how they should look or even be, Swift, dressed head to toe in black à la Audrey Hebpurn in Funny Face, in front encouraging them.

But the notion that dance, even in the digital age, remains a vital form of self and communal expression, seemed not at all to register when the New York Times wrote about the video and the debate growing around it on Aug. 19, the day following its release, assigning one of its dance critics to the task. “The dancing by the professionals around her is extremely fragmentary and not especially remarkable. The snatches of movement, none longer than two seconds, are there as eye candy, to establish each genre and to set up the visual punchlines.” wrote Brian Seibert who nevertheless applauded the video for its humour as well as its willingness to trade in dance jokes. “It is probably too generous to interpret the video as a satire of how dance gets used in pop videos, but it certainly is a satire of pop video conventions,” Seibert concludes.

But that’s not the end of it.

Since its August release, the video has been inspiring a dance movement of its own. Ordinary people have been emulating the dance party vibe at the video’s conclusion, newspapers and website in the U.S. are reporting. In Lewisville, Texas, The Dimensions Dance Company staged a flash mob imitating the booty shaking and classical dance steps as seen in the video. Romanek tweeted about that one. Swift, in turn retweeted it, adding that she was so overjoyed, she was “hyperventilating.” Which is kinda awesome.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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