For dance enthusiasts, this year's two-week edition of the Smithsonian-organized Festival of American Folklife provided a cornucopia of rare, instructive and exciting treats. A single day's sojourn on the Mall, Saturday afternoon and evening, yielded spirited encounters with eight highly contrasted dance traditions, drawn from the Festival's three major thematic areas -- Alaska, the black urban culture of Philadelphia, and the folkloric role of the elderly.
Unquestionably one of the great popular hits of the festival was the troupe of Philadelphia breakers, The Scanner Boys, four sizzling dancers (plus a guest, "The Hip-Hop Kid," from the Bronx) and a deejay who furnished the dazzling finale to Saturday night's concert at the Sylvan Theatre, designed as a sampler of the festival's dance and music attractions. The breaking was also accompanied, to galvanic effect, by two Philadelphia rap groups -- the male Grand Master Nell and the Punk Funk Nation, and the female International Playgirls.
The Scanner Boys demonstrated how far the street-spawned phenomenon of breaking has evolved toward theatrical panache and delivery, with a repertoire of moves that ran from by now "classical" hand and head spins, to spectacular tumbling, electric bugaloo, pecking, the worm and other, more individualized variants. The whole group is virtuosic, but one among them is a special sensation -- Gilbert "Shalimar" Kennedy, whose particular forte includes uncannily smooth slow-motion glides and robotic "popping" that elicits universal gasps.
"Sublime" is the only adequate word for the traditional hula dances from Hawaii performed on the same program by three generations of artists -- 75-year-old Kaui Zuttermeister; her daughter Noe Noe Lani Lewis; and her granddaughter, 17-year-old Hauolionalani Lewis. These dances aren't the quasi-erotic kitsch most of us know from Hollywood South Seas flicks, but sacred dances of ancient origin passed on by oral tradition. Zuttermeister and her daughter did the chanting and drumming; the dance was performed by Hauoli, in a dress with a layered skirt and bare feet. Deftly pointed toes, small rapid steps, gentle hip rotations and exquisitely undulant arms and hands were some features of the movement, but no analysis can capture the serene feeling of oneness with nature that radiates from the dance.
Another wonderful surprise on the Sylvan program was the scintillating jazz tap performance by LaVaughn Robinson of Philadelphia and two of his students -- Germain Ingram, a professor of law, and Sandra Janoff, a schoolteacher. Robinson is a first-rate tapper, in the tradition of Honi Coles and Jimmy Slyde, with jet-fast feet and clear, crisp, jazzily syncopated rhythms, wonderfully infectious even though he and his colleagues danced without music throughout their sets.
Throughout the day's dancing, as diverse in origin as it was, cross-cultural links kept reappearing -- dancing as sublimated conflict, for example, manifest in the "challenge" aspects of the tapping, in the mock street brawls of the breakdancers, and as a background, too, to the dances of two Yupik Eskimo troupes, whose tradition regards dancing as a kind of surrogate warfare. Another recurrent motif was animal mimicry, seen in the gorilla and crab simulations of the breakers, and repeatedly in the dances of the Alaskan tribes.
Among other unusual dance elements at the festival were the "comedy dances" of the Gambell Singers and Dancers (Alaska), involving humorously grotesque facial grimaces by two older women; the mixture of rap, tap and call-and-response features in the "collegiate stepping" by Philadelphia's Groove Phi Groove troupe; the rooted swaying and striking masks of the Bethel Native Dancers of Alaska; the interdependence of song, drumming and dance in the performances of the Gajaa Heen Dancers, also from Alaska; and the broadly eclectic mixture of gymnastics, tap, breaking and other street forms that constituted the "GQ" dancing of Philadelphia's Disco Kings and Queens.