The Source of Sauce
It’s 4 am, and I’ve just swiped through a few Instagram stories to pass the time before I fall asleep again. One of the choreographers I follow posted a few clips of a group of dancers performing a piece she taught at a dance convention. “Pink Hoodie was my favorite 😩😩😩 Someone send me his IG!” was the caption of the first one, the next simply saying “Sauce” under the pink-hooded mystery dancer. And now I’m on the case – not into his identity, but concerning the recipe: what did she see? Why this guy? Where’s the sauce? After 10 seconds I’ve spotted it, and after a rewatch to prove my theory, I leave Instagram satisfied. I’ve seen what she’s seen, confirmed a shared value system, a kindred sensibility of what makes a standout dancer. I’ve been reaffirmed in myself as a dancer too, even though I haven’t stepped foot in a dance class in more than two years.
If you’d told 16-year-old me – or even 21-year-old me – that this would be my reality at 27 years old, I wouldn’t have believed you. My capabilities with dance used to be a defining part of my identity: as soon as I had access to dance classes in middle school, I poured myself into them. I choreographed a longer-than-one-minute solo to Lumidee’s “Uh Oh (Never Leave You)” as my 5th grade audition for Miss Lonnie’s Jazz Repertory class. When I started at a new school in eighth grade, if one of my non-dance classes ended early I would go up to the dance studio and audit other classes. I was hungry for immersion, taking low-cost movement classes that my teachers put me on to throughout high school, exchanging summer hours behind an admin desk at the 92nd street Y for evening hip-hop, African, and Dunham classes alongside middle-aged women three times my age. I searched for opportunities everywhere and muscled them in where they didn’t exist before – when I got to spend a college semester in Rio de Janeiro instead of Grinnell, Iowa, I came across a Kickstarter for a documentary about local hip hop dancers, emailed the filmmaker asking how to find them, and spent the best four months of my life side-stepping language barriers to attend as many Brazilian dance classes and dance camps as possible. It was a supremely validating experience to commune with people where our verbal communication was usually not 100%, but our love of movement and desire to learn and share through it kept us connected.
Moving back to New York City after college, my five-year plan seemed simple: get a job that paid me enough to take several dance classes a week, through which I would find friends and eventually make the community that would carry me through my 20s at the very least, if not my whole life. Well, life comes at you fast. In 2018, I had finally landed the job I needed to enact the plan. I would take class a few times a week after work, finally feeling like a NYC kid™️ on the path to my dreams. In February 2019, I was taking one of those classes and tore my meniscus – a medical diagnosis that was only confirmed with an MRI two weeks ago in March 2021. Between 2019 and now, I’ve tried rest, massages, wraps, ice, heat, yoga, two rounds of physical therapy with two different therapists, an ultrasound to hunt for blood clots, and even powerlifting for a brief period when I believed my muscles were just weak. It was in this time that I had to confront, and keep confronting, the possibility that I would never be able to return to the dance studio, much less walk without pain. It’s still a possibility even now with the diagnosis locked in and some potential treatments in the works.
Who am I if I can’t return to the person that I was in Rio? I have always lived in a larger-than-average body, but I also always had my talent warding away the darkest depths of insecurity in a society that consistently and wholeheartedly devalues people in fat bodies: always “surprisingly agile” to people who assumed the world from my appearance, and who thought the astonished exclamation “You can dance better than me!!” was complimentary. I’d been skilled at the nuances of performing to boot – at times a part of the coveted “select group” that dance teachers call out at the end of drop-in classes to exemplify good performance. The knowledge that I could elicit feeling and excitement when I performed, had often carried me through times when I wasn’t quite getting the response from life circumstances that I wanted. It was like being a superhero with an alias: my secret was that I was capable of so much more than most people thought. Peter Parker being bullied in the hallway, but it’s okay because we know what’s coming. But if it turned out I was now powerless, what was going to sustain me through the rest of this life?
I’ve had to look elsewhere for my validation and sense of self. I’ve found some amount of solace in freestyle rapping, recognizing creative improvisation is a lifestyle for me. I use colored stickers on a paper calendar to mark day-to-day achievements: learning Yoruba vocabulary, finishing a book, writing code for a personal project outside of my 9 to 5 job. Watching dance videos however, which used to be my favorite internet pastime, has gotten a good deal harder to do. I cannot easily project my hobbling body onto the screen, I’m involuntarily more distant, weaning myself off of body empathy to save me from the things I can’t currently accomplish. On my worst days, I’m embarrassed, insular, aware that I can’t do what I once could and loathe to watch other people do it with joy. I used to be on the inside of the conversation, even when I wasn’t practicing daily or weekly in a class – I could at least understand the language, the motivation, the thrust towards movements.
When I do watch nowadays, I find myself now more than ever hunting for the subtext outside of the physical execution. I look for focus, breath, intent, choices. That’s what I understand distills down to “sauce.” It’s not an entirely new thing for me; I’ve been drawn to those traits before. But now I concentrate almost entirely on the things that I value and can still embody now, even while not physically dancing.
I can more easily relate to dancers who seem to dance for the feeling, focusing less on athletic feats and power moves, and more on grooves and alignment with the music. Who seem to be striving to have a good time, rather than striving to appear to have a good time – the latter of which feels like when you have to watch your kid cousin perform a cartwheel for the 10th time in an afternoon: you’re smiling because they’re smiling and you don’t want to ruin the mood, but inside you’re just waiting until they get tired and move on so you can return to your natural resting face. When I watch dance videos now, I’m not tuned in for the mere spectacle, rather, I’m asking questions: Do you live here? Would you be doing this if no one was watching? Do I feel like I’m experiencing your particular channel when I watch you? Is your movement shaped by your approach to life?
Watching dancers that seem to answer those questions affirmatively is truly a joy:
- This little girl absolutely in her own world
- Kerrice Brooks making crazy freestyle choices
- A group of dancers from NYC, citing their origin with location, sound, and style
- The braggadocio alone is intoxicating. But also, each dancer makes clear individual choices within the structure of the choreography.
- This is definitely Cebo’s channel. I’ve gotten lost in this video a few times, it feels like someone composed the music just for this video the way he plays with it and how it all comes together with the setting.
- Tyrik Patterson slithering, like a dynamic commentary on the Vitruvian Man
- Uzi throwing his limbs violently and precisely.
- Izzy Odigie embodying syncopation, playing on and inbetween the beats
- Shay Latukolan and Dreya Mac, having so much fun throughout
- Taiwan Williams, Adriana Dios, and co. getting me lost in their sauce from 0:00 to 3:14
- A beautiful symbiosis of dance and video editing, making visible the energy that flows through the room from the mover.
It’s the difference between watching someone recite things learned by rote, and having someone let you into their world, explain to you how they see shapes and colors, how they hear music. They are actively experimenting, they are interested in growth and difference, rather than facsimile.
- Diana Matos, one of my favorite dancers in the world. She moves through space with such interesting intention and doesn’t forecast: each movement feels like a surprise.
- Sheopatra Jones playing and discovering new movement live
- Madura Dusal barefoot in a country yard doing some of the best, most confident, i-know-i-have-the-sauce dancing I have ever seen.
- Soraya Lundy exploring versatility and personas
- Zavion’s choices here: the hands making a wave, the grip on a steering wheel, the beats hit in the end freestyle.
- Denzel Chisolm is rightmost, with a lingering look at his own backside as the line goes “in my ass cheeks they sweat these beats”.
- Parris Goebel in 2012, tapping her nails @2:30
And this is where I come into the practice by which I used to define myself. I attach to reminders that life is a journey – everything is fluid and ever-changing, and so there is room for change even when it looks like you are doing the same thing over and over, next to other people who are doing the same thing over and over. There is room for details and individualization, and the point is for me to grow and genuinely enjoy myself, not to preoccupy myself with making it look like I’m enjoying myself. Because it will come through in the movement, either way.
About Tolulope Edionwe
Tolulope Edionwe is a software engineer, artist, and forever student based in Brooklyn, New York. Find her online at www.tamenze.com.