What kinds of people dance tango?

•May 13, 2010 • 2 Comments

This past weekend I went to my first tango festival. It was The SMITH (Santa Monica International Tango Holiday) and this was the first year of this festival. I have been to dance festivals in the past, mostly for West Coast Swing and Salsa, but this one needs to be written about.

For those of you who read this and do not know me,  I am a dance addict. I started dancing Salsa when I was 14 and moved on to more and more dances. My current dance of choice is Argentine Tango. I learned a little more than a year ago and have fallen down the rabbit hole.

When I moved back to Los Angeles after college I started looking for places to Tango, classes to take and a community where I fit in. I am still searching for that Tango space that I feel totally comfortable in. I came across some stuff through Tango Mar Vista. One of the questions in the FAQ was “What kinds of people dance tango?” Their answer was “Awesome kinds.”

Awesome kinds indeed. This weekend I met a Tango Rapper, and a girl, presumed to be the youngest person there (that was always me when I danced Salsa). We got into a conversation about why we danced Tango. The rapper said “connection” and I immediately understood. Tango is an addiction. The girl said, “well… at first it was the shoes. My mother wouldn’t let me wear high heels.” This I also understood. You see, Tango shoes are the most beautiful shoes I have ever seen. They extend leg lines and come in every kind of color and pattern. The heels are higher than imaginable, and sadly, I can’t wear them and won’t go through the torture of learning just so I can wear cute, very expensive shoes. To the young lady’s shoe comment the rapper replied with, ” so you haven’t gotten to that point, at an all night milonga, where your brain goes off” and I interject, ” and you have this revelation, ‘So this is what it feels like to be human and alive!’?”

I suppose it is something that comes with age, not that I am particularly old. That search for a perfect dance, the high when you find one, and the longing once it is over. I am have not drank the Kool-Aid to the point where I live from milonga to milonga, always searching. My interests are varied and many so that I do not have the time or money to have tango consume my life, but some people do. Perhaps, if there was a community that I had that always provided a space where I could find something like that then I might, but the problem is, I am an omni-dancer.

My loyalties are not only with Tango, but there are things about Tango that I love more than any other dance. I like dancing tango to alternative and nuevo music ( music that isn’t as old as my grandmother, who is 94 by the way). Alternative music is music that wasn’t designed specifically as Tango, but Tango can be danced to it. Nuevo is new Tango music with a more contemporary feeling. Electrotango is Tango music with electronic and synthetic components. I like these. I also like fusion dancing, that is, blending multiple dances in the same song, and there are few, if any, opportunities for fusion in Los Angeles.

Now what does this have to do with fan culture? How does Tango fit in with media studies?

This community is similar to other communities that form around texts. This community just happens to form in a much more literal way. Dancing Tango requires connection with the floor, your partner and the music. The music is the text. The partner, and possible partners, are community, and the floor is a required element for dancing and connection with it helps to better open paths of communication between you, your partner and the music. These communities must spend time with other members of the community. They will travel ridiculous distances for shared cultural experiences often times with strangers, bonding over a shared subject.

There is also a certain religiosity to this whole thing. Much like participating in call-back lines at The Rocky Horror Picture Show there are familiar songs, and moves and people at tango events. There are familiar Tango events: classes, practicas, and milongas. Dancing tango is like prayer with the intention of looking for something larger than one’s self. For some it is discipline, training the body to do highly technical things, much like Tai Chi. Going to a milonga, the same milonga, every week is a regular encounter with like minded people, to conduct an action that can be comparable to prayer.

Tango is a fan culture because there are obsessive behaviors surrounding dancing this dance- and any/many other dances- that build communities around texts. These texts happen to be music and expression of community is dancing. I have yet to find a community perhaps because I have a hard time finding people who come together on a regular basis over similar texts, namely alternative, nuevo and electro-tango music. Perhaps it is because I have yet to commit to a milonga on a regular basis regardless of the texts.

I then ask a question to all of you, what kind of fan are you if you participate in a fan community for the community but not the text around which the community is built?

In the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show the lack of variety in text (even though different casts perform shows different ways and cast members come and go), and longevity in the community creates some disconnect between pillars in the community and the text the community revolves around. People go there and talk with their friends, but don’t call back. What does that do to the community? How does that contribute?  Is it inevitable? Is it like people who go out dancing and see their friends,  but don’t dance?

Some veterans of the Salsa world don’t dance much when they go out dancing either. I was out once with one of the queens of Salsa in Los Angeles. We were there for hours. She danced maybe three songs, but they were the best three songs, with meticulously picked partners, to insure that the dancing that was had was not disappointing or dangerous. Is that the same thing?  Why keep going? Can these communities only survive and personal connections made through them survive when mediated by the original text?

What happens when you take the people from the community and put them in a different context? What if that different context isn’t an extension of the experience (like going out for breakfast at 3 in the morning immediately following a milonga/RHPS)? How does the community change after they have bonded outside the context of the text? Or, does the context of the text permeate all social encounters? What if the other experience is in mixed company, those from one fan community and those from outside of it?

to be continued… perhaps.

Rocky Horror week 4

•May 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This past Saturday I went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Nuart for the fourth week in a row. If last week was an experiment in cultural participation, this week was cultural immersion. For the past three weeks I have attended this show alone. This week,  two friends came with me, and I ran into a person from my past. I was invited to participate in the execution of the show by helping to hold up sheets on stage for the different bedroom scenes ( to imitate the color of the film, pink and blue, if you are familiar with the movie). I am starting to get to know people there and this week was an exercise in not only showing the friends I had brought there a good time, but being invited to participate with the film and the community in a social rather than academic context. This was the week where I looked forward to seeing people, and was not just seeking information.

After the film, there has been a long standing tradition to going out to a diner that is open all night. This week I was invited to participate in the extension of the experiential space. This space is vital for community building because this is a space where people have the opportunity to form stronger community bonds and learn about each other outside of the context of the film and the routine of being at the Nuart. In a post-Rocky ” you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” effort, those that are not ready for the evening to end and are sufficiently ingratiated into  the social fabric of this experience, sometimes continue the experience over food.

The setting of the establishment is important and the acceptance of the RHPS community, straight from the show, in attire and all, must feel welcome, and the mood must be an appropriate one for the hours between 3 and 6AM. This week there was discussion of the lighting design as being one inappropriate for four in the morning. The lights were too bright for the hour and put a strain on the eye. It might be perhaps more welcoming if the lights were less abrasive.

My second thought on this experience is about going with other people. There is a certain pressure when bringing people into RHPS, at least for me, that they have a good time, granted, I would not think to bring people who I thought would not have a good time in the RHPS world should I not be there.  Rather than conduct interviews throughout the entire film, as I might have in previous weeks, I was compelled to call-back and be as participatory as I could to better the experience of the people around me, because I knew the people around me.

In any case, being around people I invited to see the show with me added a social function to the experience. Running into someone in this context who I knew from an entirely different context also compelled me to be more participatory in order o break through the awkwardly tinged surprise. This was a place that I would not imagine running into the person I ran into, and I can almost certainly say the same for him. The community is also full of smaller social circles within the larger one. It also seems like there are varying degrees of expectations with regards to socialization outside of the theater.

My next Rocky related thought has to do with homelessness of casts. I spoke with a woman who was in a different cast, and that cast was doing its final performance at the theater they were in for 12 years. It seems to me, from reading articles about the cast Midnight Insanity, reading Creatures of the Night and talking with this woman, that the issue of having a homeless cast, either due to conflicts with management, theater renovations or theater closures can set the community back. A RHPS cast needs a home. This is in part due to the logistics of being in a cast. There are stages to set up, props, costumes, lights, sound systems and all sorts of other accoutrements that need to be stored. Schlepping them every week to a theater is impractical. It is also more challenging to create a community if there isn’t a stable spot to gather.

Many of the articles I encountered from trade publications and popular press on the subject of The Rocky Horror Picture Show were announcements of theaters closing and The Rocky Horror Picture Show being the last show in the run of the theater. Many casts seemed to be housed in the 1980s in movie theaters that were single screens. Over the years many of these theaters couldn’t compete with multiplexes and had to close, often leaving the cast without a home. It seems like, as a cast, Sins O’ The Flesh has had a very long and healthy run thus far at the Nuart. The only times they have had to leave were during renovations, and once during the run of The Blair Witch Project.

And now for a thought that is not quite fully formed, but here it is anyway: the LARP aspect of going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For some people going to this experience is like going to church. For some people it is a social rite of passage. Others it is curiousity. I posit that there are live-action role play elements that are strongly present in the Rocky Horror experience. In role playing games players often choose to highlight their best qualities and minimize their worst qualities. Some people who are generally rule following might choose to play a deviant character as a means of catharsis. Shy people can project their desires onto their characters and play fantasy versions of themselves and in the process maybe be able to apply in-game skills to out of game contexts.

In the RHPS world, the atmosphere is highly sexual, and in general, potentially offensive. It is a place where people scream obscenities with a public. People can choose to wear the legal minimum of clothing, come in costume, dress like a character, or wear their mundane clothes. Talking to strangers is encouraged. Talking during a movie is not only encouraged, but is almost a required element of being there. Much like a line from the song “Time Warp” RHPS is ” in another dimension-with voyeuristic intention.” A participant can make the choice to have a persona that is entirely different from who they are outside of the RHPS experience. Much like a game, once comfortable with the at-Rocky persona, one might learn from those experiences and be able to apply things learned from the experience to extra-experiential contexts. This might be in the context of sexual identity, breaking out of an introverted shell, or any number of other things.

RHPS is a learning experience where people learn by example. In returning week after week people remember lines and remember people. It is a classroom where those with knowledge share that knowledge with those willing to learn via weekly repetition. It is also a learning experience with optional homework. The film is out on VHS, DVD and laser disc. Some of them have audience commentary options. There is the script for The Rocky Horror Show available for purchase and there are audience scripts floating around on the internet. An inspired or ambitious newcomer can practice on their own, or at least consume media that will help them in their ability to participate more the following week.

An advertisement for the home video release of the film in 1990 from Rolling Stone showcases the phrase “Dream it in your living room. Be it in the theater.” (Rolling Stone, 1 November 1990). This is a movie that people can and do own on home video and still go see it in a theater. The theater is the space for the game to be played. The start time is as soon as a player arrives at the theater. The end time is when people get home. The experience may or may not extend past the theater experience depending on the level of participation. Dressing up for the experience is a way to extend the experience until there is no sign of any out of the ordinary attire. Going to a space that is not one of RHPS exhibition takes the experience out of a LARP and into an ARG-alternative reality game, where the game continues into a world that might be oblivious to the game being played. The winning of the game is in the completion of the experience for a given week.

In high school I participated in a thing called “Oakgrove.” This was a student run retreat held every semester. People would go for a weekend to the mountains and talk about personal subjects in a safe space. There was a saying about not living life from one Oakgrove to another. The point was giving people the tools to express themselves to other people and cope with real world issues. If people lived from one Oakgrove to another, then there would be a significant amount of time where human connection was being shut off.

The point of the experience of The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems to be something similar. The “Don’t Dream It, Be It!” philosophy seems to encourage the ability to be the person you wish to be, and are able to be in the context of the theater space outside of the theater, and using the safe space of, in this case, the Nuart as training grounds for being the person one wishes to be.

Jane McGonigal in a recent TED talk spoke about the skills people learn through playing games and the ability to make the world more like games so that people can be their best possible selves. She notes qualities of gamers as being qualities necessary to change real world problems. The issue with real world problems is that there aren’t a whole lot of chances for an “epic win” where as in an imagined, fantasy, or non-normative space there is a larger sense of optimism about the ability to complete a task because of the potential for an “epic win.” I also posit that some RHPS regulars have an outlook on life such that they are more capable of “being it” rather than just “dreaming it.” Jane McGonigal posits that if we can imagine the world a certain way, then we are capable of making it so.

That talk is here:

In conclusion to this long and rambling post, communities where people feel safe and welcome are important. Joining a new one can be like entering another world. It is scary being alone in a strange place, but that is how new things start, and if you aren’t a little bit scared of what lies ahead, then why go ahead? I dance Tango and that is a community that I have been finding it hard to break into, but I am doing it. It is scary but meaningful. It is meaningful because it is full of potential for experiencing what it means to be human and what it feels like to be alive and with other people.

There is no better feeling in the world than the bliss of feeling alive and connected to other human beings. Gamers feel this, dancers feel this, religious groups feel this and fans feel this. There are cultural houses of human connection at designated times, in designated spaces all over the world: the San Diego Convention Center in the last weekend of July, sports arenas on game days, rock concerts, church/temple services, the Nuart on Saturdays at Midnight, Oakgrove, nightclubs,  in World of Warcraft… and the list goes on.

Rocky Horror Picture Show weeks 2 and 3

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

My second and third weeks of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Nuart theater with the Sins O’ The Flesh cast have gone swimmingly. And now for some awesome things I have learned:

There is a video of the Nuart Theater from a 1976 episode of Starsky and Hutch. This video details what hte exterior and interior of the theater looked like before two renovations. The seats were wooden and the curtains were gold. It was a grindhouse theater back then that played whatever they could as frequently as possible. It looks almost nothing like the theater today.

The Nuart was remodeled most recently in 2006 and now seats only about half of its original capacity. The incarnation of the Nuart previous to its contemporary state sat about 450 people, down from around 600, and now it only seats about 300 people. The rows are so spacious now that you can stand in front of a seat, or sit in front of a seat facing hte person in that seat and have a conversation without being completely on top of one another. The distance between one person and the people around them is tremendously large, and in the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that is not always a good thing.

The first on air broadcast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was by FOX in 1993 with audience participation edited in. It is really interesting to note this because it is an acknowledgment by FOX that the film is incomplete without the audience. What FOX might not have understood is that this audience experience pales in comparison to a live audience because of the interactive nature of calling back lines with fellow participants and the constantly evolving lines to match the contemporary social and political world.

There was no way to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the United States on home video, with the exception of having a pirated international copy, until 1990. This shaped the RHPS experience because in order to see the film, a cult and subcultural rite of passage, it had to be in a theater, because there weren’t any other options. A running theme in my research on this film and the habits of watching seem to come down to not having a lot of other options. People stood up and walked around at the Nuart in the 1980s because the seats were uncomfortable and squeaky, and so not sitting in them was the alternative. This culture has remained, although appears to be shrinking, because of the increasing comfort of the seats. The option to sit down has become appealing, perhaps. to those who have not experienced Rocky where sitting down was the less appealing choice.

Similarly, because of the nature of the audience participation in the 1980s and the lack of home video, there were few ways to see the film in any detailed, accurate capacity. Often times the 35mm print was old, and projected onto a white sheet rather than the actual screen (this was because people threw food, and sometimes at the screen, so it was a protective measure). There is so much going on in the theater and a significant amount of light pollution as lighting systems for shadowcasts got more sophisticated, and therefor even if the print was good, it might still be challenging to see the colors that the film originally captured. Being able to create an accurate costume as a member of the shadowcast required a keen eye, rather than a copy of the film on home video.

Sins O’ The Flesh has needed to find a home out of the Nuart on a couple of occasions, most recently of which, was during the renovation. Previous to that was during the theatrical release of The Blair Witch Project. Midnight showings of that film were outperforming box office revenues at the Nuart, so in a financial move (which theaters like that often have to do, because it is harder to compete as a single screen in the world of multiplexes) Sins O’ The Flesh found a temporary new home while the Blair Witch zeitgeist provided much needed revenue.

I would like to conclude this post with a nod to everyone who has made me feel so welcome at the Nuart in my return. Going to this experience on my own, rather than in a group has been enlightening. I have had three great nights of speaking with beautiful people about something they are passionate about. Although, like any social circle, there are bumps, by and large, this is one of the more accepting and open spaces I have seen, and it is no wonder that the Nuart,  and the vibrant community that goes there every week, is a home away from home.

on participation and pornography in the 1970s

•April 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I have been reading for this same course about pornographic theaters in the 1970s and the concept fascinates me. I have grown up in an age where home video has dominated that world, and in an age where watching pornography is a private or semi-private event. I had a hard time imagining what it would be like to watch with a public of strangers.

One of the readings assigned on this subject was

“Wet Dreams: Erotic Film Festivals of the Early 1970s and the Utopian Sexual Public Sphere” by Elena Gorfinkel from Framework 47, No. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 59–86.
Copyright © Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309.

This reading was enlightening in that these erotic film festivals advertised and encouraged sexual interaction between festival goers and sometimes even provided spaces for such encounters to take place.  Some quotes from this essay that I think are important and relevant are :

“‘The Underground films were not even genital: either they celebrated
sex in narcissistic and artistic ways or they offered a sort of commentary on
decadent social mores. The hypocrisy of getting kicks out of the depiction of
depraved sex while retaining the right to disapprove of it or satirize it was the
worst turn-off of all.'” page 64

“The Wet Dream festival, which continued for a second year in October
1971, was also a ground for sexual practice, as part of the credo that sex
onscreen should approximate the complexity and variety of sex in life. The
first and second annual Wet Dream festivals were covered as much for their
sex-tinged parties and libidinal post-screening events as for their films, for
which reviewers doled out faint praise. For the second Wet Dream, festival
organizers set up “love “rooms” in the Lido Club and a seven hour ferry trip to
encourage sexual activity amongst its guests, both spaces outfitted with
waterbeds, rock music,” page 64

“Robert Coover, in his review of the first Wet Dream in the Evergreen Review pointed out a central contradiction between the impulse to watch see and the impulse to do it, between film-going as a solitary act and film-going as a potentially social one, writing that, ‘the very nature of film is counterorgiastic. Orgy is communal, and film by itself is voyeuristic, masturbatory, private.’” pages 64-65

“Proclaiming
themselves ‘actualists, not spectators’ the editors reinforced the
notion that the Wet Dream was an engineered yet organic social space where
the ‘live’ sex, and its potentiality, was given pride of place as a public and
political act, a space in which the workings and visceral charge of the cinematic
form could help achieve these goals. In the most fitting credo of all, the
Wet Dream organizers declared that ‘the participant is the best observer.'” page 66

returning to The Rocky Horror Picture Show

•April 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

If you ever want to see some fans, in a participatory community, and why I love media, then you should go to a shadow-cast weekly performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I went fairly regularly for a couple of years of high school, returned for my 18th birthday, and have come back, yet again, this time with an academic purpose.

In high school it was a place to go, without parental supervision, where young people could explore themselves and interact with an interesting community. It was “safe” because it was all within the confines of four walls, with a public, in a theater. There were rules that apply to theaters. I got to go, and express myself. I got a taste of deviance in a world full of restrictions. I got to see choices. I got to make choices. I was young, and nervous and as a result, always went with a group. This is also in part due to the nature of the film, and for those under 17, the requirement that a parent or other adult be allowing this experience, so we always had to find someone older, or con someone’s parent into taking us, and picking us up. It is challenging to be mobile in the city of Los Angeles if you don’t have a car, and at an hour when the buses don’t run.

I remember the first time I went with a friend driving. He had just gotten his license. We got ready at his place, and went. It was exhilarating. Eventually we got bored. Slowly, the people I went with stopped having interest, or perhaps school got too consuming and it no longer seemed like a good life choice to spend Saturday nights from midnight till 4AM out. I don’t quite remember why we quit, but we did.

I went back for my 18th birthday with a couple of  friends. I wanted to remember why I didn’t go, and wondered if it would be any different if I were legally the right age. I wanted to liberate myself from a number of factors.  One was my boyfriend during all of high school. I wanted to escape him. I wanted to reminisce about what I did in high school before I left for college. Perhaps it was what I was looking for in the experience that made the experience less fun.

I went back, for the first of eight weeks (hopefully) of RHPS regularity because it is a great example of participatory culture and the transformation of a cinematic space. I am writing a paper for a course I am taking in graduate school about “film exhibition after 1970.” I wanted to talk about the relationship between movie theaters and community/ communal expression, and this film, especially with the Sins O’ The Flesh cast at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theater can provide that. I went looking for community and I found it.

It was the first time I went alone to this film. There was something great about meeting and re-meeting people. There was magic in knowing I had no social function to perform other than what I wanted. I did not have to host anyone, or be friends with my friends. I had a magical night. Everyone was so nice. The interest in community makes everything feel warmer. I got to see the Nuart Theater in a way I never had before. I, thus far, have never been a huge fan of movies. Most of my research has been in television and digital media. The communities that seem to be emerging and industrially important had been the communities I had interest in. The geeky, comic-con, fairly straight edge communities. My eyes have been opened to cinematic communities and cinema in general, as well as the cinema as a communal space.

This very same night I went to a public pre-screening of the newest episode of Glee. It was my first time watching television in public and with a public. It too was transformative in similar way, akin to watching in a theater, yet different. Because we were in public at an outdoor screening on the lawn at The Grove, there was more of an incentive to get to know strangers, as if it was first and foremost a social gathering of “gleeks.” There was also the experience of watching with a public where the audience sighed, laughed, awww-ed, and sang along, with each other.

So much of our media consumption is in private. Television gets piped into our houses. Internet is wired into our houses and our mobile devices. People have found shame in some of what they choose to watch. I will always prefer to watch narrative with a public over by myself, if that public is as interested and engaged with the text as I am. Even if it is just a few friends who happen to all be huge fans of a show, watching on a small television in a small apartment with each other is preferable to watching on a big television alone.

Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story

•March 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There is a conference coming up on Tuesday, March 16, 2010. I have been working on it since September 2009 for  Professor Denise Mann at UCLA. For those of you out there who are interested in transmedia storytelling, alternative reality gaming, digital branding and advertising, and the future of entertainment in general, then this is a must go to event. If you are a scholar or an industry professional, or avid media consumer and enthusiast, then this is for you.

You can get more information about this event here:

http://legacy.tft.ucla.edu/transmedia/index.cfm?action=panels

and register for the event if you are a student here:

www2.tft.ucla.edu/rsvp/

Registration for non-students is $25. The event is being held at the Ray Stark Theater on the campus of USC and is co-sponsored by Professor Denise Mann (UCLA) and Professor Henry Jenkins (USC).

Synthetic Fandom vs. Organic Fandom

•November 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

For my honors thesis at Indiana University I proposed a spectrum as a means to classify organizational structure and function of contemporary fan communities. I coined two terms, and I will provide definitions and examples here. I am proud of these terms because they do an eloquent job of describing a larger phenomenon.

Organic Fandom: A fan community that arises naturally from fans finding each other and pooling their own resources to share cultural experiences with one another and express their love of a cultural product. They have little to no involvement from the producers of the content they consume. The interaction they do have with producers of content is mostly direct connection. A bottom-up community, less concerned with legality and more concerned with expression and creativity.

Synthetic Fandom: A fan community organized by producers of content and the business enterprises that fund them. These communities attempt to emulate the practices of organic fandoms but in a controlled environment designed to capitalize on cultural communities. A top-down community, more legally minded.

Joss Whedon’s fans are an example of fan communities that are organic. The “bronzers” helped pave the way, from their own ingenuity, for structures of internet fan communities to come. Browncoats are a contemporary example of a bottom up community. Whedonesque.com is hub of these fans and is a fan generated site.

Heroes is a television show with an obviously synthetic fandom. The main web-site is an offshoot from NBC and the scope of fan created content that is sanctioned on the site is limited.

The “Gleek” movement bounces between synthetic and organic, although not as obnoxiously so. Much of the community organizing happens through pre-exisitng social networking sites, in particular, Twitter, MySpace and Facebook.  The fans are genuine, but a large part of their fandom is expressed via purchasing power.