Written by J.D. Morgan Chase on September 12, 2017
I have always been a good dancer. Ever since my aunts showed me how to do the Jordache in my grandmother’s kitchen, when I was 6, I knew I could easily pick up dance moves. Although, on that day, I learned more than the latest dance. I learned that music is something you interact with, feel, and express through the fluidity or rigidness of your body. You don’t just listen to the song. You listen to the divine voice of the music and move the way it tells you to; you let it take control over your soul, like being possessed by Shango enjoying the pleasures of the material world. Dancing is an expression of the self. Dancing is something that we do day-to-day while maneuvering though life’s obstacles to a soundtrack that we can’t hear, but we can feel. All music ever written (and to be written) was silently playing throughout the universe until the musician picked up on its frequency and turned it into audible waves. These waves flow over us, and like being caught in a current, you move with it because it is futile to try to swim against it.
When hip hop and breakdancing hit, in the 80s, I was 10. Hip hop helped fill a void in my spirit. It related to me like no other music could. Dancing for me was a terrestrial battle fought in the streets on top of cardboard, and the movies Beat Street and Breakin’ were the art of war. The tribes had names like The Too Cold Crew, The Fly Boys, and The Baby Breakers (that was my tribe). Shango imbued in me his kinesthetic intelligence, making me aware of my body and the space it inhabited. The voice told me to spin on my back, spin on my hand, move my limbs and torso like waves of water, slide my feet like I’m moving across ice, and crawl on the ground like a worm. I was obsessed with this acrobatic dance form. At block parties, arms and legs would slice through the air like swords in combat, but no physical contact was ever made. I was alone, but free, on the cardboard dance floor. It was less about your opponent and more about the crowd. You had to win the crowd, to win the battle. You had to hit the crowd with something they could feel. I was a little guy, but I learned to pack a punch. Never scared to scuffle, I would dance the story of your demise to oohs and ahs.
As the years went by, sometimes the music slowed down, and so did the dance. Hip hop was a battle cry, driven by the war drum. R&B was a smooth, seductive voice, steered by the wisdom of life experience. The voice said sway with the music, back and forth, like the pendulum of life’s emotions. The slow dance is a couple’s dance. It takes two to make it happen, like a fight or an argument. If one person refuses to fight or argue, there is no fight or argument. If one person doesn’t want to dance there is no slow dance. The last song, or two, at the end of every school dance was a slow dance song. As a girl crazy, 12 year-old boy, who looked more like he was 10, this was always awkward for me. You had to slow dance with someone or you just weren’t cool. Moreover, I understood the underlying sexual tension underneath it all (I think we all did), and this was the only time the teachers would let me get close to another student of the opposite sex, and actually touch her in a nonacademic way while rocking back and forth to music. If you liked a girl, the slow dance was the time to make a move. However, there was chance you could get rejected, or even humiliated, and everyone would see. There is no worse pain for a 12 year-old boy than to have the girl he likes laugh in his face, reject his offer to dance, run back to her friends gossiping about how much of a dork he is, and then have to watch some other guy, who is 12 but looks 14, dance with her (not that that ever happened to me). Nonetheless, I learned that was part of the slow dance experience. Part of it was having the courage to face your fears, and accept the outcome. Sometimes life hurts, and things don’t always work in your favor. Another part of the slow dance was manners, in case she said yes. Slow dancing taught me about etiquette and personal space. It also taught me that sometimes you lead, and sometimes you have to follow.
By the time I was a young teenager, hip hop and R&B didn’t fully fulfill me anymore. There was this angst and rage in that stirred in me, like a hurricane gathering more momentum the older I got. That’s when I discovered bands like Bad Brains, Fishbone, The Cure, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (before they became pop rock) It wasn’t cool to listen to rock music in my neighborhood, which I always thought was funny considering black people invented rock n roll (Bad Brains and Fishbone were black bands). Luckily, my friends always accepted me for me during my many incarnations. I would watch Rap City on BET in the afternoon, and 120 minutes on MTV at night. this voice instructed me to jump up and down, throw myself up against other people, surf the wave of bodies, and get lost in the energy. Slam dancing allowed me a release for all of my rage, angst, and pain. These were the days before the media named it moshing or Onyx made that stupid song, Slam. There was no such thing as a mosh pit. It was just called the pit. I would lose my sense of self in the pit, and become one with the whirling vortex of humans exorcising their demons. You might get some bumps and bruises, but no one was trying to hurt anyone. Slam dancing was therapy for me.
My senior year in high school, my friends and I would hit the clubs on the weekend. Clubs actually had teen nights back then. Friday night we went to The Attic, Saturday night we went to Bermudas, and Sunday night we went to Club Marilyn. The Attic played hip hop and R&B, so I could get my bump and grind on. Bermudas played hip hop, R&B, and alternative rock, and Club Marilyn mainly played alternative rock (with some hip hop sprinkled in). I liked Bermudas the best because it had the most diverse crowd, and they let you slam dance. Club Marilyn would turn off the music if people started slam dancing, probably something to do with liability. This was in 1992, when hip hop and alternative rock began to crossover into the mainstream. Which meant slam dancing was making that transition too (hence, that wack ass Onyx song). When something that was underground crosses over into the mainstream it loses its purity, and is treated like a whore. Anyone can join in and disrespect what you once cherished.
One night, at Bermudas, the DJ played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. A pit formed on the dance floor and of course I was in the middle of it. Nirvana was the main crossover band that paved the way for other alternative rock bands. Therefore, they were embraced by people who would have look at you strange for listening to them just a year prior. Suburban jocks, who bullied the alternative kids, were now rocking out to the music of the high school misfits. That was a problem. While I was slam dancing, some corn-fed, hay baling, white boy twice my size, with a close-cropped haircut, wearing a Polo shirt, grabbed me by my arms, started jumping up and down, and screaming in my face. I have slam danced at Fishbone shows, Red Hot Chili Peppers shows, the old local band Wild Kingdom shows, hell, I have even slam danced with skinheads (not neo-Nazis, SHARP skinheads, SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice) at a Murphy’s Law show, and each time everyone followed the unspoken rule: you don’t grab someone you don’t know because you might get your ass kicked. I have always been slight in stature, but my friend Dan wasn’t. He was just as big as this suburban football reject, but Dan didn’t play football. He played hockey. He body checked this guy like he was on the ice, and the guy careened into people and across the dance floor like he was too. Enforcing the consequences of the unspoken rule, I instantly began punching the guy. I guess I wasn’t winning the crowd over because I didn’t hear any oohs and ahs. Not soon after the melee started, someone grabbed me by my dreads, another person grabbed my legs, and lifted me up in the air. It was the club’s bouncers. Sure, pick on the little guy. They carried me to the door, ignoring the fact that I kept telling them that I could walk, and literally threw me out. My friends followed me out and we decided to go home because the club was going to close soon anyway.
I dropped my friend Ed off, and I was pulling out of his driveway when this guy, Jeff, who I used to work with at Mill Road Theaters, walked up to the car. Jeff was a tall, pale, lanky, working class kid, who had a penchant for breaking into cars. He would target cars in apartment building parking lots (the ones that are under the apartment building, not out in the open) because then no one could hear him break the cars’ windows. He was coming from playing pool, and had his pool cue in a bag that was draped over his shoulder. We chatted for a minute, then Jeff whispered, “five-o.” We’ve learned from experience that anytime the police come around, it is time to move around to another spot. I put my dad’s car in reverse and backed out of Ed’s driveway, when two or three squad cars turn on their lights, but not their sirens, and rolled up on us from both directions, trapping me in. Jeff immediately threw down his bag and put his hands in the air. The cops jumped out of their cars with their guns in one hand and their flashlights in the other, screaming demands for us to put our hands up, while they maneuvered towards the car. A few months prior to this, the UWM campus police jumped out of their car and pointed their guns at us for no reason. I thought, “great, I have to cut a rug with these cats now.” Anytime someone has a gun pointed at you, you are dancing with death. Hopefully you can lead and death will follow, but if death leads… well… that’s a wrap… dance over. A cop with a pornstache raced up to my side of the car, breathing heavily and looking nervous, which didn’t put me at ease at all. The window on my side was already open from talking with Jeff, and officer Pornstache shone the light from his Maglite directly into my eyes. I don’t know if you know how bright a cop’s Maglite is, but I needed some of those solar eclipse glasses. I politely ask him if he could not shine his light in my eyes, so he jabbed me with his Maglite. My hands were still up when I asked him, so my left hand acted as a cushion between officer Pornstache’s Maglite and my face. At this point, he stuck his gun through my window, like the cop who killed Philando Castile, and put it about an inch from my skull. I didn’t know that at the time, my friends told me about it later, but that explained why, when I looked over at them after getting jab with the flashlight, they had terrified expressions on their faces, like Emmett Till when the men yanked him out of his slumber. I was snatched out of the driver’s seat, like someone pulling the cord to start a lawnmower, and slammed onto the car. I guess the cop was trying to exorcise some of his demons, and he thought I was one of them. Officer Pornstache frisked me, grabbed my nuts, turned me around, and pushed me up against the car like a schoolyard bully trying to provoke a fight. Cops only have concern for their own personal space. They couldn’t care less about yours. I wasn’t going to except his offer to dance.
They put one of my friends in the back of a squad car, and frisked everyone else. While the cops search the car, I asked the cop with my ID, “what probable cause do you have for stopping us?” Then another cop, a black guy who looked like Yaphet Kotto, strutted over to me. By his demeanor and swagger I figured he was the senior officer on the scene. He sucked his teeth, and with a disingenuous smile calmly stated, “I’m glad you know the law,” in a gruff tone that belied his words, and sauntered away. Ed (who happens to presently be a cop) came out of his house, confused by what he was seeing, questioned “what’s going on, they just dropped me off?’ One cop commanded, “go back in the house!” To which I replied, “he has every right to observe what is happening in front of his house.” The same cop demanded, “go back in the house, or we will detain you too!” I yelled for Ed to call my dad (he was a special agent in the IRS at the time) as he made his way back inside his. “Tell him what’s happening, and tell him I said he should come up here,” I requested. I figured they might let my dad know what was going on since he was fellow law enforcement, because they weren’t telling us anything.
My older brother was home on leave from the marines, and he answered the phone instead of my dad. Ed relayed my message to him, expecting him to tell my dad. That didn’t happen. Instead, while we were sitting on the curb, I see my brother pull up and get out of his car. First thought I had was, “what the fuck?” He walked over to us and I asked him, “where’s daddy?” He answered, “he was asleep and I didn’t want to wake him up.” My second thought was, “and how in the hell can you help me?” If there was ever a time to wake up my dad, that was it. By this time, these cops had to know we weren’t whomever they were looking for. Nevertheless, they had to do their due diligence and run criminal background checks on everyone, and do a second search of the car (I was worried they were going to plant evidence on their second search). My brother started telling me a story about how he and another guy from the neighborhood were messing around with some girls from Brookfield at a hotel earlier that day, and he forgot his wallet the hotel room. Everything he said after that drifted off into blah, blah, blah, because of my third thought, “what in the fuck were you doing messing around with some girls from Brookfield?” I learned from going to these clubs that you couldn’t trust people from Brookfield. They thought they were better than people from the city because they lived in a rich, white, suburban utopia. The girls from Brookfield used do this thing they called “slumming,” where they would come down to the city and have sexual liaisons with black guys from the inner city. I guess they had a fetish, for what they thought was, black dystopia. If their parents ever found out what they were doing, best believe they would scream rape rather than admit their fetish. My brother left after telling his story, which was fine and dandy because he couldn’t help me anyway. Eventually, the cops let us go, just like the UWM campus police, without an explanation or an apology. All that I could think about was the NWA song “Fuck Tha Police.”
When I got home, my older brother was asleep in my bed (there were only three bedrooms in the house, and my parents and younger brother were in the other two), so I slept on the couch in the living room. It seemed like as fast as I fell asleep, I was being woken up to the doorbell and banging on the front door. I put my pants on, and went to see who was banging on the door. I knew the way they were pounding on the door the intentions were not nice. I open the door and there were about four or five police officers staring at me with accusatory looks. Some of them were not Milwaukee Police. They asked me if I was my older brother. This dance was not mine, so I had to decline.