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Texas Tech University’s ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ Illustrates How European, African Art Cultures Collided to Create Modern Song, Dance

American music represents centuries of cultures creating that proverbial melting pot – perhaps even more harmoniously than the actual human experience.

Written by John Davis

American music contains more history lessons than the average listener realizes. Listen closely, says a Texas Tech University music professor, and the music represents centuries of cultures creating that proverbial melting pot – perhaps even more harmoniously than the actual human experience.

That cultural gumbo of sound, rhythm and dance served as the impetus for creating the original dance/theatrical show “Dancing at the Crossroads: A Celebration of Anglo-Celtic and African-American Dance in the New World.”

The show, which features local dancers and singers from Texas Tech, will premiere Feb. 1-2 and 8-9 at the Christine DeVitt Icehouse Theater on the LHUCA campus, located at 511 Ave. J.

Christopher J. Smith, also the director of the university’s Vernacular Music Center, said singers, players, dancers and storytellers will present a fully staged dance/theater narrative relating the mythic history of the encounter of these two great vernacular performance traditions in the New World, which includes blues, jazz, hip-hop, New Orleans, Irish, English, Scottish and Caribbean music and dance.

“I’ve been a practitioner of these styles (Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean) for four decades, know them intimately and love them passionately,” Smith said. “As a scholar, I’m interested in the interplay of immigrant music in the Americas. I think the performance tells a story whose historical resonance many people won’t have previously recognized. Many folks of course know that immigrant traditions – especially Anglo-Celtic and African-American – played a key role in the synthesis that led to blues, jazz, vaudeville, tap-dance, hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll. However, I think fewer people recognize both the complexity and profundity of that synthesis and the historical depth of the story.”

Smith said the Crossroads Project develops educational and performance materials that explain the complex meetings and encounters—between people, cultures, belief systems, and genres—which gave birth to American music. African, Caribbean, European, and Native American expressive arts whose meetings, since first contact in the 16th century, have created  the complex, idiosyncratic, challenging yet endlessly inventive and popular music forms of the modern era.

These served as the foundations of music and dance such as Stephen Foster’s popular songs to the crossover hits of Eminem and Mary J. Blige, from Appalachian flat-foot dancing to African-American tap, from the contredanse of Haiti and Montserrat to the contras of Maine and the square-dances of Virginia.

Even the comedy of Abbott and Costello to the comic monologs of Sid Caesar and Red Skelton, can be traced, in content and/or intent, to the meetings of Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean in the New World, he said.

“This is a story about meetings, between cultures, peoples, and dance traditions,” he said. “And not only the mythic meetings exemplified by the named characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Baron Samedi and the Demon Fiddler, but also actual, historical meetings which are the roots of American popular culture. The remarkable thing about this story is that it is, in essence, a true story – this meeting between Afro-Caribbean and Anglo-Celtic dance music traditions is actually where American popular music and dance originated.”

Smith said he arranged songs from Ireland and England; tales of transformation and crossroads magic; blues and gospel from the Mississippi Delta; sean-nos (“old style”) song from Ireland’s Gaelic West; dances and dance music from Ireland, Scotland, and Cape Breton; ritual dances from the Welsh Borders; country dances from England and Appalachia and sea shanties from the North Atlantic, and an audience sing-along as finale.

However, this is more than just a performance, Smith said. Teachers can use this performance along with a body of materials – worksheets, slideshows, participatory classroom exercises, a dedicated website – developed by trained K-12 educators.

The show is part of a new type of research becoming popular in academia, he said.

“The fields of devised theater and engaged scholarship, new fields on university campuses across the country, both investigate the points where creative activity, such as composing and staging a dance show, and research, such as describing the historical, folkloric, and/or mythic sources of the music and dance, can come together,” he said. “These new fields recognize that research and creative activity – especially in the visual and performing arts – are not two different fields, but rather are related fields, which have the creative imagination in common. In 2013-14, Bill Gelber, who directs the show, and I will present solo or joint papers at conferences in Budapest, Brazil, Barcelona, Alabama, California and elsewhere. In addition, we are launching an online journal and symposium on Texas Tech’s campus: the ‘Crossroads Project.’”

Gelber, who is head of acting/directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance, said he will direct, perform in the show as a narrator, and use the experience for academic research. He said Smith’s creation will say much about how music has developed as a hybrid of different cultures coming together at the crossroads of two very different worlds.

“I’m looking at the piece as an example of devised theatre and how it uses multicultural collaboration in the same way that the story itself suggests,” Gelber said. “I’m listed in the capacity of ‘stage direction’ but I’m, in a sense, a consultant. It is largely imagined by Chris and the performers.

“It is a unique experience that the audience won’t have come across before.”

The event is a partnership between the TTU Vernacular Music Center and Lubbock Moonlight Musicals Winter Dinner Theatre. The creative team includes Smith (musical director/composer), Gelber (stage director/narrator), Genevieve Durham DeCesaro (choreographic consultant), Gerald Dolter (executive producer) and Rich Remsberg (photo/film/ sound designer).

The cast of Dancing at the Crossroads includes Becca Rhoades (soprano/dancer/fiddler), Abi Rhoades (alto/dancer/fiddler), Emily Furillo (dancer/percussionist), Candice Holley (dancer/musician), Lamar Peeples (tenor/dancer/percussionist), Barry La’Craig Horn (dancer/percussionist), Justin Duncan (bass/dancer/lighting design), Rachel Boyd (alto/piano/sound design) and William Combs (trombone/brass arranger).

Tickets are $68.75 $58.50 and $48.50 for the show with full dinner, and $20 for show-only tickets. Price includes service fees. Purchase them at any Select-A-Seat location or call (806) 770-2000.

For more information, visit www.dancingatthecrossroads.com.Download copies of cast photos at www.dancingatthecrossroads.com/cast-photos.html. Or visit the company’s Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/crossroadsdanceshow/.

CONTACT: Christopher J. Smith, associate professor and director of the Vernacular Music Center, Texas Tech University School of Music, (806) 742-2270 x266, or christopher.smith@ttu.edu.

 

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Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith is an associate professor in the School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

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