SPEAK By Samantha Giron

By Samantha Giron


Photo by Rafael ReynoldsThe truth is, I never felt quite at home as a modern dancer. I always had the sense I was trying to make myself move like someone else – someone else’s height, someone else’s weight, someone else’s turnout.

But perhaps more importantly, I felt unsatisfied by the musical phrasing and the vertical orientation. I knew the world of dance performance was where I belonged. But as a dancer, I felt like I was on the outside.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I did not learn to dance in ballet class or hip hop class. In fact, I did not set foot in a dance studio until I was twenty-two years old.

However, when I was still in high school, I began attending underground (usually illegal, word of mouth), all night, house music parties. These events were made up of a very diverse group of people – people from various cultural and economic backgrounds. People in their 30s and 20s and even people in their teens, like me.

The unifying element in these parties was the dancing. DJs spun house music records. We danced all night and into the next day. Here is where my dance and music patterning developed. This is where I formed my kinesthetic language.

I learned to syncopate my body so that my hips were tracking the baseline and my shoulders and head were tracking the kick drum. I learned to let my arms and spine respond to the vocals or the melody. I learned to keep my pelvis low to the ground. I learned to stay loose and change my tempo, depending on what part of the music I was listening to. This dancing was always done with a deep sense of joy and urgency (like our lives depended on it) and was always done surrounded by others in my community and subculture.

Street Dance is contemporary vernacular dance that includes the lineage of the dance and music communities that began in the 1970s in the US. This includes hip hop (which was originally three distinct communities: B-Boying from the Bronx, Popping from Fresno, Locking from LA), house, techno and all the sub categories of each these categories.

Two pivotal moments occurred on the east coast that resulted in the invention that ultimately unifies all contemporary Street Dances and their communities. At social gatherings, funk music was the music to dance to. The break of a funk song—or the most high-energy, climatic, percussion oriented part—was the part of the song that made the dancers go wild. So, rather than playing an entire song to get to the break, a DJ named Kool Herc used two turntables. He dropped the needle on the break and when it was over would pick up the needle and drop it on the break of another record. This was a revolutionary act.

Then a DJ named Flash, while using two turntables to play the break, had the idea to change the on/off switch on the two turntables to a right/left switch. Now, DJs could play music continuously; they did not have to lift the needle, put it down again, and have a moment of silence in between records. A new era of music and dance was born with this invention.

The house, techno and rave scenes revolve around the DJ spinning records (Grandmaster Flash’s invention) all night and people dancing all night. Hip hop, dubstep, house, rave dances are Street Dances because they are done in urban (sometimes underground) communities and because they are learned from peers. But this continuous playing of records also unites these communities.

When I choreographed and performed for the first time, I was hooked. I immediately switched my major to dance and received a scholarship to study dance at Mills. I then went on to earn an MFA in Modern Dance and Choreography from California Institute of the Arts. While I was pursuing my modern dance education, I continued to spend hours each weekend with my head in a speaker, dancing with hundreds of folks in my community. I danced one way in school and one way in my social community. Even as a choreographer, I spent years focusing on clean straight lines. It was not until much later that my own first language of sequential movement would be channeled into my modern dance choreographic craft.

I was granted a residency at LA’s The Unknown Theater the year after I graduated from Cal Arts. It was then that I set out to collaborate with professional art makers from the Street Dance scenes as well as my peers from Cal Arts. My long time collaborator, Ken Christianson, arranged a score that included songs and pieces of songs that were composed by LA’s Dubstep DJ: Heavenly Father. One of the designers of a very popular underground dance venue created our set. My goal was to bridge the distinct dance approaches of modern dance and Street Dance. This piece was called Mongrels.

With this project, I began to take ownership of my movement background. I began to get perspective on how I was shaped by my subculture. Two things began to develop. First, I began to claim space within the Street Dance diaspora. Second, my movement language began to form.

My choreographic language involves sequential articulation of shoulders, ribs, spine, pelvis and head – moving in opposition, with a refined range of stretch, weight and tension. Like Street Dance, it employs a low center of gravity and loose spine and hips. Though the center is engaged and the weight is pulled up, the dancer must simultaneously relax to express the joints in circular and oppositional patterns.

How do I identify as a choreographer? I learned the craft of choreography and how to talk about dance during my modern dance education. I learned how to move and how to respond to music from my Street Dance upbringing and identity. This is also where I learned the purpose of dancing. My subculture is one of celebration, where we experience the joy of dancing together. As a choreographer, I will always aim to create for my audience and for my collaborators what I found in my home on the dance floor: a sensual, intimate, honest, community-oriented experience that is all about the movement and the music.

Samantha Giron Dance Project will debut The Dirt on Dorian Gray, a contemporary and Street Dance performance about The Peter Pan syndrome, aging and achievement, July 19-21, 8pm as part of CounterPULSE’S Summer Special. More information at counterpulse.org.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.

Samantha Giron utilizes a blend of contemporary and street dance, to create performances about social issues, such as Marriage; Women and Identity; and Hispanic American Ancestry and Changing Traditions. Her work has been presented at Z Space, ODC Dance Commons, KUNST-STOFF arts, Cowell Theater, The Mezzanine, The Supper Club and LACMA; and she has been invited to perform at festivals curated by Joan Lazarus, Yannis Adoniou, Julie Phelps, Jessica Robinson Love, Kimi Okada and Keith Hennessey. She recently led a breakout session at the Dance/USA Conference and she teaches Hip Hop at De Anza College.