I was on campus today for my first meeting of the new school year. It was the first time back since late May, meaning that yesterday was the unofficial last day of my summer. Like last summer, I worked at home and it gave me more downtime and a chance to catch up with popular culture.
Last summer, I caught up on some movies and TV series from the past decade. This year, I only watched the first two seasons of Masters of None; otherwise, it was mostly listening to music. For a couple of research articles, I listened to Vietnamese music: bolero music and songs by refugees during the 1970s and 1980s. For pleasure, I took a complete break from classical music and listened to pop music and watched many music videos.
There’s a related reason: exercise. For some years now I haven’t played any sport at all, and I don’t bike, swim, or lift weight. I used to jog once a week, and may pick it up again. But jogging could get dull, and I thought of learning the choreography of at least one pop song to keep meat and muscle from turning into fat. It led me to a lot of YouTube-watching to figure out the moves, and of course a lot of practice. I sweated quickly and a lot, and showered two or three times on days of practice. I am hardly a smooth dancer after this summer. To judge from the sweating and showering, however, I think I’ve achieved the goal of exercise through dancing.
I also recorded a few of my practices to see what I did and didn’t get right, and the recording led to the idea of making a portfolio of three videos. The idea is derivative of my Great Books courses, in which students are required to write three essays. At the end of the semester, they compile the essays – plus their weekly responses to readings and a short preface or reflection – into a writing portfolio.
I also encourage students to send me a rough draft at least five days before the deadline, so they can revise and submit it on the due date. After the essay is graded, they can still revise it one more time before putting it into the portfolio. In other words, I invite students to draft each essay three times: a rough draft before the due date, the revised draft they submit on the due date, and a re-revised draft for inclusion in the portfolio. Not all students do rough drafts and/or revisions, but the options are there and many have taken up on them.
In a similar fashion, my dance-exercise portfolio includes three hugely popular songs from 1999-2000: It’s Gonna Be Me, Oops I Did It Again, and Genie in A Bottle. Other than a few lessons on swing dancing years ago, I never had any dance instruction, and it was a big challenge to learn each choreography. For the first song, I filmed videos of a first draft, a second draft, and a final draft. I posted them on FB, and the first draft was especially entertaining to many friends. Two gave some feedback that led to an improved second video, which in turn led to the final video (below). The performance is hardly perfect, far from it, but it is definitely the best of the three drafts.
Practice could be addictive, and there were a few mornings when I woke up and my mind immediately turned to a particular move that I worked on the day before. I turned our living room into a makeshift studio, but also practiced outside the house. There were a few times when I found myself walk by a glass wall at a strip mall or a store, stop myself, and practice a particular move a few times. One of my favorite films is the Japanese comedy Shall We Dance?, and I watched it at least three times when it first came out in the 1990s. In one scene, the main character got hooked into ballroom dancing and practiced the movement of his feet while waiting for the train. To a lesser degree, I had that experience this summer.
I filmed the final draft at the home studio and put on five changes of clothes in honor of the *NSYNC quintet. The outfits also pay homage to Hawaii, Ireland, the Bangles, and people wearing black socks on tennis shoes. Furniture was moved out of view, but not the television set or the three paintings on the wall. These features – five outfits, three pictures, a live performance on TV – turned out to be motifs for the portfolio.
Since It’s Gonna Be Me was the first song, I probably spent more time learning it than the time combined for both of the other songs. I began with the refrain, broke it down into phrases, watched and imitated the movement in each phrase, and practiced for hours. This song comes from the album No Strings Attached, and like at least two other songs, its choreography references stringed marionette puppets. For my money, the arm movement of the stringed marionette in the refrain (“you don’t want to lose it again”) is the catchiest and most iconic of the entire choreography. Learning that move was probably the biggest motivation for me to learn this dance, and I was extremely happy when I got it right (for the most part, at least).
For the second song, I considered Britney Spears’ (You Drive Me) Crazy, but the choreography is too fast and too much for my forty-something body. I settled on the easier Oops I Did It Again, and the video is easily the funniest of the three. (It also took the least amount of time to film and edit.) Part of the fun are the wigs, which, like some of the items in these videos, had been used in the classroom for short skits. There’s an element of parody in my imitation of Britney Spears, but also a direct tribute to Jane Austen’s last novel that my Great Books class read last fall.
In comparison to It’s Gonna Be Me, it didn’t take me too long to learn the refrain of Oops. The refrains of both songs were choreographed cleverly, and both were very popular back then. The hardest part was the rightward turn at the start of the refrain, and normally helpful instructional videos were not helpful at all. In order to figure out the best way to make a move or a sequence of moves, I found myself switching between them and actual performances. Self-teaching could be exhilarating, but there is also a good reason for people to take a class or a private lesson from professionals.
For the last song, I briefly considered the Backstreet Boys and Destiny’s Child. But I thought their choreography a good deal more simple when compared to *NSYNC and Britney Spears, and decided on Christina Aguilera. Homage/tribute abounds amidst the goofiness of the video: Argentina (where my wife and I spent a week in June with some Pepperdine faculty and spouses); Huntington Beach (where we once lived); skippers; kung-fu fighters; back-up singers; etc. For only the third time in my life, I put on a dress to imitate the back-up singers in the live video. Since there was still a wig left, I wore it as homage to redhead women. I also put on an ensemble as homage to men in black. They were supposed to be homage, but some will take it as parody. But then homage and parody are closely affiliated to each other, aren’t they? The video is goofy and unusual, if because college professors of the humanities don’t usually put on wigs and dance. But it was summer: a time of renewal for most faculty in higher education.
Incidentally, putting together the last video made me think of students writing the last essay for their portfolios. Due to the end-of-semester deadline, it tends not to be the best of the three essays. The second essay tends to be the best one. Which is, I think, also the case with my portfolio. The moves in Genie in a Bottle aren’t catchy as It’s Gonna Be Me or the refrain of Oops, but learning them still took a lot of time out of me. In fact, there are three different choreographies for the refrain, depending on which performances you watch. But I only learned the most common one for the video below.
At the same time, I found Genie to be the most aerobics-friendly and the best fit for exercise of the three songs. I think I’m going to do it the most during this coming semester. The music itself is divided into phrases of eleven seconds each, and the choreography is arranged accordingly. For this reason, I learned one phrase at a time. Even though I couldn’t find any YouTube instructional videos as the case with the previous songs, I didn’t have a problem learning it. Note that the choreography is heavy on the right arm. As you can see from the video above, there is a lot of punching. My legs were most sore when I learned the refrain of It’s Gonna Be Me. For Genie, it was my right arm, which is still slightly sore three days after I finished the video. There was also a good deal of neck-turning, which was exacerbated by my own exaggeration during “but my heart is saying no.” My neck was indeed sore for a day, and I learned to watch myself and not to over-work certain parts of the aging body, ha!
The Huntington Beach scene of Genie took me out of the house. After filming it, I goofed around with It’s Gonna Be Me, including the scene below. I’ve improved somewhat since the “final draft” video above, but it’s still far from getting everything right. Following “everything little thing I do,” for instance, the shoulder could use a higher kick and two follow-up smaller ones. But, again, it is done for exercise and not aesthetics, videos notwithstanding. I’d love to get more things right – and will try to get them right – but I am happy whenever I could sweat from dancing, which was certainly the case here. There is also the environmental factor. Waves, surfers, walkers, seagulls, middle-aged Asian man wearing a tie-dye bandanna and dancing front of a cell camera placed on a three-step ladder. There, it’s southern California for you.
There was a lot more to my summer, and there was more to dancing. For example, I read up a bit on the manufacturing of pop music in the U.S. and Europe in the postwar era, plus its global impact. Fascinating stuff, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and two members of *NSYNC had been Mouseketeers for Disney in the early 1990s. Or, Max Martin and other songwriters and producers in a small country like Sweden have exerted a remarkably disproportionate amount of influence on American and global popular culture such as K-pop. Why? How? What connections between Orlando and Stockholm? What linkages among them and London and Los Angeles and NYC and Seoul and another city? I am a consumer of pop culture and also a historian, and the historian’s side is very curious about these sorts of questions.
But they are for another time, maybe next summer. Now I am turning fully to the new academic year: teaching, grading, writing, research, service, blogging, and, yes, occasional dancing for exercise. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Host of the Garter Inn describes Master Fenton as followed: “He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth; he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May” (3.2). It’s hardly a surprise that dancing is associated to spring and youthfulness. (Remember, however, that Fenton is charming but also broke due to an over-spending habit.)
My dancing-for-exercise might have been an attempt to recapture long-lost youth. Or maybe it was also a psychological renewal after a year of inclement weather and overwhelming political events, among other things. Or something else all together. But it might have provided some healthy distraction, figuratively and literally, from political tumult and controversies during the first summer of the Trump Presidency. For sure, it helped to keep me in shape. I don’t think it is possible to have done this portfolio without the more leisurely pace of this summer. Until next May, mens sana in corpora sano!