Madam Mime and the Karaoke Kristians
By Rosalea Barker
If you google "liturgical dance", you'll likely come up with a miscellany of references that range from the Catholic Information Network's advising against having anything so profane in a service, to Carrie B's on-line store of angel-wing leotards and men's praise outfits.
As part of Black History Month this February, my workplace events committee put on a celebratory event with speakers, soul food, and dancers. A local group from a nationwide secular after school program called Girls Inc performed an African dance in which each individual gets to show their own steps as well as be part of the group dance. Ranging in age from about 7 to 12, the girls all performed with grace and enthusiasm, though they later told me they liked doing hip hop best.
That was in response to my question as to whether they'd like to be a solo dancer like Angela Rogers from the Abundant Life New Generation Ministries who had performed a liturgical dance to the R. Kelly song 'I believe I can fly'. No angel-wing leotards for Ms Rogers, let me tell you. Slender and not much over 5 foot tall, with her hair cut in a bob, she was dressed in black leather pants, very high-heeled black business shoes, and a tight-fitting black business-style jacket. Though that description makes it sound like she was dressed to look sexy, the effect wasn't at all; it was very demure and business-like. And she was, after all, performing for us in her lunch hour.
I don't know what she normally wears for her dances, but judging from my limited experience of seeing black-suited male liturgical dance groups on 'The Bay Area's Best of Gospel Music' TV programme some time back, it's clear that the flowing garb sold on Carrie B's website doesn't get shipped much to Oakland. In fact, Angela's outfit was so totally un-flowing that, at one point as she stepped about, she looked uncannily like Jack Skellington from Tim Burton's animated movie 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'.
I didn't get the chance to speak to her afterwards, and this column isn't really about any one individual so I mean no disrespect when I say that I just don't get liturgical dance. Basically the form consists of mouthing the words to a song, while "signing" the meaning as you move about. The key ingredient is that the song means something to the dancer and uplifts their heart and the hearts and souls of the audience. Angela got a standing ovation from several audience members. And I felt privileged to have learned something about another culture, very different from my own.
Afterwards, Angela was surrounded by a number of my Filipina co-workers, which re-focused my mind on a contrast I had begun to see between different church experiences. Put simply, it occurs to me that prayer in Black churches is about having things taken away - doubt, burdens and so on. Filipino churches, on the other hand, stress that prayer will get God to give you things you desire - a new house, maybe - in exchange for how hard you evangelize. If possible, you should also take that Christian missionary zeal to the Philippines when going back for a visit.
One item that is a real hot seller among the Filipino community in this area is the magic mic. It's a microphone that you can put different song chips into and it will work through your television set and stereo as a kind of wireless karaoke wand. If you want, you can even have competitions with it to see who most accurately replicates the melody and words and rhythms. It's so addictive, people tell me, that they'll suddenly find it's 3 in the morning and they've been singing since they got home from work. The song chips hold about 500 songs apiece and you can get different chips containing different sorts of singing styles and songs in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean etc.
To me, the magic mic is an excellent metaphor for evangelical christianism (and it is an -ism), consisting as it does of some pre-determined interpretation of a set of words, which people are rewarded for to the degree that their parroting resembles that interpretation.
But back to the miming thing... lip-syncing is like the photographic negative of karaoke, and it's kind of interesting to wonder why Filipinos take the original artist's voice out of the song and put their own in, while African Americans keep the original artist's voice in and take their own out. In both cases success is judged on how little the performer varies from the original artist.
But what the hell, they're having fun and
expressing themselves and I'll probably never understand
it, just because I prefer jazz and the kind of song and
dance where even a child can say "I've got a part!", and
contribute their own made-up steps or harmony to the melody