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Why Dance Matters I. Animation Unbound

Mindy Aloff—

I first saw the “street dancer” known as Storyboard P in a solo called “Dream Chaser,” in 2013, at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, in a performance during the U.S. premiere of an international festival of Hip Hop. The festival had already been an annual event in London for a decade at Sadler’s Wells, with which the Apollo was partnering to present the gathering’s tenth edition in New York.

“Street dance” is a collective term for quite a range of different improvisatory dance practices, each with a name, a history, and rules for moving. Storyboard’s, for example, is sometimes known as FlexN, a dance genre characterized by contortions and gliding, and sometimes as Bruk-up, a genre marked by sudden muscular twitches or convulsions and traceable to a Jamaican-become-Brooklynite dancer, George Adams, who walked with a limp and incorporated the asymmetry of his movement into his dancing. Hip Hop—another collective term by now for a range of dance types—had originated during the 1970s as a competition activity in streets and schoolyards of the Bronx, the challengers pirouetting on their heads and otherwise risking bones and joints with pieces of cardboard spread over cement and macadam their only protection.

Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of The New York Times in 2013, reviewed the Hip Hop program I saw, speaking of Storyboard P. as “the evening’s superlative eccentric.” Macaulay continued: “He traveled fluidly in his sneakers; his torso arched and dipped with astonishing ease; he wrapped one leg around another in knots. As a solo, ‘Dream Chaser’ didn’t cohere, but its various ideas all began to enthrall—and Storyboard P is an extraordinary mover.”1

For me, Storyboard P was set apart from everyone else who performed by the fact that he didn’t seem to be dancing for the audience; he didn’t seem to intend to entertain or to wow us. Instead, he was there for himself, and we were witnesses. A lean, large-eyed, and extremely limber African American individual with exceptionally expressive hands and a body that he apparently can control muscle by muscle, Storyboard was then in his early thirties. At the top of his game, his dancing conveyed a paradoxical impression that he was flying and falling at once. Meanwhile, his energy was banked inside him, now released as a stream of movement and now as electrifying—even levitating—contractions, sometimes involving his entire body and sometimes only individual limbs or digits. He looked as if his dancing was pouring into him from somewhere else, stimulating him to silent communication with ghosts, or gods, or perhaps the spirit of Thelonious Monk. He looked breathtakingly unique.

I used to answer the question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”, which William Butler Yeats poses rhetorically at the end of his poem “Among School Children,” with a snarky, “Just see two casts.” Yet today, well over a half century after I was introduced to the poem, I don’t have a ready answer. Storyboard P once summarily abandoned an audition for a well-paying Cirque du Soleil gig when he learned that anyone who would land the job had to rehearse another person’s choreography; that, for him, would be like having to ease into the torture contraption that Franz Kafka confected in his story “In the Penal Colony,” where, for twelve hours, a machine needles a malefactor’s judicial sentence into his skin with increasing intensity. In fact, it is as a creator of images designed to be seen on film that Storyboard has said he’d like to be recognized, producing albums of his videos, like rappers who perform their own rap. Perhaps his dances cannot be imparted to others because they don’t exist independently from his performances.

The dancer and professor of African American dance history Thomas DeFrantz has commented publicly on Storyboard P’s “waterwalking,” an effect in which the dancer appears to “float away from constraints,”2 an act of the imagination that Dr. DeFrantz traces back to slavery and notes as a trope in other arts, such as Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. He also categorizes Storyboard as a dance soloist with other “novelty dancers” from the early twentieth century—Snake Hips Tucker, Josephine Baker. Dr. DeFrantz notes that those early dancers had to push their performing energy outward to reach audiences in live theater while, in contrast, Storyboard P—known for his film performances on YouTube (including several to numbers by his hero Jay Z) and other online video platforms, where he has racked up something to the tune of eleven million views—can count on the camera to project his dance intentions, including the nuances of his many transitions among moods.

Born as Saalim Muslim to parents who thought of themselves as artists and encouraged him to dance, Storyboard’s admiration for stop-motion animation, combined with his belief that his performances are telling stories (albeit using imagery that often springs from his private associations improvised on the fly) accounts for half of his stage name: “Storyboard.” The “P,” which stands for “Professoar,” refers to his predilection for flights of philosophical thinking.

Although his work cannot be transmitted to the bodies of other dancers, it has served as the subject of some fantastic dance writing—and, through that, has inspired readers to reconsider some of their cultural preconceptions. Jonah Weiner’s profile of the dancer, “The Impossible Body,” published in 2014, in The New Yorker, is an illuminating example. So is New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert’s article on Storyboard in 2022, which includes this marvelous passage:

Multiplicity is Storyboard’s thing. He can fracture his body into zigzags, lower and raise himself with the limbo hydraulics of a lowrider car, appear to dodge bullets and bend gravity with his leaning. But what makes his virtuosity truly spellbinding is how the style he calls ‘mutant’ seems to draw from all dance, gathering whatever it needs, and how Storyboard uses it as a hypersensitive instrument, attuned to every aspect of music and everything around him, even as it is hooked up to an imagination that seems thrillingly, terrifyingly free. There’s no telling what he might do.”3

Storyboard’s “mutant” style, drawn from a variety of sources (including ballet, which he studied as a kid at the Harlem School of the Arts), is reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s self-named “outlaw” style, which drew on tap, ballet, ballroom dancing, and more. Dr. DeFrantz noted that Storyboard draws on a range of dance material as he improvises but that he makes it a practice of “not knowing what’s next.” What he does know, as Storyboard himself has put it, is that his art “comes from hurt. It’s not ever gonna come from a good feeling.”4 Other vernacular-dance soloists have paradoxical qualities to their performances; however, their dances, made by other people, can be taught, as, for example, Myles Frost is proving nightly in his role as Michael Jackson in Broadway’s MJ the Musical. However, audiences for that musical do not believe that they are seeing Michael Jackson reincarnated in Mr. Frost. To believe that, something inside us would have had to have been changed, a border (psychological? neurological?) would have had to have been erased.

So, with Storyboard P, we have a dance artist who inspires conversation on such topics as perception, character, “illusion” and “reality,” and, in what I find the most profound aspect of his dance, identity. What is it that he’s doing in theaters, on film, even along the street? His comment that his creations “come from hurt” directly contravene the ideals that Yeats refers to in “Among School Children”:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.5

What conditions have to obtain for Yeats’s words to be realized in the arts? Is the psychological origin of a work connected to how we think and feel about it—and evaluate it? I can see the question on the final exam for the fall semester of a year-long freshman core course, built on Yeats’s poetry and Storyboard’s dancing, which assembles key chapters in the history of philosophy, the arts, and religion. Let’s call this part I of the course that, as a whole, is titled “Dance Matters.”

  1. Alastair Macaulay, “Gathering Many Identities on the Road, Hip-Hop Returns to Its Roots,” The New York Times, June 18, 2013, C 5.
  3. Brian Seibert, “Too Singular to Be In the Background,” The New York Times, April 3, 2022 AR 8. Another version, online:
  4. Weiner, Impossible Body.

Mindy Aloff’s writing on cultural topics has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Threepenny Review. She is the editor of the anthology Dance in America and the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation.

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