A Walk in Their Heels: Meet the Hustle Evangelist

On a damp weeknight last month, as shadows began to roll over Central Park, a small crowd made a dance floor on the brick terrace of the...


On a damp weeknight last month, as shadows began to roll over Central Park, a small crowd made a dance floor on the brick terrace of the Bethesda Fountain. Disco beats pulsate from a DJ booth on one side of the square, crowned by a rose-tinted disco ball. There were moments of voguing and house dancing, and a few kids squirming happily. But most of the band members paired up, in all combinations of genders, to get the job done.

At the center of the action was Abdiel Jacobsen, known professionally as Abdiel, festive in gold heels and rhinestone-studded shorts. An organizer of the evening – part of a series known as Dance Is Life – Abdiel danced with everyone: a dapper figure in a straw fedora, an older dancer in a bright red polo shirt, a small child in pigtails. Passers-by began to sit on the edge of the fountain to watch.

“How happy is that? said a spectator.

If you’ve only known the hustle since “Saturday Night Fever,” you don’t know the hustle. The finger-pointing line dance made famous by this film bears little resemblance to the partnership style that emerged in the early 1970s in the streets and underground clubs of New York City. Hustle is fluid, fluid, as elegant as it is funky. A dance in 3/4 time, it moves elliptically through the 4/4 rhythm of disco.

Created by young people of color, with many queer innovators, hustle offers a progressive take on social dancing — particularly in its gender-neutral approach to partnering. In the bustle, anyone can dance with anyone, and anyone can lead or follow.

Although the hustle lost popularity with disco, a small group of devotees kept it alive. For Abdiel, 32, their business feels like home. A former principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company with a background in competitive ballroom dancing, Abdiel has found a different kind of freedom in the hustle culture.

“Hustle has always been about unity,” said Abdiel, who is fluent and uses them/them pronouns. “It’s about everyone coming together, just as they are, under the sermon of the music.”

Over the past few years, Abdiel has become both an agitation advocate and an agitation evangelist. Through the Dance Is Life series and their ongoing research and performance project, Do The Hustle, they work to document the history of the form and explore the creative possibilities of its future.

In its long tradition of gender-neutral partnership, hustle is an outlier. But other corners of the contemporary social dance world are also taking a gender-neutral approach to leading and following – a reflection of how the world has changed and dancers are off the field.

Abdiel befriended dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher, whose show “Sw!ng Out” features non-sexist Lindy Hop. At this year’s Fire Island Dance Festival (July 15-17), Abdiel and Teicher will create a non-binary duet that includes elements of both hustle and Lindy Hop, tuned to “Soft and Wet” from Prince.

“The piece is really a vehicle for a conversation,” Teicher said. “A conversation about partner dancing, and about social dancing versus performative dance with a partner, and about gender too.”

Teicher is non-binary and, like Abdiel, started using the pronouns they/them relatively recently. Both said they found it easier to articulate their complex and intricate experiences of gender in dance than in words.

“We’re sort of, in tandem, finding a new truth within ourselves personally and figuring out how to communicate that realization to others,” Abdiel said. “Dancing helps us navigate this.”

Abdiel grew up in Florida and Maryland, doing West African dances in the living room with their mother, who is originally from the Ivory Coast. “There was always music playing, we were pushing the coffee table aside, and it was the dance virus that infected me – that kind of joy,” Abdiel said.

As teenagers, they began training and teaching ballroom. In college, at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Abdiel discovered the Graham Technique and found that it spoke to a yet unexplored part of their being.

“For religious reasons, I had suppressed my sexual identity and my gender identity throughout my childhood,” Abdiel said. “The ballroom was also binary. And then I heard about Martha Graham, with her philosophy that you are the only one of you that exists, and therefore you have a responsibility to share your whole being with the world. I was like, Oh my god!

Abdiel joined the Graham company in 2011 but came to find Graham’s repertoire, with his roles as a henchman for male dancers, limiting. While dancing with the company, they started wearing heels to the ballroom classes they taught next door. Part of it was an experiment in empathy: how could they show women how to dance in heels without knowing what it felt like? But it also sparked a desire to seek out more neutral dance environments. They started a blog, “A walk in my heelsdocumenting their experiences teaching and dancing in heels.

Encouraged by friends in the dance world, Abdiel began to explore a range of dances from clubhouse, vogue, waacking. But they had a loving moment at the first dance with trepidation. In the diverse crowd on their inaugural party, Abdiel saw “a visual representation of the fullness of me”, they said. In stark contrast to the ballroom world, here they could wear their heels and follow as well as lead, without anyone blinking.

Abdiel immersed himself in the culture of agitation. They also began discussing its history with the older veterans of the form, some of whom still regularly came to dance.

Hustle’s expansive take on the dance floor reflects the moment of his birth in the early ’70s. Civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights opened up American culture, even as the Vietnam War tore it apart. in two.

People were looking for an escape and also felt able to express themselves. In the New York clubs where the turmoil grew, they found a space for this expression. “There was no separation between blacks, whites, gays, straights, rich and poor,” famous dancer Maria Torres told Abdiel. in an interview on Instagram.

Although other social dances have a history of same-sex partnership, the turmoil runs deeper and wider. His acceptance of women as leaders in a partnership – Torres has become famous for her expert leadership of both men and women – is particularly unusual. Expansive and invasive hustle positions, with the arms fully extended across the elbows, are also rare in social dancing.

“Hustle is freedom,” Torres told Abdiel.

As Abdiel embraced the unrest release, the unrest crowd embraced Abdiel. Mutual stage friends played matchmaker between Abdiel and Kristine Bendul, 49, a longtime dancer with an extensive Broadway and ballet resume. The duo’s wide range of dance experiences allowed them “to have that magical playtime” on the floor, Bendul said, mixing the hustle and bustle with modern dance, jazz and ballroom.

Abdiel and Bendul began performing together, choreographing routines in which they both wore heels and swapped heads back and forth. In 2019, they brought Hustle’s gender-neutral approach to the highly gendered world of competitive ballroom dancing, where pairs have always been required to include a male leader and a female follower. Just months after the National Dance Council of America redefined a partnership as “a leader and follower regardless of the dancer’s sex or gender“, Abdiel and Bendul competed as the ballroom’s first gender-neutral professional couple, fluidly switching between leading and following multiple times during each dance.

“I think we came third before last,” Abdiel said with a laugh. “The prize was that people saw it coming.” A documentary about the pair’s competitive experience in the ballroom, “FollowLeadLOVE”, is now in production.

Abdiel and Bendul intended to attend other events in the ballroom. But in February 2020 Abdiel’s father passed away and a month later the pandemic wiped out their dance schedule. Feeling lost, Abdiel returns to social dancing.

“I remembered dancing at home with my family and how much I loved the feeling of dancing in community,” they said. “It’s a big thing I’ve missed in my stage career.”

The dance is life was born out of this need for community celebration. At the start of the pandemic, when clubs were still closed, Abdiel and DJ Natasha Diggs hosted a virtual dance party that brought together hustle dancers from around the world. In the spring of 2021, they took that party offline with their first event at the Bethesda Fountain.

They chose the fountain not only because of its convenience – centrally located and outdoors, therefore Covid-friendly – ​​but also because of its importance to rushed history. “The fountain was the place to be in the summer in 1975, 1976, 1977,” said Willie Estrada, 65, a pioneer of the hustle and author of the book ‘The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx”. “We danced all night on Saturday, had breakfast in the morning, walked to the fountain and danced there all day.”

The laid-back Dance Is Life parties echo the freewheeling spirit of the early bustle. “For the first one, we didn’t even have a table for me to put my DJ stuff on, so the pretzel guy gave us a box,” Diggs said. “Completely do-it-yourself. But we felt the importance of this moment, after being so isolated, to share the joy of dancing as a couple.

Teaching became a particularly important part of Abdiel’s evangelism. Before the pandemic, they and Bendul led gender-neutral agitation classes at Gibney and Juilliard, showing students how to both lead and follow. A teacher at the University of Washington, where they’re pursuing a master’s degree in dance, Abdiel has developed a lab that turns a dance studio into an approximation of a club — a live DJ, a disco ball, a ceiling covered in balloons (like DJ David Mancuso famous 1970s parties at the Loft). The aim is to reflect the way the hustle was first learned: through observation and improvisation on the dance floor. “It’s about evoking a sense of the game,” Abdiel said.

With the project Do The Hustle, Abdiel also introduces the hustle and bustle into the concert world, without losing sight of his roots. Over a series of residencies – with ongoing screenings scheduled at Jacob’s Pillow and as part of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process program – Abdiel develops a three-part event: an immersive stage performance, including an examination of history to hustle; a dance class; and a big dance party.

But the heart of their work will always be the social dance floor – which is also where you’re most likely to meet them. The next Dance Is Life party in Central Park is scheduled for July 11. If you come, Abdiel won’t let you go without dancing.

“This kind of community healing and celebration is at the heart of everything I do,” they said. “I want to keep doing this until I die.”



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