Dispatches From The Land Of Lite

After a lovely evening down at The Magician with Annalee, Charlie Jane, and so many other genderqueer folk that my tomboy heart runneth over, I took the A train home. And there, in the space between two doors, were a small handful of teenagers gettin lite. Their announcer said something about practicing for a competition, so when they paused for a break I barraged him with questions. Fortunately, this coincided between the long haul between 59th St. and 125th St., so I had lots of time! Here’s what I learned:

These kids were from a group called Lyfetime (I thought he said, though I can’t find them under that name on YouTube like he said I could), from Brooklyn. A relatively new development — this kid claimed the dance originally developed in Harlem, “then the Bronx took it over,” and it is a relatively new introduction to Brooklyn but this young man was eager to help his borough make a name for itself. He proudly claimed that there were some 21 people in his group, and it wasn’t just bootleg, either — most of the dancers, he implied, were really good.

I noticed the kids were wearing what looked like mismatched shoes, but as I got closer I could see they were all white with red stripes — they’d just been vigorously painted over, not to mention battered and bent beyond recognizeability. This is an interesting distinction from the majority of kids in inner-city schools, who are notorious for wanting their shoes to be in pristine condition. This is especially the case right now as unique, brightly-colored kicks in a 1980s style are making a comeback.

Most kids gettin lite will carefully tie the laces of their shoes down to two or three holes towards the toe of the shoe, leaving the tongue loose; this makes it so they can flip their shoes off easily to do the strange shoe-juggling which is the centerpiece of the dance. The kid I spoke to volunteered that everyone who does it tries to wear Adidas. When I bridled a little at the brand loyalty, he picked up his shoe and bent it in half in the middle. They have to be able to do this, he said; they have to be flexible, and it’s easiest to find Adidas that fit this requirement.

I asked who at his school was into the dance and who wasn’t, trying to feel out how much of a subculture this was. He said most people at his school thought it was pretty tight. He allowed that some people would say “all you ever want to do is get lite!” though; this pursuit, like any other, shades into geekiness on one end of the spectrum of time and obsession. Girls do it too now, he said. This made me happy, seeing as I’ve seen it dominated by boys.

I asked him where the dance came from — and this is notable: You know the Chicken Noodle Soup dance? he said. I allowed as to how I did. It came from that, he said.

Now, this is interesting for two reasons. First, as far as I can tell, gettin lite has a few key physical differences from chicken noodle soup. What I see in the lower body in gettin lite is a lot of crossed legs, straight legs, and kicking on the diagonal, while the upper body is pretty upright. Chicken noodle soup has a purely lateral, knees-bent movement in that video, and people bend over more often. Compare local boy whiteboyCSD to the chicken noodle soup video above for an example. Not to mention that the shoe-juggling, contortions, and drops don’t show up in that chicken noodle soup video. And gettin lite has evolved a very stylized arm style, mostly straight down at the sides with the forearms windmilling wildly. Then again, that’s just one video, and it’s been around since about 2006. It’s likely the dance has evolved. But I suppose there’s also a possibility that the origin story the kid on the train told me was apocryphal.

Second, the Chicken Noodle Soup connection has some veerrrryyy interesting political implications. Older and better-educated black people got pretty upset when it hit the scene in 2006, because in its foot-shuffling movements they saw echoes of minstrel dances, “shucking and jiving” to dissemble in the presence of white people. This was especially unwelcome considering the dance spread like wildfire well beyond the bounds of black communities. I found out about the controversy from a classmate of mine who was an undergrad at Columbia in 2006.

What does the black bourgeoisie think of the newer evolutions of this dance? Of the gettin lite movement and the promoter who seems to be doing most of the work to get the dance into the public eye? Does it also look like a legacy of racism to them? Another face of prideless, ambitionless ghetto culture? I can’t pretend to know. The only datapoint I have is that one of the little boys who comes to the African dance class at Wadleigh gets lite in the solo circle at the end of class (mind you, this is a kid who cuts up and doesn’t participate during the rest of class). Women in the class, who tend to be high-minded, have commented on how he likes to do this, but not negatively. I feel like I heard someone say the dance seemed fine, and was a mostly positive, nonviolent pastime.

Anyway. The competition’s this Saturday from 7:00-11:00 on 34th st., and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna be there. Let me know if you want to tag along. If they let me dance, my name has got to be Nice White Lady.

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