The Talawa Techniques approach to Visual representation of Rhythm makes itself most apparent through four activities. Before I get into these activities, let me first clarify two approaches/modes: Rhythmic Representation and Rhythmic Creation.
RHYTHMIC REPRESENTATION is a term I use to describe the processes involved in representing the audible rhythm on the body. I use this mostly to describe when various elements of the beat or rhythm are assigned different body parts or movements. We could say that Rhythmic Representation is about how we organise the audible rhythm on our bodies. Rhythmic Representation happens in both more and less collaborative forms and can be done without layers or much creativity or in a highly creative style.
RHYTHMIC CREATIONis about how we create rhythm; this could be done both visually and by creating sound. I separate Rhythmic Representation, and Creation to separate the processes which create or produce rhythm and the processes which organise what is already created. I will, however, stress that these two modes are often symbiotic.
I have found that the two subcategories of Rhythmic Creating and Rhythmic Representation will usually engage through four modes of activity. I will here try to outline them, in a way that favours the perspective of the dancer. They are (1)Second Rattle Mode(2)The Percussive Body, (3)Collaborative Direction of Sound and Movement, and (4)Optic Rhythm. I must stress that these often work in tandem and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All of them could interrelate with the dancers/choreographers’ task, which often is to make rhythm, or music a visual experience. These four activities often combine when we try to “make rhythms visible”. All of these activities are usually activated in movement traditions which deal with poly-rhythmic methodologies. Most people familiar with such genres would recognise what I will describe below.
SECOND RATTLE MODE
The first rattle is the rattle played by the musicians. The second rattle is the one placed on the body of the dancers.
Second Rattle Mode is an activity that initially started with the placing of rattles (or bells etc.) on a dancer’s body. The waist, wrist, or ankles are the most common placements of the “second rattle”. When the dancer then moves, it creates a sound that weaves together with the rest of the musical composition. The accentuation of the body-part that has the second rattle as a consequence of this becomes highly codified and technical. Also, the relationship between the movement and the music is often contingent on how sound is produced. We could say that the rattle guides both choreography and improvisation.
As a dance choreographer technician, I have been fascinated by what the second rattle concept does to technique, composition, and choreography. The Setapa dance of the Bangwaketse ethnic nation now living in Botswana is one example of a dance with the second rattle as a guiding principle. Strings of organic capsules, with dried seeds, are wrapped around the legs and ankles of the dancers. The dance consists of highly codified taps, stomps, shuffles, slides and glides, which all create a different sound with the rattle. These movements are not only visually virtuosic; they create an intricate rhythmical pattern which weaves together with the surrounding rhythmic percussive play. It creates an excellent opportunity for syncopation, canon and other forms of rhythmic play as well. There is a particular pleasure in seeing the different movement qualities also have different sound qualities. This footwork also serves as inspiration for many of the newer “township” dances and what are often lumped together under the category of “African House” or “Afro House”, e in Europe. The precise rhythmic footwork also works visually in the absence of the second rattle.
Similarly, more traditional second rattle hip movements from Congo have found their way into Coupe Decale, Ndombolo and other more commercial styles of dance. Then often featuring without the second rattle, but keeping some of the codification and technique. My observation is that the body parts that have a “second rattle” featured usually becomes highly codified and virtuoso. Studying these dances is an excellent way to gain control and precision over these body-parts as the rattle serves as a constant reference and instant feedbacker.
The Second Rattle mode is also distinct from the Percussive Dancer mode. The Second Rattle more highly involves the use of vibration, shakes and or trembling. This separates it from the more percussive nature of let’s say tap, stepping, stomp or body percussion as mentioned before these modes can intersect.
THE PERCUSSIVE BODY
The Percussive Body often creates additional rhythms to those played or recorded. This is done through the use of their body as a percussive instrument, either by ‘playing itself’ or by playing against surfaces, objects or using tools.I include the voice as a part of the Percussive Body. Batido Do Corpo (Brazil), and Patting Juba (Americas) for example include the percussive use of voice. Beatboxing or the vocal stylings of Bobby McFerrin are other contemporary examples of percussive use of voice. I will also posit that R.A.P, as well as Caribbean Toasting, are examples of percussive voice.
I believe Zapateo (Latin America) should be thoroughly interrogated in relation to percussive footwork like Tap, hoofing and clogging. The history of Zapateo could somewhat balance off the Northern American narrative centring the influence of Irish dance on Tap. The theorisation of Tap carries some assumptions that are too influenced by some false assumptions. One is the narrative of Africans being shoeless savages. The other that body percussion somehow started with the outlawing of drums in the Americas. Strong traditions of body percussion and percussive footwork far outdates these transatlantic histories. The stories offered are often oversimplifications not worthy of our field.
The oppression of the drum and rattles/shakers, as well as the lack of allocated space for song and dance activities, made Second Rattle Mode and Collaborative Directing activities less readily available for an extended period in the Diaspora. I agree this might have led to the highly virtuoso and developed use of Percussive Body that we find in Tap, related Jazz styles, Juba dances, in the vocal stylings of scatting, beatboxing and R.A.P to name a few.
More often than not, the percussive dancer will weave, render or cut new rhythmic patterns. They play with what is already offered up by either musician, other dancers or a recording. Often this would take the form of Collaborative and Competitive Rhythmic Play. There is both competition and collaboration in the interactions between dancer and dancer, dancer and music and the participating spectators. It is often in the highly virtuoso percussive dancing that we genuinely get to see the rhythmic intelligence that is still active in the Diaspora.
For those interested in researching body percussion I recommend looking into Step dancing (USA), maybe starting with the company Step Afrika, Gumboot dancing (Southern Africa), Slap Jazz, Hambone, Patting Juba (USA, Caribbean), Zapateo (Latin America), and Tap/Hoofing (USA, Great Britain).
COLLABORATIVE DIRECTION OF SOUND & MOVEMENT
This describes what happens when the music follows the dancer, or the dancer follows the musicians/music. I use this term, by itself, when I wish to isolate when sound and movement are predominantly in sync and have an evident relation. If the dancer is weaving additional rhythms by making sound, I would then describe as both Collaborative Directing and the Percussive Body engaging in poly-rhythmic play. I believe in isolating these events to be able to analyse and credit what is unfolding, and the multiple layers of artistic choices employed by our Africana practices.
In the case where a drummer or other musician is tasked with following and interpreting the dancer’s movements as sound, the dancer and musician are collaboratively directing the sound. In the cases where the dancer is following the music, we would say that the music is directing the placement or intervals of movement. There is a multitude of ways in which these various processes play out with varying degrees of codification, rules and motifs.
These processes are no longer bound to live performance mutually. Meaning that it is increasingly common for the music to be pre-recorded or produced in new ways. This, to some degree, can stress the aspect of “collaboration”. In House Dance and many forms of Hip Hop dance, the dancers still find creative ways to engage with the music. They compete with it, challenge and even re-interpreting it in ways which allow us to hear it differently. They manage this even when the composition does not adapt or enter in a mutual dialogue like it would during live musical performance. I will argue that what unfolds in these instances is still Collaborative Directing of Sound and Movement, even if pre-recordings are not live, they are still contributions.
DJs and MCs have found innovating ways to keep the Collaborative mode going, also when the music is pre-recorded. The techniques of scratching, extending and mixing various recordings by using multiple turntables were one such innovation that allowed for the continued collaboration between dancers and a live director of sound. I view this as a continuation of practices adapted to new context and situations rather than something brand new. The Hip Hop cypher. The heightened poly-rhythmic breakdown of the breaks. The call and response with a highly participatory audience. These are all very familiar and in keeping with what could be called Africana family traditions.
Gwoka Dancing found in the French Antilles Islands of the Caribbean (most notably Guadeloupe) is an excellent example of Collaborative Direction of Sound and Music. Sabar dance would be a good West African example. I encourage visual investigation of these forms to get a greater understanding of the concepts I have presented.
Collaborative Direction of Sound and Music, when done expertly, often blur the lines of what is the guiding principle, the movement or the sound. It fuses the sense of what we hear and what we see. It creates a unified dimension in which we are encouraged to imagine forward together. Ability to be dynamic, and innovative, yet remain together creates an almost euphoric sense. Like when the beat drops away, the dancer pauses, to then re-animate in perfect synchronicity with the return of the other musical elements. This has been known to cause the crowd to roar both in more traditional settings and millennial youth interpretations of Africana forms. We could say that this aspect creates a community through which we can engage in rhythmic rhetoric and discourse through movement. It allows us to establish norms or codes which we can then elaborate on, a detour from or break to produce and convey meaning.
Optic Rhythmis when the dancer is creating rhythmic movements intended to be seen more than heard. A visual representation of what is played is not the primary intention. I use this term to isolate and make visual rhythm palpable within the broader category of Rhythmic Representation. I use this term more to communicate the processes involved in representing the audible rhythm on the body or as an umbrella terminology. Optic Rhythm is a term I coined to clarify that we are isolating what is registered by our optic nerve and with that intention. Sometimes we intend to make counter-rhythms or push against the established rhythmic code purely through a visual counter reference which is not made audible. I have found that more often than not, we in the Africana Practices use Optic Rhythm to guide the gaze and privilege body parts. Especially when engaging with multiple rhythms simultaneously. Or when various body parts or centres are moving simultaneously or in succession. It becomes a way to guide attention and assign value.
Another way to assign a value to a body part in motion would be to have its movements placed on a dominant accent, like the high hat or downbeat. However, the additional attention-drawing defamiliarization made possible by Optic Rhythm, allows us to challenge the dominance assigned the movements placed on significant audible references. It also allows us to create frictions, defamiliarize and encourages us to look again. We can create a mode where the body challenges itself and the composition simultaneously. It allows us more significant dynamics without overcrowding or over-privileging the information which is dictated by what we hear.
Rhythm can act as a code. Poly-rhythms build on specific rhythmical structures. These make it possible for musicians to play together. And for the dancers to move with and through the rhythmical landscape. The musicians can interpret the multiple rhythms and can then proceed to “render their interpretation” on the code. They play in the silences or double up on the sounds that are there. They may present new rhythmic structures or re-interpret previously suggested compositions. I have stated earlier, that in Africana cosmology the unseen and the seen world are equal. Hence, for example, the unborn and the ancestors are considered to be genuine parts of the community.
Similarly, if we consider poly-rhythms, one understands that the silences in-between the beats are of equal importance as the beats. The silences represent the potential spaces in which to render our interpretation a.k.a show what we have learned or adding our personality to the vital rhythm. Tap dance may be the most accessible example of this. An accomplished tap dancer does not just dance what we hear in the musical composition but weaves her interpretation of that into the tapestry. She can do this by adding additional syncopations, counter-rhythms or even dynamic layers over and under what we initially heard. I described this as The Percussive Body activity previously. I have chosen to term this, adding our rhythmic personality. Use of Optic Rhythm would also be a way of combining our Rhythmic Personality. Poly-rhythms, in this light, becomes multiple personalities or subjectivations playing together like a community of difference. When the drums are following a dancer, one dancers’ movement would not rhythmically sound like another’s. This combination of choices would be the dancer’s personality. It is through difference we learn and grow, rhythmically.
When initiated rhythmical musician/dancers invest in polyrhythms together, we learn about the movement through the interplay of the multiple Rhythmic Personalities that displays themselves against each other. Each is commenting on the presence of the other. Rhythmic Personality transmits, sustains, develops, and preserves knowledge. In short, a primary function of this mode is subjecting source rhythmic or motif material to repetition-with-a-difference. Communities of practitioners utilize an established vocabulary and a set of performance protocols that serve as the source and as such, regulates innovation. This is consistent with how Caribbean’s perform their drummed dances. We use motifs that are learned by all participants; Gwoka, Kalinda and Kumina dance-drumming are examples of this. Dances that engage in Rhythmical Personality, like tap dance are both competitive and collaborative at the same time. A Tap ‘battle’ are by some describes as a “sharing”, where we share our rhythm with a contender that shares back. The contenders elaborate on each other’s rhythms and create a rhythmical discourse, where virtuosity is part of the commentary. Similarly, most African and Caribbean forms that engage in rhythmic personality as a mode also utilize what I will call Rhythmic Competition.
Rhythmic Competitiondescribes what happens when multiple Black dancers are dancing rhythmically together and also the dynamics between the drums/beat and the dancers. Even in contemporary forms such as House or Hip Hop, the dancers challenge the song. The song in return challenges the dancer to do their best, be in sync, surprise each other and collaborate. When a Hip Hop or House dancer does this expertly, the audience response much in the same way as the participating audience witnessing the collaborative, competitive play between drummers and dancers within the African circle of dance. Rhythmic competition is a collaborative action. Where each element affects each other mutually to create moments of raised spirits for the community.
RHYTHMIC REPRESENTATION, CREATION, PERSONALITY, AND COMPETITION AS CHOREOGRAPHIC TOOLS
It is one thing to use the elements mentioned above with live poly-rhythmic compositions. It is another matter to use them in contemporary artistic/choreographic settings to pre-recorded and often non-polyrhythmic music. I would say that Rhythmic Personality could also be applied to a choreographic work and the modes/technologies/activities presented above are some of the tools available to an Africana trained choreographer to do so.
Applying Rhythmic Personality to a choreographic composition allows for subjectivation and collaborative rhythmic play. It can communicate relations, defamiliarize elements, infuse dynamics and “vitalize the ghost”. Vitalizing the Ghost will be unpacked in the next section. Applying Rhythmic Personality can also communicate proximity, distance and serve to guide spectators gaze.
Where there are multiple dancers on stage or a lot going on simultaneously, the choreographers can establish a rhythmic “norm” either through unison or duration. Anyone who breaks this ‘norm’, either by shifting to slower or faster time signatures (meters) by alternating cross-rhythms (poly-rhythm) or by using individualised ‘swing quality’, would draw the gaze and attention of the spectators. We can communicate a relation to the choreographic theme or the performed community/theme/motif. Mastering this play of association through rhythmic texture is part of the choreographic practices of Africana dance and is sadly less apparent in many of the ‘mainstreamed’ applications of resembling or derivative expressions. I believe that the technology of rhythm and its multiple effects are an offering to the broader art field. One too rich and high to be ignored. This for its ability to create meaning, activate layers of sensing, and in its proven artistic potential. We should no longer be complacent with left-handed appropriations. We should instead express and expect nothing less than high-quality offerings. These offerings should exhibit evidence of study, practice, investigation and mastery of the genre. Sheron Ama Wray’s, now called approach Embodiology™ offers up many excellent observations and tools for achieving a higher level of understanding within the use of rhythm and improvisation. She has also reached some conclusions and terminologies similar to mine. This is a testament to an active community of practice. Even when practitioners do not come from the same lineage, we are engaged with similar dance heritages and are tasked with translating them for wider and broader spaces.
VITALIZING THE GHOST
I have spent much time pondering how these four modes relate to our contemporary existence as creators, especially in the diaspora. I have considered the effects of pre-recorded music and the unavailability or expense of live music with dance practices. I have interrogated how we have kept specific performance modes alive and how we have adapted them to fit new contexts. I have above elaborated on how the DJs and MCs were able to create a “live” event/feel with pre-recorded music. We could say that they add vitality and soul to the pre-recording, which could be referred to as a “ghost” as it is no longer alive and changing. This line of interrogation has led me to look at how we, as dance practitioners, ‘Vitalise the Ghost’ of recorded music. Especially when we only have our own body and dance as the tool. The practices we activate to do this neatly fit into the two approaches/modes and four activities presented above.
Rhythmic Creation allows us to continue the creation of the musical composition, thus moving it from a finite to a liminal space. Under this category, The Second Rattle aspect would allow us to add live audible music to the ghost, creating a dialogue which is living and active in the moment. The pre-recordings then become references which are live and engaged in the continuous forming process. Similarly, the Percussive Body will allow us to expand, collapse and elaborate on the existing motifs, bringing new and fresh vitality and life to the composition. The Collaborative Directing of Sound and Movement activity allow us to organise and prioritise how we hear the piece, even, if we do not choose to add any additional elements to the music. If combined with Optic Rhythm, this allows us to create a new reading of the event, which is the unfolding of the recording. This changes the spectators and active dancers’ relationship to the ghost, which through this change becomes alive to us again as we are getting to know it anew. By activating and using these four traditional tools as applied to pre-recorded music; the Africanist or Africana dancer can vitalise and bring life to the ghost. This is an act of highly affective and engaging reanimation proven to be infectious, and vitalising to audiences across the globe.