lessons from breakdancing

The bass rolled across the dance floor and into my chest. I could feel it through the floor, and the wall behind me. The dance floor was surrounded by young people.

We were at the festival of colours in Birmingham; a celebration of street art. We were in a small bar in the middle of the old Custard Factory. We had gone there expecting a beat-boxing completion, but when we squeezed through the crowd at the door we encountered an empty dance floor. On the stage behind an MC was mixing and sending out tunes. We hunkered down in one corner of the room and waited to see what was going to happen.

For the next hour or so people took it in turns to step on to the rolled out square of  vinyl  that was the dance floor and break dance. There were some stunning performances. As we sat watching I noticed that I preferred some dancers over others. I began to wonder what it was that made the difference between a good performance and a great one.

Years ago I studied performance as part of my Drama degree. One of the definitions we used then was that performance happened when someone was working on stage. What attracts an audience is seeing effort applied, particularly effort that takes the performer to their own learning edge. This is when the performance, whatever it is, comes alive.

That gave me part of the answer. All of the dancers were working hard. They were working hard physically and in some cases you could feel their mental concentration too; their focus on each of the moves individually (how to keep your balance in a float, or a flare) and even in which sequence of moves to perform.

Another part of the answer came from some of the reading I’ve been doing recently.

A couple of weeks ago I found my old copy of Robert Pirsig’s Lila on a shelf in the flat in India, covered in an inch of dust. I cleaned it up and brought it home with me. In Lila Pirsig takes his previously undefined ‘quality’ and divides it into static quality and Dynamic quality. (Pirsig always capitalised ‘Dynamic’ but not ‘static’.)

I’ve also been reading about Chaos theory recently and found some parallels there with Pirsig’s work. Systems with what Pirsig calls static quality are what chaos theory might call ordered systems, patterns which repeat and copy themselves – like certain social mores that are passed down unchanged through the generations. Dynamic quality is the value that comes from patterns on the edge of chaos: ideas or physical systems that, instead of repeating without changing, are developing in unpredictable ways – often to bring themselves into a higher value relationship with their environment.

The dancers I preferred were the ones with the most Dynamic quality.

The first break dancer was a young man in shorts and a t-shirt. He looked strong; I could see the definition of his abs and his calves, and his veins standing out as he strained in the physically difficult moves. He reminded me of the acrobats doing floor work I had seen on TV during the Olympics.  He certainly ticked the box for working hard on stage.

Despite all of this there was something missing from the dance. I didn’t realise what it was until I saw the next person enter the space and start to move.

Like George Gershwin, he had rhythm.

The first dancer hadn’t treated the music any differently to how he’d treated the walls of the bar. It was there behind the dance but he didn’t notice it or react to it. The dance and the music were separate and bound never to meet.

The second dancer was less acrobatic but the music became his partner in the dance. His moves bounced off the beat; he slid in and around the melody. It was like the MC had stepped on the floor and was dancing too.

This was the real stuff. Here was a dancer working hard and also displaying Pirsig’s Dynamic quality. When the music changed the dance changed with it.

Maybe that’s just a really long way of saying I preferred the dancer who was tuned into the music, and not just going through his best set of moves, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Or at least I think there are some lessons here for how I live my own life. Life isn’t a performance but the most exciting moments are those which include Dynamic quality – when we put ourselves in relationship to something outside ourselves and let ourselves, our performances and our projects, be changed and affected by those influences.

When we are first learning to dance, or to write poetry, or any new skill, we have to learn the static patterns first. How to hold a brush and make a stroke, how to gauge the metre of a line of verse, or to cha-cha-cha.

The kind of art and the moments in life which stop us in our tracks are those which go beyond the usual and take us to the edge of something new. They are the moments in which we dance in relationship to music that comes from somewhere other than the simple patterns we have inherited. We are inspired by a muse and use what we have learnt, those static building blocks, in the creation of something new.

Break dancing is outside of my usual culture. I don’t spend my time practicing spinning on my head or perfecting the worm. I read ‘b-boy’ competition on the events programme and was expecting beatboxers not break dancers.  I’m glad that I was surprised though – this too is Dynaimc quality at work. It took me out of my usual world, exposed me to something new, and changed me.


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