PRINT September 1988


Dancing in the Streets

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I was walking by a building-in-progress on West 68th Street when I saw a gentleman “stepping out” from the facing building, sporting a tuxedo and carrying a podium. Well, this is Juilliard country, not to mention Lincoln Center, so why not? To my delight, however, he set down the podium on the sidewalk: first came a slow warm-up, his arms extending in sync with the stretching crane; then, with the conducting of a frenzied prelude, the suite commenced—the scaffolding came to life as workers and equipment performed their respective parts for this maestro of construction.

Discerning the dance in day-to-day life reveals rhythms, motion, and design often overlooked. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of distinguishing the patterns that people will impose on themselves, initially, I suppose, as an attempt toward organization and a sort of human functionalism, but ultimately, it seems, out of habit. Actors in the Commedia dell’Arte typically drew their material from such conventions; some contemporary street mimes do the same, picking up on a particular walk, posture, or attitude and recognizing that there’s fun to be had in observing and caricaturing this “daily life” repertoire. And, when enough people participate in a routine, even the most mundane combination of movements may evolve into a group dance of sorts.

Consider, for example, the folk who commute into New York via the New Haven train line. In Westport, they regularly separate themselves into clumps, defined by rows as consistent as their pinstripes, and by the movement of the train itself (“. . . wheels repeating / the same gesture remain relatively / stationary: rails forever parallel / return on themselves infinitely. / The dance is sure.”—William Carlos Williams1), standing equidistant from each other, in anticipation of the similarly spaced train doors. Yes, there are a few dissenters who perhaps settle on the benches, but the majority, harmoniously turning the pages of their Times or Journals, folded just so, all seem to know and practice the commuter dance.

Intracity travel also inspires its own unique choreography. There is, for instance, the “platform dash” that occurs as subway riders transfer from the local to the express, or vice versa. Hurdles include pillars, benches, and stairways, not to mention other travelers, and routes vary, from the most sinuous of approaches to all-out, knock-down lunges. Then, there’s the “Is it coming?” line dance, in which prospective passengers straddle the painted orange line that establishes what is considered a safe distance from the edge of the platform. Facing the direction of the hoped-for oncoming train, these impatient riders-to-be lean first into the track side of the body, a swan’s neck for tunnel vision, and then shift their weight back toward the platform, holding this pose for a few seconds before repeating the gesture. To the untrained eye, this sway might communicate very little, except perhaps restlessness. The subway savvy, however, know that as soon as the dancers take one giant step backward, the first glimmer of the train’s headlights has been detected.

Choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer (as well as other individuals such as John Cage) “discovered” the everyday years ago, recognizing that it intrinsically embodies many of the elemental characteristics and processes we traditionally attribute to dance or dance-making, including pattern, shape, balance, rhythm, repetition, imitation, a palette of gestures, as well as responsiveness to people and to a particular physical space. Given this, and also seeking a more inclusive and less elitist, less hierarchical presentation of movement and sound, they began orchestrating more traditional elements of dance and music with “found activity”—revolutionizing theater in the process. Yet even so, as Edwin Denby, in his extraordinary essay “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets,” notes, “seeing art is seeing an ordered and imaginary world, subjective, and concentrated. Seeing in the theater is seeing what you don’t see quite that way in life.”2 And in fact, by bringing “street steps” into theatrical time and space, by choreographing contextual flip-flops and drawing on elements of improvisation and/or chance, these mavericks offer us a new focus on some old material. In doing so, they have also encouraged us to turn their proposition inside out, enticing us to investigate that which appears directed, almost rehearsed, within the cadences of incongruities—the subjective and the objective, the concentrated and the multifocused—that comprise daily life. And when we do look in this way, we discover the ultimate in soloists and the ultimate corps de ballet.

At times of course, the “togetherness” of group dancing can signify a choking conformity. “She too longed to dance in a ring,” writes Milan Kundera of Madame Raphael in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. . . and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.3

The kind of party-line uniformity of thought, step, and action desired by Kundera’s character is one that plays off ignorance, thrives on fear, and can result in silence, and, as we sadly continue to learn, “silence” of this nature “equals death.” However, structure (even the structure of silence) can also be nondogmatic and liberating. Consider for instance Cage’s 4’ 33“, 1952, in which four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ”silence“ (originally performed by composer/musician David Tudor) opens up the audience to a range of activity—the rhythm of coughs and rustlings among them, the bass rumble of buses outside, for example—that would ordinarily not be considered ”music,“ and inherently offers listeners a different experience each time it is presented. The paradox of freedom and discovery through structure can also apply to movement. Choreographer Deborah Hay, for example, addressed this in her Circle Dances of the ’70s. Here, the structure of the ring—within which the dancers sustain or repeat quotidian movements—becomes, as opposed to a whirlpool of collective vacuity, the vehicle for their expanding awareness of self and others—an ”embodied" metaphor for the processes, both physical and emotional, through which we learn how to move in the world.

Perhaps imitation and repetition, in their fixings and then perpetuation of physical givens—things the body already knows—can ultimately release one to more adventitious, meditative journeying. Although it’s a bit of a stretch, an analogy might be made to a comment by Jasper Johns: “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things . . . things the mind already knows. That gives me room to work on other levels.”4 The use of the familiar object also becomes a matter of decontextualizing and then recontextualizing. The same happens with movement. As we repeatedly perceive certain gestures, often connecting them to specific activities, they become so familiar that we osmotically absorb them into our movement vocabulary. In this spirit, any situation or place in which we find ourselves can trigger a response, a gestural cliché culled from “previously choreographed” contexts seemingly unrelated to the present moment; hence, the maestro who found an orchestra in a construction site, or, for example, the performance work of composer/musician David Van Tieghem. Responding to and utilizing commonplace, known aspects and objects of our environment, and always the “different drummer,” Van Tieghem literally plays the street, realizing percussive possibilities in everything from mailboxes to garbage cans to brick walls, as he bops along in Ear to the Ground, his 1981 video made with Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn. This and other pieces in public spaces—such as Vito Acconci’s 1969 Following Piece, in which the artist chose a pedestrian at random and then tailed that person through the streets of New York until he or she entered a private space—also serve to elaborate on the various dialogues that we establish with public places as we move through them in daily life.

The dynamics of following—either unintentionally, or intentionally, as Acconci did —lends itself to the serendipitous nature of “dancing in the streets.” Picture busloads of tourists, each group guided by a different umbrella-carrying tour leader: big problem when it rains—all those umbrellas look alike, and the tourists disperse, darting as multidirectionally as the hatchmarks on Johns’ Dancers on a Plane, 1979/1980. Or consider the stroller who somehow fills up the entire sidewalk ahead while you, of course, are scurrying along at a pace that steams with determination to get somewhere. Close behind this “Sunday driver,” you calculate the appropriate moment to swerve out and pass, but it never comes, or if it does, collision on the street appears inevitable as someone approaching you from the opposite direction seems to be mirroring your every move. But, in a graceful exchange, you instinctively perform the “excuse me” duets with your new partner. Another common pas de deux is romped by dog and dog walker, and there are two versions, depending upon who leads. One is a lyrical yet insistent tug-of-war in which dog freezes in place and will not be budged, no matter how severely “master” may yank, or sweetly coax. The other sequence finds prancing dogs, “virtuosos of allegro” according to Denby,5 spinning their breathless partners down the street, weaving them through the dubious treasures of the gutter, wrapping and unwrapping them around tree stumps and fire hydrants. People without dogs also tend to join these troupes of woofer hoofers in spite of themselves, both overtly, through intricate do-si-dos to avoid entanglement, and more subliminally: when I was younger, my grandmother always suggested that I look down occasionally while walking—advice that every New Yorker must have heard and followed, because the sidewalks once seemed animated with nodding heads. Since the invention of the pooper scooper, however, we are freer to hold our heads up high, giving rise to what feels like a routine of soloists trapped in a production number, rigorously defending their “personal space,” ducking even eye contact with one another.

For personal space is another curious thing. In general, people appear quite attentive to maintaining what might be called respectful distances, whether this is evinced through the circle of space around any street performer, or the very deliberate arm’s length given by those on line to someone using a bank cash machine, for example. A variation on the “Is it coming?” subway number, “dancing for dollars,” is a chorus line of subtle leans, contractions, and releases with each step closer to the magic window; and, for the everchanging leader, finger-flexing. Another phenomenon of the ’80s is the advent of the portable soundtrack. Have you ever wandered into a language lab where the earphone-clad students are mumbling a myriad of responses in a myriad of tongues, unaware of their concert? The Walkman, too, defining and reverberating the wearer’s exclusive personal space, has brought us a multitude of plugged-in soloists who, comfortably oblivious, boogie their way down the streets. Less solipsistic and more social is the “box trot” in which shoulder-dropped box-bearer demands space, in fact invades it, but never tries to possess it as he or she heads down the avenue, out of eye-and-ear shot. So perhaps it’s not a matter of “air rights,” then, but just “space exploration.” (After all, let’s remember that our 1969 extraterrestrial experience was dancingly described as “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”) And so it may be that the “universality” of our stock steps—as well as our own signature moves—may not only dance us through the streets, but jeté us into the “final frontier” as well.

Melissa Harris is an assistant editor of Artforum.



1. William Carlos Williams, “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives,” Selected Poems, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1968, pp. 21-22.

2. Edwin Denby, “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets,” Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, New York: Popular Library, 1965, p. 180.

3. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, New York: Penguin Books/Viking Penguin, Inc., 1981, p. 63.

4. Quoted in Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York: Abbeville Press, 1984, p. 20.

5. Denby, “Forms in Motion and in Thought,” in Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, p. 170.