September 2012: While braiding and treating his hair over the kitchen sink in his West Philadelphia apartment, Jumatatu Poe discusses his interest in J-Sette, an underground dance style popular in the gay African-American club scene. Borne from all-female, Southern drill-teams and often performed in domestically scaled spaces, J-Sette is characterized by sharp, explosive movements choreographed in tightly executed routines. Poe has drawn on its legacy in a new work, Private Places, premiering this very evening as part of the 2012 FringeArts Festival. Sitting with us at the kitchen table are J-Sette masters Donte Beacham and LaKendrick Davis.
You found J-Sette on YouTube, right?
Jumatatu Poe: Beyoncé introduced me. [laughter] I had been thinking a lot about confined spaces, because some of the dance work that I was involved in mandated negotiations with non-proscenium spaces. At the same time, I started reading Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart, which is all about emotional management, and in the service industry particularly, as it has to do with flight attendants.
Then it so happened that—I guess this was 2008 or ‘09—Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video came out. Everybody was talking about it. Beyoncé is always in the news for plagiarism, so back then, people were talking about [her] employment of J-Sette choreography. I didn’t know what that was. I started looking around for J-Sette and because of her video, a lot of the J-Setters on YouTube had exploded in popularity. Donte had several videos online—dancing in the garage, the living room with the table pushed back, the kitchen sometimes, or in the bedroom, behind the bed. What I became attracted to—and the reason that I thought about linking that with the flight attendants—was the idea of all of this huge, combustive energy in these really small spaces. For me, it spoke to the emotional demands on a person working in the service industry, particularly flight attendants. And so I thought it might be cool to loop the two of those two things together.
In addition to the movement, I’ve been attracted to the history of J-Sette, and its integration with historically black colleges and universities. The guys practicing J-Sette are, to a certain extent, limited in terms of where they can dance. [They] wouldn’t be in the stands with the majorettes at sports games because it’s not typically accepted. One of the J-Sette squads in Alabama had a member that was killed in a hate crime.
[Donte,] how was it for you, teaching a class of J-Sette to modern dancers in preparation for tonight’s performance?
Donte Beacham: It was hard. I was nervous, because it was my first time teaching. I was thinking about them being professional dancers, when all I’ve ever done is hip-hop in the living room and J-Sette. But once I got comfortable with everybody, I was sweating and I was breaking down.
How did you and LaKendrick get into J-Sette? What sparked that interest?
LaKendrick Davis: Well, my best friend saw me as a cheerleader, doing hip-hop dancing. And he was like, “Oh, I want you to get on my hip-hop team.” That’s what he was calling it at the time. Then he starts teaching me the moves and I’m like, “We’re kind of like majorettes. This is really not what I signed up for.” But then I started getting into it so he kept training me. We just kept going, dancing for about four or five years. Then I ran into Donte and we decided to dance together, because I had a team at the time. He was from Florida.
DB: I started through my cousin. She was a majorette. And I was fascinated with it. I moved to Florida after graduation, and I had never been to a gay club, so I’d never really seen males do it. I went back to Mississippi to visit and I said, “Let’s go to the club.” Once we went, there were a bunch of guys there. They had on their uniforms and everybody was dancing. I went back to Florida, and I started practicing—didn’t know anything about it, the fundamentals, anything. But I picked up some people [and said], “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. They call it J-Setting. We’re going to do it. We’re going to master it. And we’re going to have our team.”
After that, I started traveling and seeing more people doing it. I moved back to Mississippi and joined another squad, and that’s when I met LaKendrick. I went to the club one night and I was dancing against, like, 40 people. And they called LaKendrick and said, “There’s this guy here from Florida. And he thinks he can dance. We need you to come down here and dance down.” So he came down and he started flipping all over the place. I was like, “Okay, I can’t do any of this.” [laughter] After that, we started dancing together, ever since then.
One of Donte Beacham’s original J-Sette videos, which inspired his collaboration with Jumatatu Poe.
Jumatatu, in your piece, how are you using J-Sette movement?
JP: I wouldn’t say that we’re “J-Setting,” but we’re definitely referencing its traditional form. I’ve been thinking about how to bring some of the things I have encountered into our process: the idea of attention—being at attention, being on call—whether you’re responsible to a person who is in charge, or to a collective whose energy is really compelling. Surprise is [also] a huge element of J-Sette, because everybody wants to be new. There’s so much room for variety. As a choreographer, I’m consistently pulling movement from different places.
What is the role of gender in J-Sette?
LD: A lot of people look at it like, “This is J-Sette. And so I’m going to see a lot of men dressed in majorette costumes battling each other.” But it’s not restricted to just men. It’s a…I would say a masculine, yet feminine sport. Our main focus is form and synchronization, looking as one. You have to have body strength because sometimes, it starts getting out of hand. [laughter] But it’s not restricted to a certain gender. Anybody can J-Sette.
Jumatatu, your dance vocabulary has probably changed. But what about the way you talk about your work, or how you coach the dancers and your choreography?
JP: I think it’s been a pretty frustrating process for me and probably for the performers, just because I don’t really know this piece yet. And everybody is looking to me for the answer. I know how that is, from the performer side.
What I always felt clear about was the energy—I knew that there was something about the energy of J-Sette that I wanted to employ in this piece.
[Donte and LaKendrick,] has working with Jumatatu influenced your understanding of what you do?
DB: It has, yeah. The way I think about structure, the movements, everything.
LD: After we came the first time, I used a lot of stuff in my own shows and competitions. I have been inspired since I came here.
JP: In dance classes, I feel like I’m pretty serious. I’m a perfectionist. But there is a different kind of edge that comes from J-Sette. Donte and Ken will look at the stuff we’re doing in the studio with some of the J-Sette counts that we’ve come up with, and they’ll look at us like, “You’re all crazy.” [laughter]
LD: They’re the Philadelphia Eaglets.
Jumatatu Poe (Pew Fellow, 2012) choreographed Private Places for the 2012 FringeArts Festival. The world premiere performances were produced with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. For behind the scenes footage, visit idiosynCrazy productions’ One Year Vlog Project, which highlighted their work throughout the development of Private Places.