It's 2 o'clock in the morning and I am in a club full of people who seem to be dancing in rapture. In the middle of the room, there's a cipher, a circle, where dancers enter one by one, allowing their emotions to come through in their free-style performance. I hear my favorite part of the mix. Allowing the beat and the rhythm to take over my body, I start to forget about self-consciousness and daily life worries. Suddenly, I realize that I seem to be sharing this common feeling with everyone else in the room, and it reveals itself in my own freestyle. Perhaps I've caught a glimpse of what many underground dancers describe as the "spiritual experience" one can only feel in the club environment.
I am at Washington, D.C.'s Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL), and the legendary local DJ, Sam "The Man" Burns, is spinning at the booth. The party is called "The Underground Soul Solution," and it's been going around D.C. for more than 13 years now. It's one of the few remaining sites in D.C. where one can hear and dance to some high-quality house music. The club lights start to flicker as a reminder that the party's closing soon, but these people seem to have no intention of leaving. They remind Sam of children who forget themselves at play. "It's healthy to have a child's heart. It's healthy to have some kind of innocence. And when you see them in a cipher and they're sweating and it's all smiles, that's a beautiful thing to me," he says.
If I stopped several people on the streets of any major city in the U.S. and asked if they've heard of "house dance," I bet the answers would be negative.
I'd been drawn to house music, a branch of electronic music, since I was a teenager. Growing up in Serbia, before I went to study in the U.S., I'd been a fan of what some would call "Euro" and "Disco" house, two branches that were very popular in Europe at the time. However, it was only when I discovered "deep house," which adds the elements of funk and soul to the house beat, that I found the right music for my ears.
I realized that there had to be a dance to follow this music form, so I set out on a search for places in Washington, D.C. where I could practice it. This quest led me to a dance organization called "Urban Artistry," which introduced me to an entire culture, a parallel world, almost, that still has me fascinated, so much so that I've filmed a documentary about it, now in the final stages of production, which I hope will contribute to a better understanding of house dance as a vehicle for self-expression.
Much like hip-hop, house was developed by African-American and Latino communities, and many early tracks contained messages of freedom for these groups. The dance probably got its name after a club in Chicago called The Warehouse in the 1980s. The Warehouse was a predominantly gay club, and for a long time both the music and the dance carried this connotation, which is now pretty much lost. There are many interpretations of what dances house draws on. However, many experienced dancers would say that it has its roots in American social dances, African dances, tap dance and Lindy Hop. The most important part of the dance is called "Jacking" Moving your torso back and forth would be a rough and hardly adequate verbal explanation, but one has to see it, and experience it in the club environment, in order to truly understand it. House music is sometimes called "Jack Music," which means allowing the music to jack (i.e., steal) your body -- you're living out the beat and the rhythm, experiencing a release.
For the longest time, house dance culture has carried a drug-addiction stigma. Since house is a form of electronic music, "house culture" has often been identified with "rave culture," even though the two are not entirely the same. Rave culture was associated with drug abuse, and many will remember the controversy over the RAVE Act -- the ironic short for "Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy," which targeted promoters who "knowingly and intentionally" threw a party where drugs were present. While it is certainly true that drug abuse was substantial, it is also true that many people were coming in primarily for the sake of dance. While classical dancers have classrooms and stages where they can perform, for underground dancers, it's primarily the clubs where they practice their culture. Many clubs that housed house dance parties were affected by the Act, too.
Fortunately, the Urban Artistry dance organization is trying to take the the negative connotation of drugs out of the cultural part of the dance and the music and help its preservation. Urban Artistry was actually commissioned by The Smithsonian Institution to put together a series of shows, explaining house dance and culture to children. The performances proved to be a great success, showing that children, too, are very receptive to this traditionally adult form of dance.
Ever since I returned to Serbia, my home country, I've noticed an interesting pattern. An increasing number of people around me, especially young adults, are taking up dancing. In response to my question about their newly discovered passion, they often say that it provides a necessary release from stress and daily life pressure. Salsa and tango are ragingly popular in Southeast Europe. However, much to my disappointment, very few people are actually practicing the dance culture in clubs. On an average night, people will primarily sip on their drinks, check each other out and perform some two-steps at best -- no house dance, of course, and certainly no ciphers. As our lives get busier every day, I am hoping that house dance culture, with an enormous potential for self-expression, will find its way to my corner of the globe, too.