Written Cooperatively with Ed Luna–all mistakes are my own, but all stylistic grace and nuance in the argument is owed to Ed
Ed Luna was one of the founding members of the ele_mental crew in Columbus. He and his colleagues Chris Jones, Titonton Duvante, Charles Noel, Todd Sines, Doug Holmes, Anthony Dandrea (formerly Ramos), and others all saw the capacity for dance music to change the script and raise the level of dialogue in Columbus Dance Music. Due to this, their events weren’t just parties, but expansive, immersive experiences in sound and mixed media collage. It was not uncommon at these events to have art installations backed by DJ or live music accompaniment. Exploring the capacities that both new and obsolete technology held, this group of artists looked to push the boundaries of what a dance music event could be by drawing on avant-garde music and performance events. They tried to take the mold of a dance music event in Central Ohio and reshape it to fit what they wanted with different experiences, sounds, and spaces taken from a variety of sources outside the city (mainly Detroit, New York, and London, as we shall see). This made their underground parties in art spaces, warehouses, meeting houses, and other sites around the city a must-see experience.
For some ten years, ele_mental held down their spot as one of the innovators in events and music in Central Ohio. They played the role of tastemaker for many individuals and forged the path for many of the current event planners and DJs to explore the boundaries of dance music. Yet Ed himself would be the first person to call into question the impact they had in the grander scheme of dance music history. According to him, ele_mental’s events were not particularly unusual or revolutionary, from the point of view of contemporary art, or as compared to the contemporary electronic music scenes of say, London, Berlin, or Detroit. Their impact certainly didn’t reach much beyond their immediate regional confines. But they did make connections all over the country, continent, and globe that remain intact today.
It’s also true that the innovations they instituted were almost singular in the US scene. ele_mental was almost alone among promoters in the Midwest to push electronic music events in the direction of high or conceptual art, while keeping its events rooted in dance music culture. Others, like Richie Hawtin’s Plus-8 in Detroit/Windsor, and the Illuminators in Dayton, did some mind-blowing events with more generous budgets, while Drop Bass Network and Massive in Milwaukee presented some of the most extreme and memorable events ever presented in the area. But ele_mental’s approach was uniquely diverse, minimalist, and often extremely low-budget. It also depended on the vision that each person brought to the collective. Sometimes, this meant presenting a mega-rave with thousands of attendees, but more often than not, it meant creating smaller, more intimate events in unusual spaces. It meant designing events that could question the very idea of an underground event, while remaining fun and affordable to attend. At its heart, then, ele_mental was really about “doing something with nothing” (to paraphrase a phrase that interviewer Stephen Slaybaugh used to describe them in 2003), while making its events both challenging and accessible. It therefore wasn’t so much about making a big splash, it was more about bringing people in Central Ohio the opportunity to experience something different in their lives. This impact Ed and his colleagues had on people in our city makes them and other members active in the 80s/90s incredibly interesting to talk to and learn from.
One of the main lessons we can cull from talking to Ed is the cyclical nature of music scenes. Though there is a new generation of people coming up into the scene, many of the same fundamental ideas that guide music creation, event production, and tastemaking are still largely the same, despite much technological evolution. This invites us to look at what’s come before as a treasure to draw from, a partially buried Rosetta Stone of electronic music forms and tropes that can help us decode the past and build a new scene. But Ed doesn’t want anyone to fetishize or petrify the past. Rather, he’d prefer it if people just enjoyed the process of “reinventing the wheel” one more time, just as ele_mental did, knowing something similar has been done before, in different, unique, and interesting ways. Ed also points out that even though today’s scene is just another round in scene-building, that doesn’t mean that there really is nothing new or novel under the sun (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes). Instead, we are in a constant state of remixing and indexing that difference with a new title, twisting the classic “genres” and events into new forms that are being experienced by new ears, for new purposes, in a new time.
This is why I want to facilitate the sharing of Ed Luna’s story (and so many others), because it provides us a key tool to understand where we have come from and where we are going in a clearer fashion. If nothing else, I hope you at least enjoy Ed Luna’s story. This is the first of a few installments where Ed discusses his experiences. Today, Ed will discuss his love of music and why dancing has been important to him. In such a discussion are amazing gems of knowledge that not only teach you about Ed, but also about our scene’s history.
So much of what has driven you in life seems to be music centered. What is it about music that impacts you so deeply? How do you view the role of music in your life?
I’ve thought about this question a lot. Ironically, I’d say that music, or sound, is not as centrally important to me as I once believed. I think it has more to do with something bigger, like immersive aesthetic experiences in general.
The most relevant thing that comes to mind at the moment is my first exposure to true “industrial” music, around 1990–91. Before that time, I had heard it here and there, either in the background, or in bits and pieces. A good friend’s older brother—a former punk—played me a snippet of a band called Foetus (Jim Thurwell), that was an utterly jarring experience. Another time, I heard some really dank, noisy stuff (it might have been Psychic T.V. or Severed Heads, I don’t quite remember) while visiting a friend’s dorm room at CCAD in 1990 (before the widespread use of the internet, dorms were the primary place to trade life-changing music and ideas). I also had a couple of older acquaintances (Mark Gunderson being one of them) who made industrial music themselves, so I was aware of it on some level, early on. I found something about it unsettling and compelling.
So even though I only had a vague idea what industrial music really was, I felt an instinctive attraction to it. Maybe it’s because I had grown up with a shortwave radio in the house, and had watched a few post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies in my youth (like Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Road Warrior, RoboCop, Brazil, The Quiet Earth, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and A Boy and His Dog). It also likely had something to do with the fact that I had become a huge fan of Depeche Mode, a band that generously infused their pop music with industrial, ambient, and electronic textures. Either way, it was almost as if industrial music was an inner impulse waiting for me to tap.
When my ears were finally assaulted by the clangy junkyard music of Einstürzende Neubauten, it was a real revelation. There weren’t many places that sold their music, and their releases were always expensive import CDs/LPs from the UK or Germany, so whenever I managed to find one, I treated it like a precious tome waiting to be deciphered. The first one I got is probably their best—their rawest, but also most sophisticated piece of work, called Drawings of Patient O.T. (1983).
Einstürzende Neubauten – “Die genaue Zeit” – From Drawings of Patient O.T. (1983) – audio only
Einstürzende Neubauten – “Armenia” – From Drawings of Patient O.T. (1983) – excerpt from the film Halber Mensch (Sogo Ishii, 1985)
Once I had time to listen to that album on a good system, I became completely engulfed. It was music unlike anything else that was out there. It somehow managed to be environmental, drastic, urgent, hungry, primitive, literate, abstract, epic, and deeply wounded. It was also very European, picking up where older traditions had left off; mainly German currents such as Radio-Activity-era Kraftwerk, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the 1920s Bauhaus, and the free-wheeling, experimental, cabaret-like spirit of Berlin during the Weimar republic. Even the very name of the band, which is German for “Collapsing New Buildings,” spoke to this. It also said everything to me.
And then there was Blixa Bargeld, their singer—clad in leather, wild-eyed and gaunt beyond reckoning, with spiky hair and a voice like knives scraping on a chalkboard, singing about his soul being on fire and interrogating volcanoes with a Nietzschian fervor. He was clearly someone who put himself on the line with every performance.
Indeed, everything about the band was a coherent package, inviting you into a world where music somehow lurched into existence out of what was left after the collapse of civilization. As you can see for yourself in their 1985 film Halber Mensch (Half-Man, directed by Sogo Ishii), their music was like a live power line buzzing in a field of rubble, where the only human-like scrawl left is the cyclops-man symbol that they took as their logo, seared into concrete by some long-lost, Germanic tribe (dressed in leather and spikes, of course).
Although I spoke next-to-no German back then (and I didn’t get to visit Germany until the 2000s), I took their world as if I belonged there. And for a while, I got lost in it, to whatever small extent I could in middle-of-the-road Columbus, Ohio.
My friend (the filmmaker, Jennifer Reeder) told me of their legendary 1986 appearance at the Newport Music Hall. This was way before my time, but it’s a story that ought to be told again more thoroughly. Before arriving in Columbus, Neubauten had asked runners to visit the local scrapyard so they could make their own instruments before the show. They played, and then gave all the instruments away after the show. This inspired me to start visiting a junkyard on the Whittier peninsula, near the present-day Scioto Audubon Metro Park, to buy whatever pieces of scrap I could make noise with. I didn’t have the welding or electrical know-how to really make instruments that were as sophisticated or cool as Neubauten’s, but just having all those pieces of rusting metal sheets, springs, boxes, rods, grates, and other junk laying around really made me feel like I was exploring similar territory.
This also made me more susceptible to other bands of that period, most of whom were almost completely unlike Neubauten, but shared some of their ability to weave their own immersive worlds. We’re talking about bands like Cocteau Twins, Cindytalk, The Durutti Column, The Young Gods, Skinny Puppy, Brian Eno (primarily his 1970s rock and ambient albums), Aphex Twin (especially his early electro and ambient material), Seefeel, Autechre, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Swans (in their 90s dark folk period), Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (featuring Blixa himself on guitar), My Bloody Valentine, and a few Ohio bands such as My Dad Is Dead (a long-time Cleveland cult band) and the Columbus trash rock scene.
The Young Gods – “Nous de la Lune” (We of the Moon) – From The Young Gods (1987) – audio only
Durutti Column – “Smile in the Crowd” – From Another Setting (1983) – audio only
Aphex Twin – “Xtal” – From Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (1992) – audio only
Cindytalk – “Memories of Skin and Snow” – From Camouflage Heart (1984) – fan-made stills film
Seefeel – “Time to Find Me” (AFX Slow Mix) – From Time to Find Me EP (1993)
Somewhere in there, I also got into other essential Ohio bands like Vertical Slit (aka V3), Scrawl, and Gaunt; as well as the earlier grunt-and-drums period of Swans, the weird chamber pop of Tuxedomoon, the Spanish electro-industrial music of Esplendor Geométrico, the wildly experimental noise music of NON (Boyd Rice), the almost-unknown musique concrète of Étant Donnés, and much later, the vastly underrated electro-punk of the New York No Wave/electronic duo Suicide. (Some of these artists are better known now, while others have faded into relative obscurity, but the surprising thing to me is that most of them are still active on some level, even thirty years later in some cases!) From about 1994–1998, I was also a member of GaGa, a sort of tribal-industrial noise band featuring Mark Gunderson and a rotating roster of other musicians, where I got to use lots of those metal instruments I had collected.
Esplendor Geométrico – “Muerte a escala industrial” – From Eg1 (1982) – audio only
NON (Boyd Rice) – Locked groove – From Pagan Muzak (1978) – fan film
Suicide – “Ghost Rider” (Live c. 1977–78) – concert footage
Anyway, I’ve obviously moved on from that initial impact of Neubauten, but I still follow them here and there and find new layers of meaning in their older work. They and their side projects in theater, experimental ambient music, and fan-sourced composition have continued to influence me, in some obvious but also subtle ways. For example, one thing that strikes me after all these years of educating my ears, is that they were somewhat more “conventional” than I realized. Yes, their music was extreme, and often very skeletal; but structurally, it was just punk rock music, filtered through German avant-garde traditions, and broken into its constituent parts. The band didn’t so much destroy the pop-rock music format it as they reduced and rebuilt it. This is quite unlike the folks in the COUM Transmissions group (some of whom became Throbbing Gristle), whose torrid performances in the early 70s really pushed the envelope into blasphemy and incoherence; or the noise/tape work of John Cage and the musique concrète of the 1940s–60s, which often sounded like utter chaos but was in fact highly composed. Even so, the textures that Neubauten seared into my soul back then remain like permanent aural scars, in a way. There’s no coming back from that. I’ve mostly replaced their music with more atmospheric noise music (such as Tim Hecker, Daniel Menche, Aube, and the recent Cindytalk noise releases), in part, because that type of music echoes Neubauten’s world to some extent, with a bit less of their white-hot intensity.
I realize I’ve spent an inordinate amount of words discussing a single band, but maybe I’m just giving myself the chance to trace their influence on me, and secondarily, on ele_mental. This suddenly seems correct, because the one other thing that stayed with me about EN was how they brought all the elements together into a cohesive, ear-, eye-, and mind-splitting whole. I loved how imposing and post-apocalyptic their sound was, and how that was mirrored in their distressed sense of design, and most of all, in their extreme style of performance (which actually involved destroying a number of venues with a stolen jackhammer, and even fire on one or two occasions!). All of this was also informed by the seething, anarchistic politics of then-isolated West Berlin, which made their entire existence even more meaningful. By the time I started listening to them, the wall had fallen, but I knew their music was drawn from some deep political schisms and cultural currents. It came from a very real place, a contested territory. When ele_mental started coming together, much of this was in the background, and became even more potent when we saw what impact Detroit’s ruined spaces had on techno music.
It should therefore be no surprise that I was attracted to the techno music of Detroit and Berlin. It seems like an obvious connection now: here were two cities that had once been thought of as gleaming exemplars of industry and commerce; both had experienced downfalls and hard times; both were scarred by history, and left with unprecedented levels of neglect; both had deep traditions of arts and music that were given the impossible task of providing a shaft of light in the sulphur-laden gloom. It hadn’t really occurred to me to connect industrial with techno in quite this way until I wrote all of this down, but I’m delighted by the discovery! I suppose that’s as close to an answer to the original question as you’re going to get: I love making connections.
You obviously place a lot of importance on the act of dancing as well. What is it about dancing that is so special to you?
Honestly, dancing didn’t make much sense to me until I started going out to clubs in the late 1980s, in my late teenage years. I grew up under a Mexican mom who loved to dance, and an Ohioan dad who just didn’t. I remember sulking in the corner whenever there was a “Latin” dance party at a family gathering, pretending I didn’t want to get “involved.” But the reality was, I didn’t know how to do the salsa, or the cumbia, or even the meringue (the easiest one!), so I was terribly embarrassed. I always make the joke now that one of my biggest regrets was not embracing that side of dance culture back then. It would have made my two subsequent decades of miserable and almost nonexistent dating so much better. Ah well…haha.
In my early teens, I became totally enamored by breakdancing. This was when the fad was at its peak in the middle of the 1980s, so it didn’t last more than a couple of years, but if nothing else, it exposed me to some phenomenal music (which will surely come up later).
Otherwise, I really didn’t really see myself as a “dancer” until I found my release in the music of late-80s clubs. Back then, there weren’t many places in Columbus that played what we called “progressive” music back then (meaning, alternative or non-mainstream music), but once I found out where I could hear The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, INXS, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the like, I was ecstatic. I realize it’s ironic to think of bands who were pretty much considered mainstream pop-rock acts in the UK as “underground,” but for those of us who didn’t know better, theirs was a wondrous world of musical experimentation that just wasn’t available on mainstream radio in the US. Listening back, it’s obvious to me that what attracted us to these pop bands (and what keeps me listening to most of them today) was their ongoing exploration of the wide territories of “post-punk,” some ten years after the fact. Even though none of us were around for that first explosion of 1970s punk, there was still some of its direct echo in the music we came of age with in the late 80s.
I could list all the dance clubs in Columbus that mattered to me back then—Flamingo’s, Mean Mr. Mustard’s, 700 High, Purity/The Pit, The Garage, Crazy Mama’s, Wall Street, and others I may be forgetting—but I’ll focus on just a couple of them (plus an influential moment I had elsewhere).
Wall Street was—and remains—a lesbian bar that hosted a “mixed” night every Wednesday throughout the 1990s. The night featured DJ Kevy Kev playing a mix of “progressive” hits alongside techno-industrial stuff like Front 242 and Ministry, and pop-house like Deee-Lite and the B-52’s. Incidentally, it’s funny to mention both Wall Street and Kevy Kev in the same sentence, realizing that even a full twenty-two years later, both the venue and the DJ are still quite active elements in the scene. (How’s that for an illusion of stability?) Anyway, the reason Wall Street mattered to me was because it was the place where I learned to let go and dance. It also taught me what a night club should look and feel like. There were also some hot girls there, including one in particular who looked like a cross between Audrey Tatou and Louise Brooks. I don’t remember her name (Andrea, maybe?), and I never managed to charm her enough to get her out on a date with me, but hers is the face I imagine when I think of Wall Street’s Wednesday nights.
The other place that mattered in those years was called Crazy Mama’s, on the corner of 9th Ave and North High St. Like the rest of old south campus, it was torn down in the early 2000s to make way for the current Gateway. In the 80s–90s, Crazy Mama’s was the second floor bar above a middle-eastern restaurant called Firdou’s (still a legendary joint). Their hottest nights were Thursdays and Fridays. I still remember the dark, narrow stairway to get into the bar, and how small the place really was. There were mirrors all over the black walls (which supposedly inspired Daniel Ash of Bauhaus/Love and Rockets to pen the song “Mirror People”), and a linoleum dance floor surrounded on three sides by black carpet. The music was always hot—a mix of anything from dark electro-industrial to punkabilly to house to full-on disco (keep in mind that this was a time in which disco was still very much maligned, so playing disco was a subversive act). Mama’s attracted every freak in a multi-colored outfit that Columbus could conjure up.
I was always a step removed from the garishness and debauchery of the place, so I didn’t dance as openly there as I did at Wall Street. I often stood off to the side, with a more critical eye, just watching the freak show unfold. But I did recognize that it was probably the most special club in Columbus for a very long time, and nothing has come even close to replacing it (the only place I would even vaguely compare it to is CaraBar, which is a different animal entirely).
Another thing that no one can avoid mentioning in any discussion about Crazy Mama’s was the ludicrously skinny fire escape on the side of the building that somehow served as the main exit point at the end of the night. Imagine a steady stream of drunken freaks in all kinds of getups (goth-leather jackets, chains, platform shoes, feather boas, bell-bottom pants, whatever), attempting to negotiate these precarious black metal steps after being rushed out at closing time. It’s a wonder no one died. Once they were out, people were also fond of milling around in the small parking lot (about the size of that lot behind what used to be Larry’s up at Woodruff/High) for up to an hour, or until the CPD would ask us to move along. This was such a reliable “after-hours” that I often showed up even if I was working my pizza delivery job until close, around 2:15 am. I would rush to get down there and more often than not, people would still be hanging around by the time I arrived around 2:30.
Going slightly out of chronology for a moment, Mama’s also happened to give me my start as a DJ. In late 1993, me and the Body Release boys (more on them later) were given Monday nights (Mama’s slowest night), to do our thing. It never became much, so it only lasted a few months, but it gave us all a chance to practice DJing in a “live” setting. (As a funny aside, my first-ever live mix set the tone for pretty much everything I’ve done since: on one table, I played a drum-and-bass track by Johnny Jungle slowed down from 45 to 33 rpm, and on the other, it was Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. Drumbeats and ambience, mashed together.)
The third place I’ll mention was a party I experienced in Toronto in 1990 or 91 (my dates are fuzzy on this one). On a weekend trip there with my friend Monica Carroll, we listened to Kraftwerk’s Electric Café album over and over. Oddly, this was my first real conscious exposure to Kraftwerk, and my first trip to a larger Canadian city (I had been to Niagra Falls when I was a teenager). One night, we found a bad dance club, and made the most of it. This being Canada, they did play a handful of those “progressive” songs, and I danced wildly, but otherwise the place was just lame. It was the stereotype of what you might imagine a boring club in Canada to be.
The next night, however, was a real awakening. I don’t remember exactly how we ended up there, but we found our way to an after-hours event that was the exact opposite of the other club. At first, I was sort of annoyed at the needless obscurity of the experience. We were in line, about to pay something like $10 (Canadian, which back then was probably more like $7), and I kept wondering what we were supposed to “get” for that. It just seemed like the basement of a department store with some primitive walls, not a proper venue! But as soon as we entered, the first thing we noticed was that the bass physically hurt. With each beat, it was like someone was pounding the soft part of their fist into our sternums. It was fascinating, and the music was minimal and repetitive. Of course, if I heard the exact same songs today, I’d probably recognize a lot of them, but at that time they just seemed like thunderous, anonymous beats coming from nowhere and everywhere. The only song I recognized was a b-side to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” EP, called “What Is Love?”
Deee Lite – “What Is Love (Holographic Goatee Mix)” – (1990) – audio only
This song remains one of my favorites, not only because it is a prototypical New York house track—cavernous and gorgeous and minimalist—but because it takes me back to my very first moment of hearing electronic dance music at its loudest and rawest. After maybe twenty minutes, we couldn’t take the pounding bass any longer, so we left. But the impact had been made.
It took a couple more years of clubbing at Mama’s and Wall Street and all the other Columbus nightlife spots (and here I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my few visits to the Garage, a gay club where one night, I confirmed my love of Erasure and the fact that I am a straight man in a vogue dancer’s body), but eventually I started hearing about another kind of electronic dance music party that people were calling “raves.” I was skeptical at first, like I had been at the door of that after-hours in Toronto. I remember asking myself: “So, what’s the difference between this and a club? I don’t get it!” But thanks to the prodding of my friends in Body Release (whose names will inevitably get mentioned over and over in any history of electronic music in Columbus: Titonton Duvante, Todd Sines, Charles Noel, and Mike Szewczyk), I finally went to my first rave in early 1993. I danced. I was immersed. I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I more or less understood. A new form of event, and a new opportunity to dance in an open environment, had arrived.
The rest is probably better discussed in another context, but let’s just say that after about eight years associated with the rave and underground party scenes, I gained a lot of experience as a dancer.
One person I refer to a lot these days is a Detroit native named Gehrik Mohr. I wasn’t very close with him back in the early days, probably because he was too busy dancing his ass off. But he was friends with most of our other Detroit contacts and colleagues, so he was part of the family. The reason I bring him up is because I remember watching him dance a few times, and being utterly impressed by how raw and animalistic his style was.
His dancing, along with a few others, also helped me understand something that I hadn’t perceived before. Back when I was a breakdancer (or the after-school special version of it) in 1983–84, I had fallen in love with the sounds of electro music. I barely knew the difference between Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” let alone other artists, but I sure as hell knew who the Art of Noise was. I picked up a 7-inch of “Beat Box” (which I still own today, by the way) at a local department store, and it became perhaps the most influential dance record of my entire life.
Kraftwerk – Numbers – Computer World
Art of Noise – “Beat Box” Version 1 (1984) – official video
It was abstract, electronic, mysterious, and most of all, funky. Now I can describe it more accurately as a playful art-pop record with musique-concrète tendencies, filtered through a hip-hop/sampling sensibility with lots of rhythmic syncopation, but back then, I just thought it was a damn cool record (comparable to other electro nuggets I heard back then, such as “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock, “Yum Yum (Eat ‘Em Up)” by Beat Box Boys, and “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” by Hashim—all essential electro classics).
Beat Box Boys (Bobby Orlando) – “Yum Yum (Eat ‘Em Up)” – (1984) – audio only
Hashim – “Al Naafiysh (The Soul)”
Anyway, the problem was, after about 1985, I didn’t hear that kind of music anywhere. The message, which had taken over my system so thoroughly, did not get reinforced. It took me another nine years before I was able to put two and two together and realize that only 200 miles away from me in Detroit, electro had never died (and indeed, STILL hasn’t died). Some of it had turned into techno. (All you need to do to confirm this progression is listen to “Alleys of Your Mind” by Juan Atkins/Cybotron from 1981, and then skip to his “No UFO’s,” as Model 500 in 1985. Techno IS electro, in a sense.)
Cybotron – “Alleys of Your Mind” (1981) – audio only
Model 500 – “No UFO’s” (1985) – excerpt from The Scene television show, Detroit
Once I made the connection, I saw a similar evolution in Gehrik’s dancing, which had gone from breaking to…something else. It was like he was inviting people to take up space in a similar way to breaking, with footwork and spins and shoulder movements, but he stayed mostly on his feet. The space was also different. Dancing took place in a more diffused, decentralized way, as opposed to a centralized circle (or “cipher”). In other words, unlike me, Gehrik had been lucky enough to live in a city where there had been a continuity of electronic dance music, and he was the living embodiment of it. In Detroit, breaking, electro, and dance music had become a way of life; whereas in a middling town like Columbus, it had just been a fad, doomed to fade.
Looking at it from the vantage point of today, I was actually at the cusp of something even deeper which I wasn’t yet equipped to see. Luckily, Gehrik was there to catch it as it happened: the evolution of Detroit “footwork” dance styles (most notably, the Jit), which have become better known in the 2000s.
Detroit Jit – Jitting Jesus (Jittin Genius) – (2011)
Gehrik Mohr – Detroit House Dance: – Poseidon (Cymatic Soles) – Session (2010)
By the late 1990s, as ele_mental was winding down, I had one of the strangest moments of my life, when I was offered an invitation into the world of academic dance at Ohio State. The story behind that is a funny one, but I’ll jump right to the part that seems most relevant to our discussion. I remember one of the first things I had to contend with in this world was to tell my dancer friends (and later, my dance professors) that I had no formal dance training—none at all. Sure, I had spent the better part of ten years involved in club and rave culture, and it was because of that experience that the department felt justified in taking me on. But I didn’t feel like that gave me any kind of qualification as a mover.
Yet, instead of the blanks stares I expected, I got nods and smiles of understanding. It hadn’t occurred to me that they would see the worth of my “untrained” experience in their world, but I didn’t yet realize that most of my classmates and professors had done jazz, tap, musical theater, or some other form of popular dance at some point in their careers. To them, therefore, it was perfectly legitimate to “merely” be a club/party dancer. Indeed, they were excited to see what I would bring to their world, which has always found ways to bring various forms of “street dance” into the academic fold.
Indeed, by the late 90s, hip-hop was well on the way to becoming a codified, studio-bound form, so it didn’t take long for me to overhear the term “house dance” being used to describe club dancing (perhaps around 2002–2003). That’s when it all came together in my mind: I may not have had any formal studio training in dance, but I had spent since 1989 dancing in clubs and dedicating a lot of energy to dance and underground music culture, on every conceivable level. That was when I finally felt like I could claim the official title of House Dancer, whether it was strictly accurate or not. And that’s a title I’ve more or less worn proudly ever since.
Thanks to the experience I gained in the university setting, I am now much better at articulating what I do as a dancer—not just in terms of labels, but also in terms of the actual movement itself. At one point, I was pretty heavily invested in learning the terms of movement analysis, an observational system that offers a rich vocabulary to describe and examine bodily movement. I’ve lost most of that jargon to lack of use, but I still embody many of those ideas when I dance in a dark corner somewhere, doing my thing. I think of it as live experimentation, exploring shapes and dynamic ranges on various levels. This is probably why I often prefer to be left alone, to have my own experience of the music and my own movement. (It’s also why I really can’t STAND it when girls try to come up and grind on me. Ladies, please…haha.)
This brings me to say something about the underground music dance style as I’ve observed it over the years. The first thing I noticed about underground parties was a shift in attention. Unlike clubs, where the DJ booth is usually on a stage or an isolated area away from the dance floor, at raves, the DJ was often on ground level, with the dancers. This lent the event a more diffused sense of space, where dancers would spread out more or less evenly across the floor. Some people liked to hug the enormous speakers (which were, at times, up to 10–12 feet tall), while others preferred to watch the DJ closely, and the rest moved around freely on and off the floor. It was a very fluid experience, and the dancing often reflected this. In fact, the East-coast dance style known as “fluid” was itself a sort of extension of this decentralized experience. I never took to that kind of dancing, probably because I was more influenced by the percussive style of electro and breakdancing, but I appreciated the ability to lose myself in a mass of people while (usually) still having room to move.
This is the scenario I tend to prefer the most, even now. That’s why it’s remained somewhat of a foreign concept to have the breakers or “house dancers” (who, in Columbus, are more just breakers in disguise) take over a large section of the floor to make their circle/cipher, as has often occurred in recent years. Dance circles were not really an aspect originally associated with the underground electronic scene, so it can seem intrusive. Lately, however, it seems that a younger generation of dancers has figured out a good compromise, by keeping the circle on the edge of the dance floor rather than in the center. I don’t know if this parallels the development of dance in other electronic scenes, but it seems like a sensible progression. In Columbus, it seemed that sometime in the early 2000s, when the scene was on the wane, the breakers came to house music thinking they would liven things up, but then ended up realizing that house music has its own tradition in dance. As the scene has revived, the party dancers are also less willing to have their floor taken up by the “specialists.” And frankly, at many parties these days, there’s just no room!
I feel it was really courageous to take the step and seek out training in capoeira dance. Why did you take up the training and What did you take away from that experience?
The story of my involvement in capoeira is sort of separate from my time in the underground dance scene, but the parallels are somewhat obvious to me now. The period during which I got more heavily into the form also corresponded with the waning of the underground scene in Columbus, and the time I became a more devoted graduate student in dance.
I got into capoeira as part of my long phase of “dabbling” into various styles of movement that the dance world offered. As a new person in the field of dance, I was surprised to learn about the variety of movement forms that were used to complement many dancers’ training, that weren’t really a part of traditional modern dance technique.
First, I got heavily into Contact Improvisation (CI), an egalitarian form that involves lots of weight sharing and trust between partners, but has no specific choreographic form or “destination.” This introduced me to a sense of play that is also essential to capoeira. I also got into various other forms of dance improvisation, which has quite a number of sophisticated techniques available to it (on par with classical avant-garde or jazz music). Because I saw club dancing as an improvisational form, it was a natural fit. I also experimented with a more “organic” form called Butoh, which is a post-war Japanese style often performed by bald dancers moving excruciatingly slowly, like a gradual force of erosion (incidentally, that Neubauten film I mentioned earlier features some Butoh dancers in it). I also took some classes in aikido, which taught me something about the value of tradition and notions of flow and redirecting aggression.
All of this prepared me for capoeira, but nothing prepared me for how difficult it would actually be. The difficulty was not so much on the physical level, which was hard enough, but more in terms of its psychological aspects, which I have barely begun to unravel even eleven years later. Earlier, I felt like downplaying your use of the word “courageous,” because it really wasn’t like that, but in some ways I guess it truly was.
I’ll summarize it this way. I started training without a formal teacher, and was quickly put in a position to teach others. In that position, it’s tempting to try to be all things to all people, and I made the mistake of mixing and matching too many different approaches. I was a DJ, after all, so I was used to taking bits of music from a wide range of sources. Why not approach capoeira from the same point of view? More is better, right?
Upon finding a solid teacher to follow, a traditionalist Brazilian “mestre” (master teacher) named Mestre Caboquinho (who was ironically based out of Detroit), I was suddenly faced with an unwelcome choice.
Mestre caboquinho Clad in White With Tonho Matéria, one of the original singers/songwriters of the band Olodum
Olodum – Olodum florente na natureza (1987)
I would either have to respect what the Mestre was giving me by giving it continuity unto itself, or I could keep trying the piecemeal approach, taken from a variety of teachers and teachings (who would inevitably only end up giving me their scraps, because I was not formally following their school). After a few months of following Mestre Caboquinho more seriously, which meant driving up to Detroit numerous times, I continued to dabble on the side. This is when the Mestre told me he would no longer allow me to mix his teachings with that of other teachers. I had to follow him completely, or not at all. I resisted this all-or-nothing approach as being too “militant,” but little by little, I came around to his way of thinking. Unfortunately, many of my less-disciplined students in Columbus did not want to be “limited” to just one approach, so there was an awkward transition during which many people left and formed another group. Meanwhile, I was left in a position to start a new group under the formal auspices of a very adept Mestre. It felt right.
I see the wisdom of his approach even more clearly now, because the traditionalist mentality gives its students a real basis in Afro-Brazilian philosophy, upon which one can play in infinite ways. It’s akin to teaching both from the “outside-in” (from technique to philosophy) while also teaching from the “inside-out” (philosophy to technique). The more mixed, modernized styles tend confuse their students by trying to be all things to all people. It’s taught as a genuine, competitive martial art; it’s taught as a fast, acrobatic choreography; and it’s taught as a game, but the philosophy is underdeveloped. The emphasis in modernized capoeira is on competition, performance, and school hierarchy—things that are often actually quite antithetical to the form. (For example: if capoeira was, at its root, a disguised martial art, why is it that latter-day schools place so much emphasis on belt/cord rankings? This is like loudly announcing your level of expertise when whole point is to be ambivalent and secretive about what you know.)
I began to understand much of this far more deeply when I went to Brazil for the first time in 2004. I ended up going three times (twice with the entire group) and staying a total of six months, always in the Northeast city of Salvador, Bahia. Bahia is considered the “mecca” of capoeira, and it’s where there is still a genuinely secretive energy about it. It’s not handed out to just anyone, and having a teacher like Mestre Caboquinho be my guide, opened many doors to me. Very quickly, I learned how hollow the modern styles of capoeira really were. I still worried about some of the cult-like aspects of the traditional style, and even became somewhat affected by its “sorcery” myself. It should be clear by now that I wasn’t very successful at being a “dispassionate” observer of the form, as an academic is supposed to be. But by investing myself more deeply into the form, I believe I came away with a very real, down-to-earth understanding of it that few Westerners—even those who have followed the form for decades—have achieved.
The main thing I learned was that I had mistaken something very practical about Afro-Brazilian culture for supposedly cultish or voodoo-like behavior. Somehow, in the midst of the depredations of slavery and its chaotic aftermath in urban Brazil, an illiterate, impoverished, and marginalized community of Afro-Brazilian men had come together to create an entire ethical system designed to diffuse and contain aggression. They did this while teaching themselves (and each other) some valuable lessons about the real stakes involved in fighting. They created an entire set of movements, rituals, and rules that are designed to prevent conflict, while also appearing to be a harmless pastime. And they did this under the iron grip of oppression and legal persecution. My teacher, as a person who is directly in the line of this deeper philosophy, was uniquely equipped to give us this reality.
Somehow all of this resonated with the story of dance music in Detroit, setting aside that I was driving up there a few times a month just to take a single capoeira class. Usually, I just turned around and came back home, but by the late 2000s, when I finally felt like I understood something deeper about capoeira, and had absorbed that sorcery into a deeper, less disturbed place in my psyche, I also began to go seek Detroit music again. That’s when I ran into Gehrik one night, dancing to immersive techno music at a tiny club in Hamtramck. There he was, fifteen years after I had first met him, dancing far harder and far better than I had ever seen before. It suddenly felt like I had come full circle. This prepared me to take another look at the scene.
Looking back at my capoeira period (about which I’m just grazing the surface), one thing that always seemed clear to me was that there was some subliminal connection between what I had done with ele_mental, and what Africans in Brazil had created centuries before. It wasn’t just the iconography of the circle—it also had a lot to do with that willingness to make the best out of whatever you have in front of you. I resonated with that immediately, and I still do.
Look out for the second installment in this interview series with Ed Luna that will come out sometime in the next few months!