Marching to their own beat: Austin’s offbeat performance troupes
By Amyna Dosani
Austin holds a new facet to its off-the-wall personality at every corner. Here are a few performance scenes begging to be discovered.
High-energy big-band jazz music reminiscent of a 1940s cabaret plays in a bare, open dance studio with a glossy wooden floor, velvet curtains and a couple of glitzy disco balls tacked onto the ceiling. Coco Lectric, the headmistress of the Austin Academy of Burlesque, positions herself in the front of the class, bold red lipstick and mascara lending a retro look to her otherwise practical outfit of workout clothing.
Her students are your typical young women you’d see walking down the street during the day. But in class, a friendly, down-to-earth vibe welcomes them to let loose and embrace a more sultry side as they shimmy, shake, bump, grind and catwalk behind Coco across the floor, teasing the mirrored wall in front of them as if it was a crowded audience.
Throughout the class, Coco entertains the group with commentary about burlesque, its origins in the 20th century and the art of performing, once pointing out a particularly slick moment in the routine to start stripping. As the evening continues, she enlists students to help arrange a routine, each woman suggesting her own shimmy, turn, thrust or pose to strike.
Burlesque is a performance art that fuses dance, vocals, costuming and even theater, as each burlesque diva’s stage name encompasses a distinct alter ego persona that is revealed as she dances, according to the Jigglewatts website. Finding its roots in a not-so-accurate 20th century attempt to emulate “exotic” dances like African and belly-dancing in a glamorous, Westernized atmosphere, burlesque has constantly evolved over time, Coco says. She says every dancer and troupe adds their own twist and technique to an art that is heavily taught via apprenticeship, from one dancer to another.
Coco herself is quite the talented performer. A trained burlesque dancer, singer, actress and pinup model, in 2006 she founded Jigglewatts Burlesque Revue, an award-winning troupe of Austin-based dancers that performs internationally.
Flamenco first graced the winding, cobblestone streets of Spain, particularly Andalucia, around the 16th century as a communal expressive form of art through dance, song, rhythmic clapping and later guitar accompaniment. Its roots were borne of oppression influenced by the experiences of gypsies, Moors and Sephardic Jews, but the music features strong emotions of both positive and negative inspiration.
Pilar Andújar, a world renowned flamenco dancer from Alicante now invokes the mysterious, rich passion of flamenco’s history into her classes she teaches at YMCA Town Lake. “It’s very unique because of the passion and the visceral aspect of it. It not something that comes from the mind — it comes from inside of yourself,” Andújar says.
She says the mystery partially resides in the fact that more than 100 rhythms are thought to exist, but few are truly known or shared. Others may have existed only in the past, adding to the intrigue. Andújar compared this knowledge of flamenco to having a special secret in her possession.
Tucked into the back of a large, clean, white YMCA building was a modest-sized aerobics room complete with a mirrored wall where long, flowy skirts swirled and a rainbow of thick-heeled tap shoes clickety-clacked around the smooth wooden floor as Andújar led with her strong, melodic voice and the rhythmic clip-clap of her hands.
While flamenco has evolved into a performance art, Andújar aimed to maintain its core of spontaneity and apprenticeship-like communal flair in the way she ran the class. It’s not just about moving arms and legs correctly, she says, but about having a passion for the dance and having fun, epitomized in the traditional flamenco concept of duende.
“I don’t care what you do with your feet. You can be a master in doing very difficult and strange things in the feet, but to me that’s not the important thing,” Andújar says. “There are people that can show this duende. Duende is this passion, so like people feel it when they see. This duende is not so common to find … it’s not technique. It’s something that comes from your soul.”
Andújar began dancing flamenco at the age of seven in her hometown of Alicante, and by age 17 she made her way to Madrid to become a professional flamenco dancer. Soon she was travelling the world, garnering worldwide acclaim with companies like the Riverdance Company, Teatro de Danza Española, and Flamenco Vivo, sometimes as a soloist. She even performed in several operas and created choreographies internationally. While Andújar says her lifelong passion for teaching always led her to teach workshops around the world, it wasn’t until she met her boyfriend, an Austin native, on tour in Alaska that she eventually moved down to the Live Music Capital of the World to teach permanently.
“I’m still learning. You never finish to learn flamenco,” Andújar says. “It’s because this is like a drug. You can feel that you never finish but at the same time that you know more and more and more and more.”
The sun beat down on South Mall at the University of Texas campus as I joined Ashlyn Baum, David Hudson and Grant Shipman in setting up black mats on the grass — albeit unsuccessfully as the uneven grass failed to keep the puzzle pieces together. Passersby stared as they hurried past the plaza under the shadow of the UT Tower, perhaps wondering what sort of circus is running next to the flag pole. Except it actually was a circus.
Longhorn Circus opens itself to all forms of alternative exercise and movement exploration, including dancing, hula hooping, juggling, acrobatics and acrobatic yoga, meteor hammer, drums, hat tricks, magic, music, and spinning pois, which are balls tied to the end of strings and swung around in visually fascinating ways, according to their Facebook group. Running off to join the circus was never closer to reality.
Longhorn Circus began as a couple of friends getting together and performing and experimenting with movement, Baum says. Eventually, it became an official student organization at UT in the spring semester of 2012. They primarily communicate through the “Longhorn Circus” Facebook group, where they draw a community from all over Austin, not just the university.
Baum says that the group is not about how good you are or doing anything elaborate; it’s just about having fun and sharing skills in an accepting environment.
Hudson says he spins pois, staff, double staves and hoops, some of the time with the objects ablaze with a fire-safe wick, although not on fire as often as he used to. He says he got his start a little more than three years ago at Spider House Cafe. “I had been coming out to their weekly fire jam, and after being recognized several times one of the fire performers put a pair of sock poi in my hands and taught me very basic movement and gave me an online resource to learn more moves and tricks,” Hudson says. Soon he was running the show at the cafe with other performers.
While playing with flaming objects wasn’t a viable option during the South Mall rendezvous, spinning pois and hula hoops was all he needed. “Poi or flow arts are what I care about most in life,” Hudson says.
Spread out around the the field, group members were juggling bean bags and spinning and twirling colorful hula hoops.
As the evening progressed, Baum walked over to where Shipman was performing stretches for what everyone simply shortened to “acro.” She positioned herself in front of him, gently laying her hands flatly in his, and leaned her torso over his feet, locking his feet into the sides of her pelvis. He lifted her up, his legs perpendicular to their parallel bodies. Slowly, he let go of her hands, and Baum looked like she was flying under the buttery sunlight. She carefully lowered her torso down against his legs, letting it hang down while his legs comfortable supported her weight and she moved her hands together into a praying position.
The feat seemed terrifying, but when Shipman offered I agreed to give it a shot. “Warning, though,” Shipman says. “It’s addictive.” Soon and with surprising ease, I, too, felt like I was flying.