Closing the Circle

By Antonio Lopez April, 1999

With a dim scarlet light casting a broad circle on a Marley dance floor, a group of four women entered Sweeney Center’s interior, which had been darkened for a recent Chi dance party.

Video projections framed a DJ as he mixed jungle – a hybrid combining dub bass with hyperkinetic rhythm spinning at 125 beats per minute. A smoke machine blasted from above, catching multicolored laser patterns in the air.

Middle Eastern dancers moved into the circle of light, an area designated for break dancing during the all-night party.

Myra Morris and three dancers from her Mosaic dance company performed for 30 minutes, in elaborate flowing costumes of silk and handmade jewelry. Their bodies shimmied and twirled to the jungle beats. Morris spun with her veil for 10 solid minutes, dazzling the stunned young ravers who had gathered around the dancers.

Later that night, in the chill-out lounge, flamenco guitarist Chuscales was mesmerized by electronic beat mixer Amani. A didgeridoo player joined in, as did kathak dancer Yamuna Wali scatting Indian drum patterns into a mike.

That kind of convergence of break dancing, electronic dance music, flamenco and Middle Eastern dance, divergent cultural expressions from divergent parts of the globe, may be the stuff of science fiction but its happening here in Santa Fe.

Dance is the common denominator and within dance is the potent form of the circle.

Such is the premise of Ring of Power, an upcoming educational event that Harambe Community Cultural Development Center is producing at Plan B Evolving Arts.

The “circle of power” denotes the nonverbal relationship of dance forms. In an effort to draw a connection among diverse dance forms, Harambe executive director Kevin Bellinger and local dancers will demonstrate flamenco, Middle Eastern, break dance, rave dance and capoiera.

Proceeds from the Saturday March 27, performance will benefit the nonprofit Harambe center.

“The root forms of these dances come from the past few thousand years,” Bellinger said. “Some people say it’s a stretch that (Harambe’s) parties and methods connect to a family of festivals in Europe, Spain, or Africa, so I say you need to come don and experience it yourself.”

Bellinger hopes the family event at Plan B will give people a taste of what has been happening at Harambe’s late-night dance parties. In his programming at the cultural arts center, Bellinger originally intended to use hip hop as a springboard for working with youth but dance parties took on a life of their own, becoming multicultural, multigenerational events.

“We are trying to change the paradigm of the meaning of ‘rave,’” Bellinger said. “There has been a negative history with raves in a certain part of the country.

“No one is denying it. In some areas, they are out of control. They have no design; they are done for money and to get as many people as possible.

“We are trying to redefine it. It’s a healthy event. It’s an event done with a purpose, creating an atmosphere for a cultural ring.”

“Hip hop is not separate from the rave culture in Santa Fe. Break dancers love to dance to break beat, jungle. You have a big cross section whereas in San Francisco or L.A., you don’t see break dancing at raves.

“There is a real wonderful mixture of people involved (here).”

Indeed it has been for Morris and other Mosaic dancers, sharing their dance form and receiving positive feedback from a largely teenage audience. Morris, who has collaborated with Harambe since its inception, sees dance as having a powerful ability to transcend cultural boundaries.

“Dance is unlike any other form of language I’ve used,” she said. “It’s the fastest way to cut through boundaries. There is such honesty because, to quote Martha Graham, ‘Movement never lies. It’s the barometer of the soul for all those who can read it.’”

That many cultural expressions are finding a voice through Harambe’s educational programming is an indication of a larger gathering, according to Morris.

“The present forms of break dancing, hip hop, funk, have their roots in ethnic dance forms, like Middle Eastern dance, flamenco, African dance, any kind of folk dancing. These things have a similar underlying philosophy as well as the movements involved and you can see that many of the movements relate.”

So what is it about the circle that ties dance forms together?

“In Ring of Power, we show how they relate,” Morris says. “We point out the similarities so that we can get the kids not only to appreciate their present art form, like hip hop, but the ancient form that these things come from.”
For break dancer Sean Trujillo, who goes by the handle Pax T, when it comes to break dancing, the circle is key to the expression of hip-hop culture.

“You know how they had dance lines on (the TV shows) Solid Gold or Soul Train?” Trujillo asked. “They closed the end. The circle is a sign for people to go in there and express themselves.

“Whether it’s break dance or rave dance, it’s a place for expression. It’s a place where you can be you.”

Break dancers freeform within a circle of spectators, often spinning and gyrating in circular form. The circle is where hip-hop crews nonviolently challenge each other.

“In some instances, when it’s a battle, a circle becomes sacred,” Trujillo said. “You have two opposing sides. Whether it’s the neighborhood, city or the music they are interpreting, that’s how you battle.

“The circle is a celebration in its most raw form,” Trujillo said. “The dance is an expression and one element of that is hip-hop culture. For me, it’s a lifestyle; it’s not something you see on TV and do.

“To be in the circle and do the break dance, it takes time; it takes a knowledge of the art form, music, the people around you. It’s not something you just do at a nightclub.”

Because break dancing primarily originated in New York during the 70s, it’s remarkable to see it practiced alongside capoeira, a form of body movement from Brazil that combines martial arts and dance. Both dance forms have a grace and forcefulness along with a playful and competitive aspect, and both originate from the African diaspora.

Pete Jackson, who teaches capoeira, at Harambe, sees a very real connection between the urban form of break dancing and capoeira, the latter of which West African slaves brought to America.

“There is a direct lineage between the break dancing of hip hop and capoeira,” he said.

Some of Jackson’s capoeira students at Harambe also are break dancers, closing a circle spanning history.

“I think that the circle is a very universal concept, a very simplistic concept of containing or cycling energy,” Jackson said “In capoeira and many other dance forms, when you form a circle, you contain the energy of what’s happening in that circle.”

Like Middle Eastern dance and flamenco, achieving a trancelike state in capoeira is the trance,” Jackson said. “Supposedly within the circle, the person goes into a trance, which allows him to go into the best movements that he can.

“In capoeira, the goal is to outperform or outtrick your opponent without making contact. Ideally it should be done in some kind of altered state. I link this to what the call the ‘zone’ in basketball; it’s the same thing.”

Getting into the zone through circular motion is best exemplified by the Sufi dances of the whirling dervishes but also comes through in Middle Eastern dance and, at times, flamenco. The flamenco dancer draws circles with arms and defines space by connecting with the earth through footwork.

According to flamenco dancers, when the performer gets to a point of transcendence, he or she becomes possessed by duende, literally a “spirit,” but on a metaphorical level, it’s an altered state.

That dance can bring a person into a new state of consciousness also is a reflection of divinity, some dancers believe.

“In Middle Eastern dance, all the movements are based on sacred geometry and the movements of nature as well as basic human activity like carrying baskets on your head,” Morris said. “Spirals, figure eights, circles, squares and triangles all have to do with sacred geometry.

“Shimmies, the vibration when the dancers makes the hips or chest move really fast, are vibration movements, like watching the wind move the aspen leaves. Belly movements have to do with cycles of birth.

“This gives you a general idea of how these movements pertain to nature.

“Dance is an expression of the art of living,” Morris said. “The inner landscape of man is expressed through dance in this vehicle that we live our lives through, this physical body. Ring of Power is a way of personal and cultural exchange.”

Back at Chi, all the talk about sacred geometry, trances, circles and energy would have been academic. Amid the electronic beats was something that does seem cosmic and futuristic yet very old; the ancient future.

An altar built in front of the DJ platform expressed it very well, the symbols of ancient cultures among burning candles and incense reminders that through dance, one enters a temple and within that temple, the many expressions of culture can find common ground.