Homogenization: the Catalyst for Artistic Stagnation

By Frank Regan This is one of the negative aspects of human nature that “quelle surprise” has invaded the dance community.  Needless to say, it is all too obvious in the competitive dance world where all the dancers start to look the same and the fundamental character is lost as a result of an immature intention to get noticed.

By Frank Regan

Homogenization essentially boils down to making everything and everyone the same.  It is a manifestation of society being a victim of the “group survival mechanism.” This is one of the negative aspects of human nature that “quelle surprise” has invaded the dance community.  Needless to say, it is all too obvious in the competitive dance world where all the dancers start to look the same and the fundamental character is lost as a result of an immature intention to get noticed.  This fallacy of pseudo accomplishment shows up blatantly in all the Latin dances, particularly in the Paso Doble.

The Standard ballroom dances, however, are no exception to this, and in a recent conversation that I had with the esteemed Peter Eggleton, regarded by many as the greatest and certainly the most musical world champion of all time, I was fascinated by his observations validating this unfortunate deviation even in the standard ballroom dances.

I must, however, state that in all fairness to many of the wonderful young people who are outstanding exponents of Latin dance that they are sometimes victims of a less than appropriate choice of music on the part of a DJ who is no doubt trying to please everyone (always an impossible task) but who has somehow neglected the fundamental intention, which is to play music that is both appropriate to that musical character and is correlated to the structure of the dance, i.e. accents in the correct areas, etc.

For example, the Rumba can be conceptualized but not experienced when danced to Foxtrot music.  The Cha Cha can be conceptualized but not experienced when danced to disco music.

There is an unfortunate tendency to occasionally play music that is counter-intuitive to the ultimate intention.  Some may rationalize this discrepancy by suggesting that we should play music of a contemporary nature and avoid anything that is “old fashioned”!  That is like saying we need to update La Traviata, Swan Lake, Shakespeare and the Brandenburg concertos! They are classic forms that give meaning to our presence as legitimate purveyors of art and culture.

Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake!”  I think good old Friedrich Nietzsche was onto something there and it follows that in dance, without the appropriate music we have made a mistake.

I remember the content of a backstage conversation I had in 1973 with two of the great dance orchestra leaders of the 20th century, Tito Puente and Jack Hansen. They both quite spontaneously agreed that there was no such thing as “old fashioned music,” only good music and bad music.  Good and bad, of course, are invariably interpretations but they arise out of the distinctions provided by the great masters and not by those barely out of kindergarten.  Disco music is not Cuban, it is out of place in providing a context for dancers to portray the feeling that comes out of some of the magnificent Latin Jazz available to us.

The whole aspect of accenting the “one” beat through internalization and breaking on the “two” is governed by the influence of the clave and or clave-oriented factors such as the piano character of the montuno and percussive elements of the conga, timbales, and bell. It goes without saying, however, that you really don’t need to be a musician to be aware of musical nuance at an intellectual level.  As Igor Stravinsky once said, “I have not understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it!”  Re-inventing the wheel is not always a good idea.

I remember in 1973 at the Madison Square Garden. The legendary Walter Laird said to me, after having heard Tito Puente play live for the world championship, “You Americans don’t know how lucky you are to have musicians that can play this incredibly authentic music.”  Laird, as an aficionado of great Latin music, was emotionally moved by what he had heard.  A particularly young European dancer, on the other hand, was heard to say, “I couldn’t dance to it.  It was just a lot of noise.”

It is, of course, the educated ear and eye that recognizes the distinctions of excellence in music and dance.  Obviously, the opinion of the legendary Walter Laird carried a lot more weight than someone with a barely superficial awareness of the subject.

In conclusion, may I leave the reader with the thought that homogenization should not be equated with eclecticism.  A dance style improves through an eclectic awareness of many styles and when aesthetically implemented is never a threat to the purist.  It is interesting to note that the currently younger generations feel that the Hip Hop styles, which they claim to have invented, should somehow surface in competitive dance.

Allow me to quote one of my favorite aphorisms, “Dance is not invented.  It is discovered!”  I remember over forty years ago  taking Jazz classes in New York with the legendary Phil Black, who was teaching all the moves that are now in the public consciousness as a result of intense TV exposure.  None of it is new.  Things just come full circle.  There is a place for Hip Hop and related styles. Let’s make room for it but avoid squeezing it into the wrong box.

Transcending our current levels and still staying in character demands a constant inquiry not only into where we are going but also where we have come from.  I always remember listening to the radio sixty-eight years ago and hearing the words of Winston Churchill, “True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous and conflicting information.”

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I accordingly salute the leaders in our profession who have brought us to this enlightened state over the past fifty years.  Let us honor them by preserving their original intention to share the world of ballroom dancing and promote its growth in the domain of both diversity and tradition.

Frank Regan is a former  multi national champion and recipient of many awards for his work in both ballroom and the performing arts.  He is a published author and has received national acclaim for his work as Period and Stylistic Choreographer for the world-famous Miami City Ballet.

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