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04.30.08

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Photograph by Curtis Finger
Swingers: The Gravity Girls rely on strength and flexibility to remain airborne.

Suspension of Disbelief

The Gravity Girls take modern dance to new heights

By Will Mosher


Kristin Robson is giving instructions to two girls who are suspended halfway between floor and ceiling by umbilically situated harnesses. They're all talking about their routine, but one is also talking to her dinner.

"Oh dinner, dinner, stay down," she says, patting her stomach with one hand. She's wearing all black and hanging in the fetal position. She looks like a wrecking ball.

Once practice starts, there are flips and turns and displays of strength and flexibility in a dance that relies heavily on pendulum motions. The dancers mimic each others' movements, performing what looks like synchronized swimming--only, of course, without a pool. And upside down.

They are Robson, Abra Allan, Julie Murphy and Kara Snider, and together they are the Gravity Girls, an aerial dance troupe. This week they bring a free demonstration of their unique subgenre of modern dance to the barren spot of urban wasteland next to Lulu Carpenter's in honor of National Dance Week.

Gravity and dancers enjoyed a steady relationship until modern dancers decided that gravity was holding them back; it kept them dependent on a horizontal dance floor, which limited their potential. So when modern dance decided to try something new by shacking up with rock climbing, the end result was the birth of aerial dance. Groups of dancers, such as Project Bandaloop, which started dancing in a California rock climbing gym in the 1970s, began to innovate by attaching themselves to ropes so they could dance over canyons, against walls or on landmarks like Seattle's Space Needle.

Robson demurs when questioned about the amount of strength and flexibility it takes to perform the acrobatic maneuvers in the Gravity Girls' repertoire, but it's easy to tell just from watching them move with such muscular grace that it takes guts and a lot of stamina to dance at the end of a rope.

A lot of that strength comes from years of development and practice. The members of the troupe have piles of dancing and climbing experience, and the spectrum extends from fire dancing to tap dancing. None of those genres makes an entrance into their routine. Shuffling and spinning balls of fire don't mix well with perpendicular wall-flips.

The genre whose genes really show up in their presentation is modern dance. It shows even though the dance kind of looks like something you might see in a circus, though Robson disavows any connection between the Gravity Girls and what she calls "circus style" and frowns at the association. Aerial dancing is art. The Gravity Girls are artists. The Gravity Girls are not Cirque du Soleil.

"The only way to describe it is: 'ta-da!'" she says as she flashes a fake smile and makes jazz hands. "I almost feel like if there are people clapping in the middle of my piece then I'm doing something wrong."

She favors awed silence over intermittent spurts of applause. There's a higher aesthetic at work for the aerial dancer. They're about meaning and choreography, not spectacle. They want to create what they call a "musical fantasia." It's deep.

The music they're listening to is something ambient with a lot of repetitive, rhythmic drumming. It's what you might expect to hear in a yoga class, but it's being danced to. It's fast and graceful. There are no accidentally jerky motions except for the ones that Robson points out.

"Bend your knee," she says to another dancer who is suspended upside down from the wall. "Your inside knee."

Robson is old salt. Her criticisms come from experience, plus she's recording the entire routine with a hand-held camera. She's been doing aerial dancing for six years. She started dancing at Cabrillo College and then continued to train at the Alvin Ailey School in New York. That training formed the foundation for what she does now.

Part of what makes aerial dancing entertaining for the common schmuck is the element of danger, but a lot of boring caution goes into making absolutely certain that the girls remain attached to their cords and harnesses. They've hired professional riggers to set up their climbing gear and to ensure that everything is safe during performances. This is especially important this week since they're performing against the bare masonry side of the empty lot that used to be the Santa Cruz Roasting Company until the Loma Prieta earthquake. Their new routine has something to do with the crater they're dancing over, but they declined to tell us what, exactly.

If you go, remember that the Gravity Girls think they're doing something wrong if you applaud during their routine. So wait until it's over to show your appreciation--though it's going to be hard to tell when the dance ends. Hanging 30 feet off the ground from a rope makes it hard to bow.

THE GRAVITY GIRLS reveal their secret routine Thursday, May 1, at 5:15pm and Saturday, May 3, at 2pm in the lot next to Lulu Carpenters, 1545 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. For more info visit www.gravityarts.com.

Get a Move On

National Dance Week ushers in a mini era of spontaneous expression in public places

By Traci Hukill


It's noon on a Thursday, and an air of easy, focused concentration fills the upstairs studio at the Vets Hall in downtown Santa Cruz. A dozen students trail Hillary Ana Flecha down the length of the hall, sashaying to the relaxed, hypnotic beat of a pop song. Their arms and legs swing freely as they move through the simple steps, which involve pivoting and falling forward on the force of momentum, as if illustrating the Laurie Anderson song "Walking and Falling": "With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from fallin.g

"After class, Flecha explains some of the principles of the Axis Syllabus. It's not a style or technique, like modern dance or Balanchine ballet, but rather a set of anatomical principles governing a way of movement. Created by Frey Faust, son of the late Santa Cruz spiritualist Shekinah Mountainwater, it's said to be more natural, easier on the body. To demonstrate, Flecha raises one ramrod-straight leg in front of her, toe pointed.

"With a lot of dance you'll be going front to back, side to side," she says. "But the hip is a ball and socket joint. This isn't a natural pose for it. But this"--now she bends the knee and swings forward at an angle--"is more natural. We're usually looking for the pendular swing that gravity wants us to play with."

It does look like play, and everyone's invited to the party. May 2-8 Flecha and other practitioners of Axis Syllabus--not to mention instructors of swing, lindy hop, hip-hop, samba, zumba, belly dance, hula, even fire dancing--are offering free classes around town in honor of National Dance Week. It's an open invitation to try something new with zero commitment.

The whole shebang kicks off Thursday, May 1, with Dancing in the Streets, a series of public performances on three corners in downtown Santa Cruz: Pacific and Front streets, Pacific and Cooper and Pacific and Cathcart (see page 30 for schedule). This is three-plus hours of skilled entertainment for free. Among the forms on display: belly dancing, hula, hip-hop and a lot of dance theater, including the Flaming Puppet Sisters (a spinoff of the old Moving and Storage Company) and John and Nancy Lingemann. The evening culminates at 8:15pm at Pacific and Cathcart with a performance by the fire dancers of Nocturnal Sunshine.

Friday through Sunday is Dance in Unlikely Places, whereby a select group of artists, including Mir & A Company, Tru School Hip Hop and the experimental Shah and Blah Productions, mount spontaneous performances around town--in stores, on the sidewalk, anywhere. Keep an eye out for that. On Friday evening, the 418 Project comes alive with modern and experimental pieces by Flecha, Cabrillo College instructor Cid Pearlman, Leralee Whittle, Shah and Blah and Lisa Christensen. Tickets to A Year in the Life of the 418 are $15; show is at 8pm.

Saturday evening the Attic hosts Dance Odyssey's Black and White Bash at 7pm, with dance, performances, food and drink to benefit Dance Odyssey's new Teen Dance Camp for at-risk girls. Tickets are $35 individual or $50 per couple.

For the schedule of free classes and other events celebrating National Dance Week in Santa Cruz, visit www.downtownsantacruz.com/dance.

How I Learned to Love the Hula

The lure of the island dance

By Tai Moses


It began with a song. The song was "Wahine 'Ilikea" and the singer was George Kahumoku Jr. I'd never heard anything like it. I wanted to get deeper into that music; I wanted to get inside Hawai'i. I began to listen to Gabby Pahinui, Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole, Dennis Kamakahi. I even learned to play the ukulele. But that still wasn't enough to take me to the place the song had promised, the frangipani-scented valley of dreams and stories. For that I would have to learn the hula.

One of the first things beginning hula dancers are taught is the ami, the characteristic hip revolution that is at the heart of Hawaiian dance. The Institute for Polynesian Studies calls the ami "a combination of both a circular rotation and a linear sway that, when done correctly, is not only beautiful to watch but also deceptively difficult to do." I learned my ami from Lorraine Kinnamon, the Santa Cruz dance instructor who would become my mentor in the world of Polynesian dance. Lorraine, who grew up in Kailua town on the windward side of Oahu, has been dancing since she was 10, and her joy in the art form is infectious. Always gentle and light of heart, she is truly full of aloha. And just as that word has multiple meanings--love, compassion, gratitude, hello, farewell--I learned that hula is more than just a series of steps and gestures to be memorized. Hula is a spiritual force, the physical embodiment of aloha.

The ami was followed by basic steps like kaholo (a side-to-side vamp), nuanced movements like ka'o or "beauty motion" (hip sway) and tricky ones like uwehe (lift heels one at a time while pushing knees outward). Besides traditional Hawaiian kahiko, performed to chants and percussion instruments, and modern 'auana, accompanied by songs, Lorraine taught us Tahitian aparimas and oteas and some Maori dance. While it's true that just about anyone can learn Polynesian dance, it is still an exacting discipline: you must keep your back straight, knees bent, fingers together, eyes following hands. "Smile, dancers," Lorraine would remind us."Huli!" (turn).

When I visited Hawaii for the first time it felt like a pilgrimage. A Kauai innkeeper put a book into my hands called Hula Is Life, the Story of Ma'iki Aiu Lake, the celebrated kumu hula (master teacher) who was a leading figure in the Hawaiian cultural revival of the '70s. I sat on the lanai, surrounded by red ginger and yellow hibiscus, reading the history of hula and falling deeper into the spell.

At a class recital I got to see Lorraine dance a solo of "Wahine 'Ilikea." The song, composed by Dennis Kamakahi, is about the waterfalls of Molokai, but as with most hulas it has a kaona, or hidden meaning; the pale mists part to reveal the beautiful waterfalls streaming down a mountain, as a woman reveals her secret self to her lover. It's a romantic, sensuous dance and Lorraine's performance was a vision. Her hands became the waterfalls, the sun, the clouds, the mountain. She embodied the poise and confidence she always tried to impart to her students. Become larger, spread out, she would say. Imagine you have all the space in the world.

Auntie Ma'iki said, "Hula, it reassures you all the time, that there is love and there is beauty." And it was true. Hula did reassure me, even when I despaired of getting the hang of it. My body had never learned the language of any dance. Steps that took the other dancers an hour to master could take me days or even weeks. My feet went in the wrong direction, my kaholos and amis felt uncoordinated and clumsy. But hula does not only reassure, it accepts--all kinds of people and all kinds of bodies, large and small, young and old, brown and white.

I went to a Hapa concert where the last song of the last set was "Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai," or "Seaweed Hula." This is a popular hula with intricate, rapid steps that I had only just begun to learn. When the musicians invited all the dancers in the audience to come up onstage, I didn't feel confident enough to leave my seat, but my heart followed the dozen other women who did. Take a dozen hula dancers and you may get a dozen interpretations of a single hula. Every woman performed the dance to slightly different choreography, but it didn't matter. The audience loved it.

I began to trust that there was a place in Polynesian dance for me. I kept studying with Lorraine and practicing at home with my tape recorder and my mirror propped against the wall. On the day she invited me to join her dance company, I felt the giddy wonder of having reached an exotic destination I never thought I would see.

I've gone to many professional hula performances, but the one I remember best wasn't practiced or staged, and the dancer wasn't even wearing a costume. It was in a little bar in Hanalei. The band was taking requests from the audience and a newlywed couple asked for the Hawaiian Wedding Song--the traditional version, not the one Elvis sang in Blue Hawaii. As the music began, a Hawaiian woman in her 80s suddenly got up and began to perform the wedding hula. Her body swayed in one continuous, fluid motion, unhurried and graceful, like the rustling of bamboo in a breeze. The late Mae Ulalia Loebenstein, another renowned kumu hula, famously said, "When you dance there are two of you, your spiritual self and your physical self. The spirit has to dance." This woman's spirit was beaming out at us. It wasn't schmaltzy, it was hypnotic. "Auntie, hana hou!" (do it again), the audience shouted when she was done. The old woman smiled.

If you've never danced, it may feel perilous at first. It's not easy to be a beginner. Yet in some ways the beginner is the luckiest person in the world; all she has to do is learn. We will all be made better for daring to dance, Ma'iki Aiu Lake said. When I moved away from Santa Cruz I also left Lorraine and my hula sisters. But even though I haven't danced in several years, whenever I hear Hawaiian music or see a Polynesian dance performance, I think of those days of amis and fragrant maile leis and I am still reassured: as long as there is hula, there is love and there is beauty.

LORRAINE KINNAMON AND THE TE HAU NUI POLYNESIAN DANCE CO. will perform Thursday, May 1, at 6:45pm at Pacific and Cooper streets and at 7:15pm at Pacific and Front streets in Santa Cruz. For information about Lorraine's classes and Te Hau Nui, visit tehaunuidance.com.

Street Wise

On Thursday, May 1, Santa Cruz celebrates National Dance Week with free performances in three downtown locations

Pacific and Front streets (by Jamba Juice)
5:15pm Gravity Girls on the wall at Lulu's
5:30pm Marsea Marquis and Tropicalismo
5:45pm Contact Jam
6pm John and Nancy Lingemann
6:15pm Hillary Ana Flecha
6:30pm Raizes do Brasil
6:45pm Tamara Nelson
7pm Tru School Hip Hop
7:15pm Te Hau Nui Dance
7:30pm Mir & A Company
7:45pm Dance Odyssey

Pacific and Cooper streets (by O'Neill)
5:30pm John and Nancy Lingemann
5:45pm Tamara Nelson
6pm Hillary Ana Flecha
6:15pm International Academy of Dance
6:30pm Marsea Marquis and Tropicalismo
6:45pm Te Hau Nui Dance
7pm Candela
7:15pm Contact Jam
7:30pm Tru School Hip Hop
7:45pm Madelon Curtis Dancers
8pm Mir & A Company

Pacific and Cathcart streets (by Kianti's)
5:30pm Flaming Puppet Sisters
5:45pm Hillary Ana Flecha and Isabella Golino
6pm Marsea Marquis and Tropicalismo
6:15pm Motion Pacific Studio
6:30pm John and Nancy Lingemann
6:45pm Dance Odyssey
7pm Mir & A Company
7:15pm Madelon Curtis Dancers
7:30pm Leralee Whittle
7:45pm Candela
8pm Tru School Hip Hop
8:15 Nocturnal Sunshine Fire Performance Finale


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