This is yet another post about Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’
The gender-flex of this routine is more an essential part of the original video than a fan-response to the choreography. The Single Ladies video was choreographed by Frank Gatson and JaQuel Knight and, to quote wikipedia “incorporates J-Setting choreography”.
J-setting (to quote wikipedia again)
…is a highly stylized modern lead and follow style of hip hop dance, characterized by cheerleading style sharp movements to an eight-beat count music. Popular in southern U.S. African American gay clubs, like the vogue-style before it, it became popular by exposure in a pop music video…
In 1970, former majorette Shirley Middleton became troupe leader of the Jackson State University cheerleading group, The Prancing Jaycettes. Middleton wanted something different, and so threw away their batons, and began dancing in formation. Based on a classical cheerleader eight-beat style, the signature thrusts, pumps, and high kicks were developed into a lead-and-follow “wave” through the troupe.
However, the style was strictly reserved for women only until 1997, when male troupe baton twirling member DeMorris Adams, was asked to fill in for an injured female troupe member. After this, although the performing troupe was still female, the crowd supporters started to grow from the colleges gay community.
The wikipedia entry references “The Big Idea: J-Setting Beyond Beyoncé”, Vibe.com (February 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-22) and I think it’s worth adding the clarification from that piece: “The Prancing Jaycettes were the female dance line of the infamous JSU marching band”. Marching bands are important in the history of black vernacular dance in America, and the inherently competitive, battle challenge of marching bands (and cheerleaders and step and… so on) is important here. I do recommend searching for the ‘prancing j-settes’ on youtube for an idea of what was going on.
The Vibe piece adds another great little note:
He was not alone in his adoration of the Prancing J-Settes. “The young men would be on the sideline during practice watching and learning,” recalls Anthony Hardaway, a gay activist and historian from Memphis who was a student at JSU from 1990 to ’94. “My friends would be on the side doing the dance alongside the girls.” However, their imi-tation was not seen by all as flattery. “Teachers and coaches would run the gay boys away,” Hardaway says with a laugh, “because when it was time for the games, the gay boys would be in the stands doing the routine and outperforming the girls on the field.”
There’s something totally excellent about the thought of young, fabulous black boys being shooed away because they might a) engayen the football players (lol in the current Australian AFL climate), and b) outshine the girls. Is there any better battle challenge, any greater call to arms than this?
Here, check this out:
Of course, J-setting has changed since the 1970s, which is the way all vernacular dance works. It responds to trend and fashion to retain relevancy.
Let’s look at JaQuel Knight for a second:
Knight’s muscularity changes the choreography a bit, as do his flat shoes (which change the line of his legs and the movement of his hips). It’s interesting to compare his movements with Dana Foglia beside him. Her hips and legs in high heels give us the more Single Ladies type lines. I’ve written about this before in reference to Balanchine and the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, so I won’t go into it again. But this video gives us a fabulous modern day example of the gendering of these types of bodily aesthetics.
But wait, I’m totally off-track. Let’s just look at the essentials of J-setting for a second. This is a call and response type battle/dance. The troupe has a leader who ‘calls’ the steps, which the rest of the troupe then ‘respond’ to by repeating the steps. This is key. The lycra leotards and athletic wear are also key markers of J-setting. Now think about this as something that was happening in gay clubs, and think about gay men’s bodies in these settings. That’s some seriously subversive shit right there. All sorts of complex gendering going on. Sure, those guys are ‘dancing woman’, but they’re also very masculine in their aggressive posturing. But if cheerleading is also clearly about battle and competition, then aggression isn’t as gendered as all that… it’s just played out in gendered terms.
The call and response of j-setting works in slightly different terms in this video with JaQuel Knight, in a teaching context:
In summary, then, J-setting began with marching band dance troupes, and with women dancing. It was taken up by black gay men, partly because of the influence of a male dancer in the troupe, but more probably because the j-setting was totally fabulous, totally competitive, and totally awesome. It retain(s) its competitive element in a gay club context. Here, look at this:
(I included this dodgy quality clip because it gives you an idea of what it’s actually like doing this stuff in real-life settings: the lighting is shit, there are errors (those these guys are tight), it’s not clean and pretty).
J-setting moves out into the wider community, to the point where Beyonce wants to get into that action. Big name j-setting dancers are involved in choreographing the Single Ladies routine.
But wait. There’s more. The Single Ladies routine is referencing a Bob Fosse choreography, which most peeps know as ‘the Mexican breakfast’ dance (there was a fair bit of discussion about this, and this video is kind of interesting for its discussion of Fosse). You can see the Bob Fosse Mexican Breakfast choreography here, but ignore the subtitles.
So, to sum up, Kanye was onto something. The Single Ladies video could be the best video of all time. OF ALL TIME. And J-setting is exciting because it offers a model for competition and battle in dance which isn’t using the standard krumping/hippity hop model. This is really interesting.
My previous posts about this video:
what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc