She wants to heal the world through the second line

In most places, people watch the parades or march in them. In New Orleans, they have another option: the second line. As a noun, “seco...


In most places, people watch the parades or march in them. In New Orleans, they have another option: the second line.

As a noun, “second line” refers to those who follow a marching band through the streets – during Mardi Gras, or any given Sunday, or on their way home from the cemetery at a jazz funeral, while the funeral songs and hymns are replaced by cheerful music for dancing. A second line is neither official nor planned. It grows, all ages arrive with handkerchiefs and umbrellas, turning a parade into a traveling party.

As an adjective, “second line” can describe a characteristic rhythm, an Afro-Caribbean rhythm that runs through the music of New Orleans, from which it spread to the rest of the world of jazz, R&B and funk.

“Second line” is also a verb. To second line is to dance. There are no defined steps. Everyone does it a little differently. However, most practitioners agree on one thing: it is not taught in the classroom.

“You fall into it,” is how choreographer and educator Michelle N. Gibson, who grew up in New Orleans, said in a recent interview. “Nobody teaches the second line.”

Except Gibson teaches it, or his point of view. She teaches some of the history in her one-man show, “Takin’ It to the Roots,” which she brings to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, July 29-30. For the past few years, she has also been giving second-line courses: workshops called New Orleans Original BuckShop in which she showcases what she calls her “second line aesthetic”.

Gibson, 47, has become a cultural ambassador for her hometown. “She’s able to tap into the collective ‘Come one, come all’ spirit of New Orleans, but also hold on to the spiritual tradition and responsibility of ancestry,” said Melanie George, associate curator at Jacob’s Pillow. .

In Gibson’s workshops, she begins by helping students find the second line rhythm in their body, the bounce in their feet, their hips, their shoulders, their head. A strut turns into a jump, because the dance must cover ground. Gibson, who calls herself “sassy and sassy” and refers to herself as “Mz. G,” is an encouraging coach who gives permission. His most frequent and regular instruction: “Play with it”.

“‘Play with’ means playing with your own inner rhythm,” she explained in the interview. “It’s your real you. Everyone is different on the second line, honey, because everyone has their own different testimonies.

Her testimony is that of a preacher’s daughter. His father, BA Gibson, was a former president and minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For much of his childhood he was a pastor in Church of St. Peter AMEone of the oldest black congregations in uptown New Orleans.

Gibson’s father would not allow him to compete on the second lines. “My dad wasn’t going to let me jump and shake on these streets,” she said. (As a teenager, she sometimes did the second line on the sly.) “But growing up in the church and watching people catch the spirit, the Holy Spirit dancing — that was my second line.”

Not far from the church, she found another education, New Orleans Creative Arts Center, where she majored in dance. (Other center alumni include Jon Batiste, Harry Connick Jr., and the Marsalis brothers.) After graduating from high school, she spent a summer training at the Alvin Ailey School in New York City. , but when she booked a touring job with hip-hop group Arrested Development, her mother disapproved and called her home.

What came next was, in his words, “a struggle, a turmoil”. A marriage that quickly ended in divorce. While caring for her baby girl, she earned a BFA in dance from Tulane University and performed with local dance companies of all kinds – Brazilian, West African, modern. “I was getting codified training,” she said, “but I was also going out into the community and learning there.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Gibson had just left hospital after giving birth to a son. She evacuated with her children. Then she learned that her New Orleans apartment was unlivable. She moved to Dallas, where she still lives, now teaching at Southern Methodist University.

After a while, she pursued a master’s degree in dance and performance studies through the Hollins University-American Dance Festival graduate program at Duke University. Surrounded by successful mid-career dancers, she wondered what she had to bring. She opted for her education as a dancer in New Orleans. Especially after being moved from her hometown, she wanted to deepen her culture.

The result was the first incarnation of ‘Takin’ It to the Roots’, which she describes as ‘spicy ass gumbo’ with a marching band, drummers and African dancers from the company of DanceAfrica founder Chuck Davis. . “I made sure everything was understood,” she said, pointing to the second line’s roots (and by extension, her own) in Senegambia, Congo and Haiti.

This preoccupation with history is reflected in her solo version of the show, which she developed with the South Dallas Cultural Center and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. And that comes through in his view of the second line.

“When you see the second line,” she said, “you see a story of Blackness, of who ended up in Port Orleans, of when we were allowed to celebrate.” She spoke of Congo Square – the site in New Orleans where, in the early 19th century, slaves were allowed to drum and dance, a place where African traditions were woven and nurtured. She spoke of the charities and welfare and pleasure clubs that sponsored jazz funerals and second-line parades. And she spoke of trauma, of Katrina, of those who had to leave and those who remained in a city still in turmoil.

“That’s what you see in the footwork and the body thrust,” she said. “You see their story.”

Gibson is careful to make it clear that what she teaches is her own second-line aesthetic, “based on my background and how I want to share it,” and not second-line like New Orleans natives like her. experience it. “You can’t expect to have that,” she said. “You have to live it.” She said she sees herself as an intermediary between her New Orleans community and academia, inserting herself into conversations about New Orleans culture and emphasizing “respect for the origins and people to whom she really belongs”.

For performances of Jacob’s Pillow, Gibson converts “Takin’ It to the Roots,” originally intended for theaters, into a processional form: audience members will follow it to sites around campus that represent Congo Square and the black church. The second line at the end of the performance is however standard. “I always take theater people to the streets,” she said. “There’s not going to be a show you go to with Mz. G that we’re not going to end up putting out.

It will of course be accompanied by a fanfare, the NOJO 7, from New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Its artistic director, drummer Adonis Rose, said he considered Gibson most distinctive as a teacher: “I’ve done pretty much everything you can do as a musician in New Orleans, and I’ve never seen anyone else come up with a program on how to do the second line.His classes, he added, are tied to his own mission to “export our culture to people who couldn’t not experience it otherwise”.

But Rose also pointed to the “spiritual experience” of following Gibson as she leads a marching band procession as Grand Marshal. This is another role she takes very seriously. Before accepting invitations to do so, she asked permission from the first female Grand Marshal she had ever seen, Wanda Rouzan. “It’s a calling, an anointing,” Gibson said. “I grew up understanding that there is a Most High, and that’s the reason I strut the way I strut.”

“It’s not about dancing for me anymore,” she continued, taking on the cadences of a preacher. “My practice is more driven by spiritual unification, harmony, rolling to the same beats together and moving forward. This is what the world needs. I want to heal the world. Just let me strut my stuff.

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