NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
When Archie Burnett walks onto a dance floor, he tends to take it over.
Thats partly because hes a big guy, 6-foot-4 and full of muscle. Especially in the 1980s and 90s, when he was a mainstay of New York Citys underground clubs, his body was, as he recently put it, banging.
A body like that commands attention, but any chance of fading into the background truly disappears when he starts to move. Then hes a kaleidoscope of long lines and sharp angles. Every moment, hes ready for a camera to click; every moment, hes on beat.
His dancing is also knowledge in action. Vogue and waacking which are resurgent in popular culture may be new to some, but not to Burnett. Hes a father of the House of Ninja, a collective of dancers instrumental in the spread of vogueing from ballrooms to videos and fashion shows in the 80s and 90s. With Tyrone Proctor, a pioneer of waacking who happened to be Burnetts brother-in-law, he helped revive that style of flamboyant, air-slicing improvisation, developed in Los Angeles gay clubs in the 1970s. House dance is home territory, too.
A Burnett dance-floor takeover, though, is never hostile. Choreographer David Neumann remembers going to clubs with him in the 90s. People would want to battle him, Neumann said. But Archie would immediately disarm the person screaming, slapping the floor, praising them.
Thats his attitude, Neumann added. If you are really in the dance, you get props. Now, eventually, hell likely beat you, but thats not his goal. His goal is the joy of dancing.
Sally Sommer, a critic and historian who followed Burnett to clubs in the 80s and put him at the center of her 90s-club-dance documentary, Check Your Body at the Door, similarly described Burnetts attitude in an interview: Its about enlarging the circles of pleasure.
At 62, Burnett is still enlarging those circles in clubs and also in classrooms. Since the 90s, as demand for instruction in underground club styles has grown all around the world and especially in Europe, he has become one of the most revered and influential teachers. (The most significant disseminator, Sommer said.) Younger dancers lovingly describe him as a fairy godfather, a cool uncle or the best dad ever, as a friend who makes you want to dance even if your feet hurt.
From Wednesday to Aug. 1, his teaching takes a new form: Life Encounters, a show at the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. In it, Burnett and an intergenerational cast of dancers tell the story of his life in dance. (Video of the production will be available on the Jacobs Pillow website Aug. 12-26.)
They tell that story through dance, with vignettes of Burnetts high school days, his initiation into underground clubs and vogueing, his first encounter with Europe and experimental dance. These are all scenes of discovery, in which he typically portrays himself as a novice. Theres a lot of humor.
Burnett is at the center, dancing and narrating. His voice is as big as the rest of him, and hes accustomed to holding forth. Ask him almost any question these days, and his answer is likely to include the phrase What I tell the kids is
or one of what he calls his sayings, such as You cant fake the real and The club is the classroom.
The club was his classroom. He had almost no formal training. At first, he cribbed moves off Soul Train. Up until 2014, he had a day job with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. (In Check Your Body at the Door, you can see him washing out subway cars.) Dancing, for him, has been more passion than profession.
Speaking after a recent rehearsal, Burnett said the most important experience of his life started in 1980, when he began dancing at the Loft, the underground party celebrated for its mixed crowd of dance devotees and its spirit of acceptance. The Loft was a come-as-you-are party, he said. It allowed me a nurturing ground to be who I was, even when I didnt know who I was.
When Burnett was growing up in Brooklyn, dancing was something he had to do on the sly. His mother, a Seventh-day Adventist from Dominica, didnt approve. I wasnt doing drugs, I wasnt killing anybody, but she had an issue because I like to shake my ass to a beat? Burnett said. She told me I was going to go to hell, that I should go to God. But dance is like a religion for me. Its where I feel closest to my spiritual plane.
His mother wanted him to be a preacher, and in a sense, she may have gotten her wish. Burnett preaches the gospel of the Loft, which is a gospel of love. The message of Life Encounters is the message of all his classes: Live your truth and You are good enough.
Theres not much sadness in the show, although there has been in Burnetts life. When AIDS hit the scene, my friends were dropping like flies, he said. Willi Ninja, who founded the House of Ninja and became famous after appearing in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, died of AIDS-related heart failure in 2006. Burnett was his health care proxy. I had to pull the plug after he went into cardiac arrest, he said. Those experiences shaped my idea of friendship and family. I try to spread that love through dance.
Its not that Burnett doesnt teach movement. He tries to teach his students as he learned. These kids were never raised in club culture, he said. Theyre seeing it from the outside. But this stuff comes from the inside out. I try to make it as if were at a party and Im inviting them to do what I do a mirroring that connects them to the music and to their own responses.
For the cast of Life Encounters, rehearsals have been a continuing master class. Archie is a history bearer and hes always dropping gems, said Abdiel Jacobsen, who used to be a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company (and who uses the pronoun they). A few years ago, looking for ways to more fully express a gender-fluid identity, Jacobsen discovered encouragement and welcome in Burnetts vogue and waacking classes. Now a devotee of the Hustle, they do that partner dance with Burnett in the show.
Sinia Alaia (who also goes by Sinia Braxton, Nia Reid and other names) met Burnett about seven years ago, when they were both teaching in Sweden. A recognized diva in the vogue ballroom scene in Life Encounters, she schools the others in sass she was then in her late 30s and had not been performing and feared doing an instructor demonstration. But Archie told me, You got this, girl, and he breathed that life into me, Alaia said. Its when you stop dancing that you feel the aches and pains.
Getting older hasnt been easy for Burnett. Im my own worst critic, he said. If I think of all the abilities I had when I was 20, Id go insane. But I tried to stop worrying about what I didnt have and remember what I did.
What he has are relationships. The cast of Life Encounters, he said, is like a family love affair. Maya Llanos is the daughter of DJ Joey Llanos, a friend of Burnetts from the Paradise Garage days. Samara Cohen, better known as Princess Lockeroo, is the foremost protegee of Proctor (who died last year). DeAndre Brown (Yummy in the ballroom) was once part of the House of Ninja. Burnett met Ephrat Asherie on the dance floor. Ive danced with that girl for 20 years, he said.
And what he has is knowledge. Playwright Marcella Murray, who serves as dramaturge for Life Encounters along with Neumann, said that in doing research for this show, Archie is the research, this amazing fount.
But its not just Burnetts knowledge about dance that impressed Murray. We have been having conversations in the arts about how we treat each other, she said. Its been wonderful to see how Archie has moved through the world, and how people want to show up for him.
Because were all trying to be like that, she continued, not just making brilliant art, but being good people who make art. Thats my favorite reason for being glad that people are going to get to see more of Archie.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times