22. Dance Dance Retribution
August 23rd, 2020

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - MRA
(File under: music, horns, dancing, south africa)

Listen: youtube.com/watch?v=Mxl0tz6X7ug

Look, I'd love to dance like nobody is watching, but in my head it feels like everybody is watching—stadiums of incredulous spectators with their mouths open and brows furrowed, many of them there in a purely scientific capacity, some taking notes. "Why is he doing that with his arms?" they ask. "Why is he moving as if a sniper has a laser sight trained on his forehead? Why does this feel like everyone is being punished for something?"

Unless. Unless I'm with the right people. At university I met a group of friends who unlocked something goofy and vulnerable in me which led to many nights in dark rooms playing games of jelly-limbed oneupmanship. We were at the vanguard of experimental modern dance, pioneering such moves as The Salmon, where you hold your arms straight at your sides and dart yourself into the air, wobbling your body from the waist up like a fish swimming upstream.

There's a concept in games called the magic circle which describes a space where the rules and expectations of the regular world are temporarily suspended in favour of the rules of the game—it's a collective suspension of disbelief, an agreement that everybody makes to play in the same space together. This group and I made our own magic circles and the rules were minimal: be idiots, support each other's idiocy without question, have a good time.

My friend Tom is part of that group. Last weekend we spent three hours on a video call walking through a 10-song playlist we'd both made for each other, and the dancing—as goofy as it ever was—started almost immediately as 'MRA' began. Chris McGregor was a South African jazz musician and bandleader, and the Brotherhood of Breath was his creation—a big band outfit composed of other South African expats and London improvisers. This song of theirs is like jet fuel: an elastic bassline, a drummer pumped full of quarters, and a busload of brass musicians galloping at an unstoppable clip for five minutes.

Nice to know the magic circle can expand across an ocean. Nice to have someone press a song into your palm without breaking eye contact and say, "This you'll like."

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