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Dancing with the Enemy

So, yesterday, after the show, I went to watch the second of four films offered by this year’s Madison Israel Film Festival, Dancing at Jaffa, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and starring Pierre Fontaine and Yvonne Marceau. For someone who is a huge fan of documentary films, of ballroom dance, of human interest stories, and of Israel, I have to say that I was let down.

Dancing at Jaffa documents the true story of an intercultural experiment aimed at uniting two groups of children in a very unusual way: through a ballroom dance class. French ballroom dance champion Pierre Fontaine returns to Jaffa, Israel – a suburb of Tel Aviv and the city of his birth – to see how he can best contribute to the people of a divided city in a divided nation. The idea of a ballroom dance class is brilliant, and especially the way he did it, by making Jewish boys dance with Palestinian girls, and Palestinian boys with Jewish girls. Of course, the program does not run smoothly; the scenes where the children meet for the first time are wonderfully awkward, and their reactions are candid and honest. Slowly, though, the resistance to look at, to touch, and to dance with the partner of the opposite sex and religion melts away, and by the end, they all (well, most of them) dance in a competition in front of a crowd of parents, family, and friends from both communities. Other than Pierre, two of the trajectories are those of Noor, a chubby Palestinian girl who can be either incredibly shy and withdrawn, avoiding everyone or hostile and belligerent, attacking and scaring everyone; and that of Lois and Alaa. We do not learn about Noor’s partner, but we do learn that Alaa comes from a very poor Palestinian home at which Lois is shocked, and that Lois’s thing is that she was fathered by a sperm donor, which prompts an adorable scene where she tries to explain to her partner what a sperm bank is, and then is followed by an awkwardly graphic scene where Lois’s mother gives Alaa the intimate details of her procedure and of the reproductive process. She’s a wily one, that lady. Noor’s arc basically ends with her in control of her emotions and actually proving to be a very talented dancer, and Lois and Alaa take us out with a scene where they row Alaa’s father’s boat and it’s all very Hand in Hand and gooey as the credits roll.

The concept of the film is great; cute kids and a fun project. If the synopsis weren’t enough, the trailers made me want to jump right up and buy a copy of the movie for myself. However, as I mentioned before, it was not a cakewalk to sit through.

Okay, disclaimer: granted, I missed the first 20 minutes because I was still at the theatre finishing up with the costumes, but for an almost 2-hour-long movie, missing 20 minutes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and I was able to get right into it when I walked in. The main criticisms I had were the treatment of ballroom dance, the character development, and the camera work/filming style.

Okay, first, the ballroom dance. Obviously, I was not expecting to watch children do ballroom for two hours straight, because that would be boring, but they could have shown more of that and fewer tracking shots of school buses and checkpoints. The only dances that I counted were merengue (which is not something I know much about), rumba (a different style than what I’m used to, though, and tango. There was a tiny bit of foxtrot and waltz in the scenes where Pierre and his American partner, Yvonne Marceau, were demonstrating for the class, but they didn’t show them teaching it. It’s obvious that the children were not professional dancers or even actors, but I felt like I was either watching them dance the same steps over and over in different settings or just watching them talk about their lives. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

This leads into character development. I found it odd that almost nothing was mentioned about Noor’s partner; that would have been a great counterpoint to Lois/Alaa. It is clear that we were supposed to root for Noor, but she seemed like a whiner up until the very last moments. Unlike Lois/Alaa, the Noor scenes always seemed to be about someone other than Noor, and Noor’s relationship with that person (Noor’s mother, Noor’s teachers, Noor’s classmate, Pierre). Also, some of the adult characters were frustrating. Pierre seemed a little full of himself at times; Lois’s mother, while funny, clearly attempted to commandeer a documentary that was not about her; and there was something that one of the teachers said to a class that I thought was incredibly harsh and unwarranted. Also, there were like five different schools, and so many children that we barely knew anyone else’s name by the end.

Finally, the camera work. Pick a style and stick with it. You want to do it as if it’s a real movie, with no fourth-wall breaking? Do it that way. You want heavy confessional action? Do it with all the characters, or at least not just Pierre. And for goodness sakes, decide if you want your voice in it – there was one scene in the Palestinian neighborhood where they were talking to Alaa and some of the other boys, and it was clear that the prompts/questions were coming from the person holding the camera.

I would give it a 2 out of 5 star rating, and that’s only because I just love ballroom dance.

And hello to another six continent day, the first after a few! So, just who danced in today? North America (Canada and USA), South America (Paraguay and Colombia), Europe (UK, Hungary, France, Netherlands, and Czech Republic), Asia (India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia), Africa (Burkina Faso), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

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Masterpiece YouTube: Donald O’Connor, Applied Mathematics

Today was a horribly cold and blustery day, the first of the year. Let’s hope this doesn’t mean six more weeks of winter for Madison. I actually had a nice day, though: lunch with 12 friends at Great Dane, and I also got to the gym, which was just about empty, thanks to the Superbowl and the weather. I’ve got a lot on my mind, so to give you a more accurate picture of what it looks like and because I don’t have the wherewithal at the moment to think of something interesting and new, here’s an updated episode of MYT from last September that I’ve been meaning to fix.

Just watch.

That’s So Jacob Presents:

Masterpiece YouTube

Episode 14: Donald O’Connor, Applied Mathematics, Are You With It? (1948)

This, my friends, is talent. No offense to the silver screen stars of today (does anyone even use that phrase anymore?) but Donald O’Connor’s feet have more talent in them than the majority of this year’s Oscar nominees. It’s even more striking in black and white. And yeah, it’s not really about math, but it’s fun to watch and pretend that it’s your math homework.

Donald O’Connor was part of an amazing generation of performers. And when I say performers, I mean performers – people who could sing, dance, act, and had personalities and energies that were just electric. People like Ann Miller, Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly. There’s a reason why Singin’ In The Rain is one of the best American movies of all time; it’s because the viewer is drawn into the story and its characters. These days, I feel like popular movies are all pretty much the same animal; remake of a remake of a remake, sci-fi aliens/dinosaurs/warriors, romantic comedy, or screwball comedy. Not to say that they aren’t good, there’s just a certain magic that goes into a musical film; as the characters go through their changes through song, so do you. I think the only major movie that would fit this category is Pitch Perfect, and even that’s pushing it.

Speaking of remakes, I think it’s high time for Are You With It? to mount a comeback. From what I understand, the plot is about a math teacher who joins a traveling carnival. In today’s economy and the worrisome job market, this might be just the thing to inspire people, or at least entertain them.

Or you could just watch Donald O’Connor dance some more.

This episode of Masterpiece YouTube has been brought to you by the Rachel Sweet Pandora Radio channel, which I’ve been rocking out to for the last half-hour while I wrote this.

In other news, I hope that y’all come back and visit even though the January Blogging Odyssey is over. I’ve had a pretty good day though, with five continents reporting in, all but Africa: North America (Canada and USA), South America (Peru), Europe (UK, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Italy, and Liechtenstein), Asia (Israel, India, UAE, and the Philippines) and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). Tell your friends?

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Masterpiece Youtube: The State of the Union…of Fashion

Like millions of Americans, I put aside what I was doing to watch Obama’s State of the Union address. Then, like millions of Americans, I picked things up where I left off and wondered why it was now several hours later and I hadn’t eaten dinner. The SOTU was as it usually is, a collection of platitudes mostly about creating jobs, the military, health care, without addressing criticism, saying anything substantial, or giving the American public some payoff at the end.

Let’s watch something that is exciting and educational.

That’s So Jacob Presents:

Masterpiece Youtube

Episode 10: “100 Years of Fashion in 100 Seconds,” Westfield Gateway Mall (2011)

This video is a few years old, but got some buzz recently on Forbes.com and elsewhere. I myself discovered it via the scourge that is StumbleUpon, and haven’t been able to stop watching it since. Seriously, I think I know all the outfits now.

Basically, it’s the same very attractive young couple doing a dance routine while seamlessly transitioning between years of fashion. Yes, it’s British, but I feel like if you made a few costume substitutions, it could encompass American fashion too. For example, it kinda gives short shrift to the 1990s, but then again they only had 100 seconds. There is something to be said for men’s fashion; even though it really doesn’t change that much (just add/remove a jacket, tie, hat, or suspenders; everything else is basically the same) the video does a good job of providing some much-needed and oft-forgotten color and distinction to the man’s outfits. Of course, the girl’s outfits are very different from one another and in essence, serve as the markers of the decades with their styles, colors, fabrics, and cuts. Personally, I think that the costume designer could have gone even further and been more dramatic with the outfit changes, with some bolder colors and things that are a bit more shocking to the eye. However, it serves the purpose of the ad, and all the items seen could conceivably be purchased at a mall.

I just got the point.

This is some BRILLIANT advertising.

Now I just want to fly to London and go shopping.

Follow that redhead!

This episode of Masterpiece Youtube was brought to you by the fact that it’s still -13 degrees outside. Oh, and…thanks, Obama? I never really understood that.

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Masterpiece Youtube: Roundhouse Holiday Special

That’s So Jacob Presents: Masterpiece YouTube

Episode 8: Roundhouse Holiday Special, 1993.

Previously, on Masterpiece YouTube, I started a countdown of my favorite Christmas crap on the YouTube. The number one spot on the countdown, I felt, deserved its own entry, so here, for your entertainment, is the Roundhouse Holiday Special that premiered on Nickelodeon in 1993.

For the uninformed, Roundhouse was a magical show I grew up watching on the wonder that was SNICK, or Saturday Night Nickelodeon, aimed at keeping 90s kids like me in front of the TV, out of my parents’ hair (or behaving for the baby-sitter, as the case sometimes was), and to by their tie-in products. Wait…that hadn’t happened yet. That’s right, back in the Golden Age of Nickelodeon (which I could go on and on and ON about how awesome it was despite the fact that I was too young for some of the shows and don’t remember every single one), quality children’s television was not about cleaning out kids’ piggy banks with cheap merchandise or promoting a cult of child celebrities. It was about shows like this one, which were about entertainment and didn’t really ask much of their audience except some laughs. Props and costumes were pretty simple, and, oh yeah, they had an awesome band and a flexible stage space that they name-checked in their theme song, “we can go anywhere from here,” since the interior of the set resembled an actual roundhouse, or a place where train cars of old could go in any direction, symbolizing that imagination can take you anywhere you want to go. Also, it had this cool, edgy 1990s punk-grunge vibe that made middle-class suburban kids like me feel a little bit cooler for watching it.

Even though it only ran for a few short seasons and I don’t remember that much of the content from the original episodes, Roundhouse had it all. It was a sketch comedy show peppered with songs and dance numbers that revolved around a meaningful theme, like being the new kid in school, or dealing with your family. It had a pretty solid cast of talented teens/twenty-somethings. Some of them were very talented actors, others sang awesome original songs, and almost all of them had some crazy hip-hop moves; most were your classic triple-threat. Realization: maybe this is why I went into performance. But, anyway, the cool/sad thing about the show was how most of the actors faded off into nothingness or went behind the camera – cool because they are probably living healthy, fulfilling lives, but sad, because we never got to see most of them again. A few standouts include Dominic Lucero, who tragically passed away from lymphoma before the show finished taping, and Crystal Lewis, who tragically exited the cast after the first season in order to pursue a career in gospel music, which was highly successful, according to Wikipedia. There were no DVDs of the show ever released, so it’s unsure whether future generations will ever get to enjoy it, and coming across any record of its existence on the Internet is pretty rare.

I came across not only a clip, but this full episode on YouTube, and the memories came flooding back to me; the holiday sketches that appealed to people from many different backgrounds, the pop culture references, and of course, one of the most amazing songs ever written. There are a few misses in these twenty-five minutes of wonder, like the toilet-seat sketch, which I didn’t find particularly funny, but it’s mostly hit after hit…just watch, it’ll be the most productive half-hour of your day. Or at least the cleverest.

Some highlights:

  • The constant meta-references to the nature of the television show and of sketch performance in general, as well as poking fun of the holiday madness that has only ballooned in recent years.
  • Julene Renee as a perky infomercial for Skidmark Cards, and for Holi-dazed and Confused, “…HARPS OF GOLD!”
  • The fabulous one-liners of perpetual TV mom Shawn Daywalt (examples: “Oh, right, and he’s at home watching the Stooges,” “I believe they prefer to be called Alfresco-Americans,” “I’m not a mom but I play one on TV.”
  • Doctor Dreidel!
  • It’s a tree topper and a dessert topper!

And the ever-popular “World, Be Still,” AKA the best non-denominational Christmas song of all time. It’s awesome and amazingness and wonderfulness all in one.

“World, be still, find peace tonight/love reveal your perfect light/One hand is reaching out in hunger/one voice gives a tiny sigh/it joins with others in the thunder/of the silent battle cry/one candle lighted from another/one voice cries out for peace/one hand extended to a brother/world sings in sweet release/World, be still, find peace tonight/love reveal your perfect light/Come, children of every nation/find the peace in your own way/light candles in celebration/to the light of the dawning day/mean streets of crime for assistance/in a language born of pain/hear the bells of freedom in the distance/singing out this proud refrain/World, be still, find peace tonight/love reveal your perfect light/One hand is reaching out in hunger/one voice gives a tiny sigh/it joins with others in the thunder/of the silent battle cry/one candle lighted from another/one voice cries out for peace/one hand extended to a brother/world sings in sweet release.”

It just goes to show you that not all of Christmas is crap, that there is still some goodness in the world, in this life, even when sometimes I wish I could just be like –

“Reprise the theme song and roll the credits.”

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Confessions on the Dance Floor

Here’s the first one: I like to dance.

Here’s the second: I’m not that bad.

Here’s the third: I’m not that good, either.

Rhythm, a sequence in time repeated, featured ...

Rhythm, a sequence in time repeated, featured in dance: an early moving picture demonstrates the waltz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first real encounter with dance was probably as a child, in synagogue, of all places. On holidays like Simchat Torah, we would dance with the Torah in the social hall, an event that would go on until late in the night. One of the reasons I liked it was because I got to stay up late, and the other was that I got to be a part of something. The dance of choice was usually the hora; the faster, the better. It was a way of expressing my love for Judaism without having to eat special foods or spend hours praying in the sanctuary. I remember feeling so special when my dad would put me on his shoulders, or when someone like Mr. Reich would spin me around on a chair, using purely centrifugal force to keep me from flying into the crowd.

The only dancing my parents ever did together was at weddings, and even then, limited to one slow dance where they mostly stood in place and rocked back and forth. Some of my happiest childhood moments were when my mom and I would sometimes dance around the kitchen together, just the two of us, usually while singing or humming “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I. My parents never really knew where my interest in dance or sense of rhythm came from, as neither of them danced much growing up. My dad, however, did say that my grandfather (whose name is my middle name) was “rather light on his feet.” But since I never got to meet my grandfather, who died before I was born, and there was no video taken of him dancing, I’ll just have to take my dad’s word for it.

In middle school and high school, I participated in every single school musical. Most of them were terrible. I forgot exactly where I was going with this thread, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed being on stage and dancing with the chorus, especially when I got to use a prop, wear a fancy costume, or do a solo or a difficult step. Most of it was “step-together-step,” but since I mastered that pretty quickly where others were still watching their feet, I could focus on performing for the audience. In junior year, I even got to be Dance Captain for one of the numbers in that year’s show, Oklahoma!, which made me feel great – earning a leadership role rather than being voted on it by peers (read: popularity contest).

I had put dancing aside in college, but then a girl from down the hall told me about a beginner’s jazz dance class, and it fit right into my schedule that fall of my freshman year. I joined a few weeks into the semester, and learned that there were other people who enjoyed the challenge of memorizing choreography (I was never as good memorizing lines as I was steps) and enjoyed dancing as a fun hobby where we could burn some calories, make new friends, and get a chance to just jump around for no good reason in the middle of the day. I always associated dancing with being part of something, part of a community. If you dance by yourself, everyone looks at you and thinks you’re crazy, but when you’re dancing with a group (and even better, doing the same moves at the same time), everyone looks at you and thinks, “that looks like fun,” and “wow, I wish I could be dancing right now,” or maybe even “wow, I wish I could dance like him.”

Although my friend dropped the class, I kept on with it and moved to intermediate level the next semester, and did two semesters of advanced jazz until I switched schools and they didn’t offer dance classes for non-majors anymore. I did think about making it my major, but that’s another story for another time. All the while, I focused completely on jazz dance though, no other types. I wasn’t interested in modern dance, and I didn’t want the stereotypes associated with ballet, so jazz was a happy medium. I was always jealous of the tap class though, but I didn’t have the shoes or the courage to try, a choice I regret.

My favorite parts of the semesters were the end, where we would dance in a recital. The first semester, we did a number from the Chicago soundtrack. It was not challenging, but I got to dance front row center, which made me feel special. Next semester, we did a routine a la Center Stage to a Stevie Wonder song, “Higher Ground.” This was my favorite, because it told a little story: we walked onstage with our bags and started stretching as if we were starting a class as the song started, and then once Stevie started singing, some of us started the routine, and one by one we all joined in. Then, we had a mock “dance battle,” boys vs. girls. Since there were only four of us boys, four of the best girls “challenged” us and we danced them offstage in return. Then, we did a reverse of the beginning, with everyone coming on stage to do the routine one last time together before peeling off one by one until the stage was bare. The next semester, we did a jazz/modern combo to “Ngankarrparni,” one of my all-time favorite songs, sung by Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack for Rabbit-Proof Fence. The dance itself was a bit slower in pace and more technical than before, but I had a great time nonetheless.

I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated a good dance routine, and always kept songs in the back of my head for something I should make some sort of routine for, but I never returned to jazz. On my trip to Ecuador with DAT, we took a salsa class and learned Andean mask dance from a real Andean, in the Andes. I fell in love with a monkey mask in the market and tried to summon the spirit of the monkey to help me dance, but being cold and barefoot on a floor made up of jagged, pointy rocks made it hard to focus. In the show that we subsequently performed off-Broadway, my character got to lead the others in a dance, so I’ve technically danced in an off-Broadway show, which is a cool trivia fact even though I was in an uncomfortable lion mask rather than my happy monkey.

In Houston, I discovered the Texas two-step and regularly made a fool of myself doing it with friends on Saturday nights at Wild West. I was never that good, but I usually got a few girls to dance with me before the night was over and usually managed not to mess it up too badly. I was so jealous of the cowboys and cowgirls in their boots, moving gracefully around the floor. Usually the burlier the guy, the better dancer he was, which was always a surprise to me. No matter how much I watched them twirl, dip, and toss the girls, though, I could never get it quite right, although I couldn’t have been that bad at it considering that sometimes I got a second or third dance from the same girl. I also went out to a Latin dance club occasionally, and with very little knowledge of it, gave it my best shot. I could tell I looked awkward and wasn’t the best out there, but my partners usually said, “no, you were great.” Even if it was a lie, it made me feel good, or at least better than the guys who didn’t even try to dance at all.

Even though I have mostly only danced for fun (and in my kitchen), and haven’t had much training, I enjoy it. I like the way it makes me feel.  Standing still, I am alone, I am nervous, and I am vulnerable. When I’m in motion, nothing can touch me, hurt me, harm me; the faster I go, the more invincible and protected I feel, and no one can catch me, unstoppable and invincible. The planet Earth is hurtling through space at breakneck speeds, spinning and spinning on its axis; when I was younger, I could feel it moving beneath me. When I did, I would have massive panic attacks, convulsing, throwing myself on the floor, my body temperature turning white-hot and then very cold, issuing a visceral ululation from my throat the entire time. Usually they only lasted a matter of seconds, and when I was alone, I could usually cry my way out of it until I felt whole and still again. My father got used to it, but whenever my mother saw me entering this panic mode, she would hold me down flat on the ground until my body stopped shaking. I got used to it too, and through the years have had fewer and fewer episodes, shorter and shorter, until they stopped altogether for awhile. Over the past few years, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve had one, how many times I’ve felt the Earth move under my feet. When I dance, I don’t ever feel the Earth move; move, on the earth, through space and time. I set my own course, and I am in full control of my brain, my skeleton, all the way down to my feet. I am a beautiful creature, strong, wild, and free. I feel special, inspired, and unique while at the same time a member of the greater human race, protected like an animal in its pack; gentle, like the willows in the field move together in the wind; and magical, spinning and flying high, following Peter Pan to the second star on the right and straight on until morning.

So, recently, here in Madison, I saw a flier taped to a pole, advertising free ballroom dancing lessons. I decided to give it a try, because it sounded fun. I went, and I had a great time. Since then, I signed up for regular classes, and I’ve gone back a few times since, including tonight. These guys and girls can really dance – I thought I danced okay, but looked and felt like a complete fool when stepping out on the floor. The people seem mostly pretty nice, except for a few who seemed stuck-up, but I’m not going to let their attitudes deter me from not going back. It’s so much fun and it looks beautiful, and best of all, includes the element of community, with partnerships not just encouraged but required for each dance. That’s what I liked about dance in the first place. Hopefully I’ll make new friends in the beginner class, and maybe even actually start to look beautiful while dancing these difficult, precise steps. Maybe one day I’ll learn enough to even choreograph a routine of my own, or be in a competition. Even if I don’t, I will try to have fun, and I will feel collected, coordinated and confident in myself on the dance floor of life.

But know this: you will never, ever see me twerking, that’s for damn sure.

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Masterpiece Youtube: “Her Morning Elegance,” Oren Lavie

Well hello there, normal-hour post. I’ve been awake since 8 and have already done cardio, jumped in the pool with all my clothes on, and had a nice chat with a fellow resident in the pool (I’m going to miss this place so much) and while in the shower, I thought of a fun new feature I could do.

YouTube is a magical place on the Interwebs. It started in February 2005 as a place to upload videos, but now it’s so much more, with video bloggers, old TV shows, pirated movies, and cats doing interesting things. I first became aware of YouTube in about 2006, and I’ve been watching it ever since. Most videos I watch just once, but occasionally, a video comes along that is so amazing that I bookmark it and go back to it, and if it goes down for whatever reason, I am very sad. So behold, a new feature/project/thingamajig….

That’s So Jacob presents: Masterpiece YouTube

Episode 1: “Her Morning Elegance,” Oren Lavie, 2009.

I was first shown this video by my friend Ofra when I moved to Israel in 2009. It’s an extremely well-choreographed stop-motion piece; closer to video-theatre than amateur film. The story, played out on a mattress, is of a beautiful red-headed woman who goes on an adventure. It includes walking down pillow stairs, riding a train and a bicycle, and playing under the sea with sock-fish. The story also includes Lavie himself, and the two make excellent shapes and dance together, all on a bed sheet and with objects found around the house. It is accompanied by a dream-like song sung by Lavie that I’d totally listen to all the time if I had it on my IPhone. Also, bonus points for coming from Israel.

The best parts of the video are 1) when she leaps across the pillows like she’s in Super Mario Bros., and 2) the dance sequence between her and the man, especially when he twirls her, which is nearly impossible to do while lying flat horizontally.

It was one of the first videos I’ve bookmarked on YouTube, and I go to it when I feel solemn, contemplative, need inspiration, need a pick-me-up, or need a shot of confidence. It reminds me of cool, misty Jerusalem mornings, when a cappuccino and a good book were all I needed to get me through, and all was right with the world.

I hope you enjoy the video.

This has been Masterpiece YouTube, Episode 1: “Her Morning Elegance,” Oren Lavie.