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Looking Elsewhere: Beyond the impossible

May 31, 2010 1 comment

This represents the introductory entry in the Looking Elsewhere series. In each post, I will discuss David Elsewhere’s dancing, but more importantly, discuss how he trained and practiced to become such an unique dancer. To do this, I will analyse and comment on Elsewhere’s own writings about this subject. These insights are meant to help anyone who desires to truly express themselves in ways people haven’t even imagined possible.

I first saw David Elsewhere the same way millions of others saw him. His appearance on The Asian-American dance contest Kollaboration in the year 2001.

I saw it late, around 2006, after it had been posted on Youtube. My first reaction to this clip is interesting in hindsight. I was amazed at this form of dancing because I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was one of the first videos where I realized that the internet could present amazing talents who would have otherwise received very little mainstream attention.

But it was only a freak curiosity, something that vanished just as quickly as it appeared. The thought of me imitating this dance never entered my head. How could it? Traditional breakdance (I hadn’t even heard of popping by that point) was too outlandish and advanced. Elsewhere was a step beyond this, beyond the impossible. Rumours spread that that the dancer must have been born double-jointed or with some kind of rare physical abnormality that gave him superpowers. I never thought I could be a contortionist, so why would I try to imitate Elsewhere? You needed to be born with this flexibility, and practice every waking hour since you reached age five. With expert tutors.

It was only years later, after I had just started dancing as a hobby, that I found out the truth. It came from Elsewhere himself. “I’m not double-jointed at all. The only place where I am double-jointed is my thumbs, which doesn’t even matter. I would say I’m probably a little more flexible than most people in certain areas, mainly my shoulders and my ankles, but I wasn’t born that way. Those areas became flexible because of years of practicing.” And he didn’t start dancing seriously at the age of five like Michael Jackson. No, only seriously around age 17 (but then every day). Constant lessons and hours of professional tutorship? Nope. He mostly practiced alone, in his parents’ garage. There were a couple of dancers who influenced him (like Squid, Salty and Skywalker), but they were never his tutors and he only met them on a few occasions.

I reasoned that if my preconceptions about practicing and training were so wrong, then I must find out more about his methods and see if they could apply to me. I found a small blog post on Myspace written by David himself where he summarised his philosophies and practices on dancing.

These insights were so illuminating that I printed them out and posted them on my wall so that I can read them during a lull in my practice session. They deserve deeper discussion and analysis, so I will post regular features on this subject, focusing on a specific point at a time. For the next post, I will probably take on his principles of being yourself and trusting your own judgement.

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Featuring: Otis Funkmeyer

May 17, 2010 5 comments

There are some, who are a little interested in popping, that may try out one move before giving up. There are some who like it a lot and learn a small set of moves. There are those who get obsessed and practice hard every day. Then we have the zealots, the ones consumed by everything related to popping. These people have forgotten more about popping then most of us will ever know.

Otis Funkmeyer may be the number one zealot in popping. And he may not look like anything you would expect. The more you find out about Funkmeyer, the more you see how he breaks many preconceived expectations and conventions.

In his videos, he kids himself for being a stereotypical white guy born with little talent or rhythm. He had to work damn hard to get to his level, but he accumulated a giant body of knowledge in the process. His tutorials and articles go into deeper detail then other tutorials, often focusing on the points where most novices go wrong. Even more fascinating is his knowledge about the history of popping. I now know the names of a large set of poppers because they were mentioned by Funkmeyer.

I first heard of Funkmeyer when he wrote a touching article after Skeeter Rabbit’s suicide (written under his name Brit Wolfson). I later found out that he was one of the co-founders of Elastic Illusion, the dance company whose tutorials got me into popping. He now produces his own tutorials on youtube and frequently writes articles for westcoastpoppin.com.

I contacted him for an email interview. His response was true to his nature. He provided the most detailed reply I could have expected. While some of his answers confirmed what I knew or suspected, others caught me completely by surprise.

A short, skinny white guy is already unusual for a popper, but I never suspected how much of an outsider he was in his upbringing. He grew up in Arundel, Maine, in a city with only 2,000 inhabitants. His nearest neighbor was half a mile away, and his household didn’t even have a television until he turned thirteen. He pursued a math major in college (he had highly advanced mathematical skills, in his own words).

What got him to throw all of this away and enter a culture that is alien to his upbringing?

The answer is a little family unfriendly. A frequent raver in his later adolescence, an LSD experience at a rave inspired him to pursue dancing. He started with the liquid dances but later found a clip of Skeeter Rabbit of Electric Boogaloos (it’s Popin Pete in other versions) and became obsessed with the dance. He tried his hardest to find out more about it (this was in 1998, years before Youtube), eventually taking classes from the most prominent poppers: Popin Pete, Gorgeous Fon the Dapper Don, Jazzy J, Buddha Stretch, Boppin Andre, Brian Green, Popin Taco, Mr. Wiggles and Suga Pop. His greatest mentor became his Skeeter Rabbit, his initial influence, who continued to behis greatest influence. Perhaps just as important, Skeet became his friend and taught him how to accept all people for what they are, no matter how different.

All of this led him to move to Los Angeles and live in a house with PopnTod, J-Rock, and Madd Chadd. He also came into contact and befriended Tetris, Animatronix, Pandora, J-Smooth, Kid Boogie, Preying Mantas. Many of these are now attaining greater success (Madd Chadd, PopNTod and J-Smooth are part of The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers).

Funkmeyer cherishes that time where he knew these dancers before their success, times where they were often struggling, and now seeing them achieve success. “Think about how special it is that you knew that person way back when. And realize that if you are around them, then maybe it’s because you’re well on your way toward success as well.” To me, that’s a healthy way to deal with success of others in such a competitive field, but often an unrealistic expectation (envy is a powerful force). On competition itself, he says that “[t]he competitive nature is what makes the dance dope. A heated battle is like nothing else. Fuck the contests; a circle battle is where it really goes down. No politics, just show and prove. It’s primal. It’s real.”

Despite the great times hanging out with friends who shared his passion, the ugly side of the popping scene disillusioned him slowly. “A bunch of teenage boys basically–always beefing, always talking about drama… it was actually more like teenage GIRLS to be honest. I just lost interest. The culminating incident was when Suga Pop punched out my friend PopnTod for no reason. Basically, because Suga Pop’s whole mentality is based on dominating people. If they stand up to his intimidation, all he can do is fight. He is a sad man–at least he was when I knew him. And I’d say that to his face.”

Funkmeyer credits this disillusionment with the creation of Elastic Illusion. “I want to be involved in sharing the FUN of dance with people. I don’t want to tell you how to dance. I just want to show you HOW and let you make up your own mind.”

I’ve gone on record about how Elastic Illusion got me into dancing. Funkmeyer points out that their videos received 23 million views on Youtube as of May 2010, a success in his eyes. Regarding the break-up of the company and group, he replied “The breakup was a sort of “you reap what you sow” thing and we all learned a lot from it. It just happened… People change.”  Nonetheless, it inspired him to appear and produce his own tutorials. He avoided this up to then because of his camera shyness.

I asked him what the most common mistake beginners make. He replied that many go too fast and try to run before they can walk. “Trying to freak beats before you can ride beats. Trying to boogaloo before you can pop. Ignoring the robot.” Related to that, he gave me perhaps his most interesting insight. “Our generation had to be DETECTIVES[,] man. I’m talking PRE-DVD era. We were mailing each other VHS cassettes back and forth across the country. Trying to find ANY SCRAP of footage we could possibly find. I always thought this sucked for us. But actually, it made us HUNGRY. We were forced to always be looking, always be grinding, always be searching. And I think for that reason our dance has more SOLIDNESS. The architecture of our dance has more of a foundation. There’s a basement and good scaffolding. You can’t BS that stuff.”

He noted that “[t]he youngsters don’t understand the importance of foundation. I always thought Youtube was gonna make an army of dope dancers and on one level it has, but on another level, there is so much eye candy to try to bite on Youtube that a lot of people are not historians.”

The idea of less being more fascinates me, particularly when I think about the beginnings of popping in poor urban areas. People were forced to be more creative and focus more on technique because they had less options. A greater set of options can sometimes hinder your progress. One of the best advice I gleaned from Funkmeyer’s article was the necessity to focus on one style at a time, and move on only after perfecting it.

There is a lot of biographical information I haven’t included because they weren’t the focus of my interview. Chris Bradley directed an 11 minute biography of him and his live-in partner, Jenny. His life may be unusual, but that’s just another set of expectations he has ignored.

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Featuring: Michi Kasuga

May 10, 2010 2 comments

The most influential clips are those that show you what a style is ultimately capable of. This is particularly surprising when you dismissed a style and never bothered to imagine how cool it could be. I felt the same reaction when I first saw Madd Chadd and Poppin John clips. Who knew the robot could look so cool? Even more so, who knew the puppet could look so cool?

I was looking at youtube clips for puppet style dancing. I saw clips from some poppers, but I wasn’t too enamored with the style. It seemed uninteresting, not really worth pursuing. Just when I began to dismiss the style completely, I saw this clip.

This changed everything.

This dancer used his entire body to create the effect of a puppet. His ability to let his body sag down to the floor, his legs in a split position. His ability to pull himself up using on his flexible ankles and the strength of his knees, making it look like strings were pulling him up. His bobbing head and flailing arms. Legs without bones.

I rewatched that clip dozens of times, and found another one from him. This one looked even cooler. Again, he uses his entire body, letting it fall on the floor, only to pick himself up in the blink of an eye (I need to learn that move, too). However, also check out his impeccable timing of his ticking, popping, and slow mo movements that correspond perfectly to the music.

I found out the dancer’s name, and looked at his other videos. This guy is no one trick pony, but someone ridiculously skilled in a wide range of styles. He is an exceptionally hard popper, locker, tutter, and liquid dancer. As if that isn’t enough creativity, he’s a damned good guitar player. See him play complex pieces by the great acoustic composers Tommy Emanuel and Andy McKee.

After checking through his site, I contacted him for an email interview. Some of his answers surprised me.

Michi’s friends in Canada inspired  him to dance and specialize in popping related styles (he moved from Japan around ten years ago). But as time went on, he began practicing more and more on his own. Based on my personal experiences, I asked him whether this self-reliance allowed him to become more creative. While he emphasized the need to have others give you feedback until your foundations are solid, he conceded that “it just won’t work for me to practice with others. But as I am becoming aware of my style, I know exactly what direction I’m going.”

Despite having to work hard on his foundations to become that good, Michi gave me no indication that he has any ambitions to impress others. “[B]attles are to me just sharing styles. I am not competitive. I sincerely enjoy sharing my dance […] The fact is that I lose most of the time.” It appears that his parents aren’t even aware that he dances. I have the sneaking suspicion that Michi isn’t aware how good he is, either.

Michi has no ambition to become a professional dancer (he works as an engineer), and when I contacted him, he wrote that he would move back to Japan by the end of the week. He hasn’t uploaded any clips for a year, but he wrote that he’ll put up more when he has the chance. I feel grateful for knowing his work, and hope to hear more from him soon.

Looking Elsewhere – Mirrors and shadows

May 4, 2010 1 comment

This is an entry in the David Elsewhere series where I analyse his training methods and philosophies. The quotes are derived from his myspace post. In this entry, I discuss the following quote.

Using a Mirror – I have found that using a mirror is extremely helpful when practicing because it gives instantaneous feedback. I know exactly how my moves look and can immediately critique myself. The only thing I would advise against would be getting so used to the mirror that you can’t perform well without one. To prevent this I try to practice just as much without a mirror.

Videotaping myself – I try videotaping myself once and in a while. It is just as helpful as using a mirror to me. The only drawback is that it’s not instantaneous feedback; you don’t see what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Videotaping has several advantages over a mirror. You don’t have to pay attention to your reflection thus allowing your mind to concentrate on just dancing. By recording yourself you, are able to observe things that are difficult to see in the mirror, like spins and ground moves. Videotaping yourself also gives you the opportunity to see what your moves look like from a variety of angles.

David Elsewhere, source

Many of the illusionary tricks of popping require a lot of practice and trial-and error. Most of the movements required to perform such tricks are unusual and essentially unnatural. Your body requires a lot of time and repetition to memorize these movements.

Take waving, for example. It requires you to isolate certain parts of your hands, wrist, shoulders, and chest, but to do so in a rapid and smooth fashion. Or take strobing, where you need to perform a rapid series of stop-and-go movements that have to be performed at a constant rhythm, every movement equal in distance from the previous one.

While there are many dance teachers and friends who can provide you with invaluable tips, you need to rely on yourself to criticize your performance and judge what you need to do so as to get where you want. That’s why it is necessary to perform in front of mirror. You can gain immediate feedback by watching yourself perform an arm wave and being unsatisfied with the result. This is particularly important when you first start practicing. Most likely you misunderstand how to perform an isolation or a dime stop, and only seeing yourself in the mirror will point that out. This allows you to try something different, find out what you misunderstood, what you need to work on.

Be aware of the drawbacks, though. Looking at the mirror means you are not fully concentrating on executing a move. It’s difficult to perform a move and concentrate on how it feels if you are looking at a mirror. Another possible drawback is that you may get used to performing in front of a mirror but are unsure how to dance without the aid of one.

Then we have the most simple negative effect: It can be disheartening for anyone to try to execute a move and failing hundreds of times, particularly in the beginning where you will almost certainly fail at everything you attempt.

Therefore, it’s necessary to divide your individual sessions into separate blocks. In the first half, you will practice your moves without a mirror, simply focusing on the sensations in your body as you perform them. Then you can practice in front of the mirror to see where you have improved and what you still need to work on. Spend more time performing without a mirror, but check your progress  with a mirror in every session.

At some stage your own shadow can replace the mirror as your toughest critic. First pointed out to me by Otis Funkmeyer (who learned it from Tyson Eberly), you can detect the effectiveness of your isolations and dime-stops more clearly with your shadow then your mirror reflection. I suppose it’s easier to focus on the movements of a simple silhouette than a distracting mirror reflection, and I guess that the blown-up size of your shadow helps you detect every unwanted movement, no matter how small. In fact, it’s infuriating to see how clearly your silhouette reflects the imperfections in your dime-stop or in your wave. That’s why I’m advising you to switch to your shadow only after achieving some success in your training (let’s be easy on ourselves at the beginning, after all). But I was surprised at how quickly it helps me to improve technique. After you convince your shadow, you’ll convince everybody else.

What about taping yourself? There are drawbacks here also. It isn’t instantaneous feedback, and you can feel even more self conscious with a camera than a mirror. Nonetheless, it helps you see focus on more than just one move, allowing you to judge your dancing as a whole. It also allows you to see the effect of your dancing from different angles. Better to tape yourself dancing once in a while so as to judge your dancing from a fresh perspective.

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