Kate Glicksberg

Body PoliticsCulture

how flexing bodies tell stories

August 19, 2019
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All bodies have stories to tell, each with its own kink, bias and history. But a group of bodies moving in choreographed unison — incorporating into their motions both individual truths, and agreed-upon, shared histories, the ones we need to keep alive to move the culture, and thus ourselves, forward — is capable of conveying broader agendas. That troupe’s dance has the potential to become a profound narrative, something worth re-telling, tweaking and passing on. Of course, not all dance styles or moves share such rich values, or — contrary to the spontaneous glory of, say, the Dab or the Milly Rock, which we celebrate with viral dexterity and infatuation, before others get to them —  the implicit depth of long-term meaning. 

A scene from the flexing performance, ‘Maze,’ at The Shed, New York (photo: Kate Glicksberg)

That’s one of the great qualities of Flexing. This street-dance born of Jamaican heritage in early-Aughts Brooklyn has already surpassed what would have been its moment in the sun, and is now moving towards something approaching the canon. Why? Because flexing’s adaptability belies a longer cultural game. In-between the flexing battle cyphers that continue to take regular place throughout Brooklyn, and its theatrical institutionalization, which has found an increasingly older, more tony and much more white audience engaging its productions, flexing is a dance of particular bodies and of a particular time. Black bodies, the early 21st century.

Do not look at flexing’s practitioners merely as physical dancers, using their physiques for expressions of aesthetic beauty. Like many previous dancers of street styles, their practice is based on fluidity and flexibility of motion, and dexterity of the mind; yet they combine this physicality with an emotional charge, which fosters the creation of narrative. Flexers are storytelling conduits, something akin to street-corner sages, their moves telling us what happened, and hinting at knowing of what is about to. Their movement of torsos and limbs transform into this era’s versions of brush strokes on canvases, words on book-pages and familiar-yet-vibrant blues changes — a contemporary medium for conveying stories that are both culturally timeless and distinctly of the here and now. 

A scene from the flexing performance, ‘Maze,’ at The Shed, New York (photo: Kate Glicksberg)

Flexing taps into both the joyful exuberance and ceremonial consciousness that, unlike its white European concert-hall-minded counterparts, Black dance has always possessed, building these values into intentions. And though it came of age as an art of creative warfare, unlike most of its predecessors, flexing always showed narrative ambition driven by social context. Or as Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray, one of this dance culture’s Brooklyn originators, told me a few weeks back, “Flexing is based off a feeling and our environment, where we come from. So it’s like, ‘How do we embody what we’re saying and how we’re saying it?’”

A scene from the flexing performance, ‘Maze,’ at The Shed, New York (photo: Kate Glicksberg)

Regg Roc told me that among the main things that flexing picked up directly and consciously from Jamaican dance and dancehall culture is the desire to express in dance the “faces” of its characters. This is mad helpful in understanding the storytelling aspects of a flexing performance. These faces and bodies bring to life characteristics of the global street and the yard, and the moves that tell the ’hood’s stories — pausing, gliding, connecting, snapping — are full of sentiment and sensation, conveying different meanings in different spaces. Flexing exhibits and expands the broad vocabulary of Black bodies so often limited by the colonial world.  

A scene from the flexing performance, ‘Maze,’ at The Shed, New York (photo: Kate Glicksberg)

Flexing is also imbued with the not-so-secret power of so much Black creativity: improvisation. Improvising to better, to one-up, to change, to survive, to answer, to evade, to live, to heat up. If the European dance tradition is devoid of real-world context — each individual performance an attempt at a perfect carbon-copy, and any prospect of “change” regarded as damaging to an artful heritage — the African tradition is fluid, embracing context as one of the great variables that makes any moment different from another. Flexing is “like jazz,” said Regg. “It’s like a choreographed freestyle.”

And its context? In a short period of time, flexing has established itself as a form capable of reflecting the societal tensions of its age, just as tap and the electric slide and breakdancing mirrored theirs. And that’s where the stories of the Black body — its political leanings no longer driven off-stage by white supremacy’s cultural policing — have come to the fore, Even a cursory observation of the stories that flexing performances like Regg Roc’s “FlexN” (which premiered at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2014, before touring the world) and “Maze” (at The Shed in 2019) tell, show them to be about Black American communities and of social justice deferred. As great as styles like breakdancing and tap were (and are), prior dance cultures simply did not have flexing’s ability to let Black bodies speak with this much unrestricted candor. Or attempt the universal influence of its message.

A scene from the flexing performance, ‘Maze,’ at The Shed, New York (photo: Kate Glicksberg)

It is a power that Regg Roc recognizes: “You want to come in with something that’s relatable to everyone. What is something that we all feel? We all have emotions. We all cry. And you want to connect that with the music and with the body. With flexing, you have the vocabulary to do these things,” he says. “So if I’m making this extremely emotional piece, there’s this energy, these spirits, all these different things that just come out of it, and it just conjures it all out, especially with dance.”