Gordon Neil (from Atlanta) is what you would call ‘a dancer’s dancer’. In prior interviews other professional dancers have mentioned Gordon’s name as someone they respect both as a performer and an instructor. I called Mr. Neil for the interview and when he answered I heard a voice rich with bass say, “This is Gordon Neil”. It was as if I was suddenly speaking to the James Earl Jones (or Darth Vader depending upon your cultural reference) of dance. I quickly found there is a wealth of knowledge, passion, and strong opinions about dance behind the voice. I talked with Gordon while he was in Atlanta.
You’ve been performing and dancing since the age of 9. Who were some of your mentors and influences who guided you as a child? Were your parents dancers?
My parents weren’t dancers at all. My mother danced but she wasn’t a dancer and my father had absolutely no rhythm. My early influences were from musicals and musical theater. Not to sound cliche, but Michael Jackson was an influence. When you’re black and young he’s pretty much it. I used to love Gene Kelly. His athleticism was amazing. He may be another dance cliche, but the amazing thing about him was that he wanted to present an American dance art form. At that time, the schools of dancing were all from Europe. Jazz dancing was a burgeoning art form. Gene really believed in creating something with its own identity that wasn’t married to the standards that came before.
What about Prince? I read that he was a huge influence for you as well.
Yeah! The funny thing about Prince is that supposedly he would go to the strip club and watch what the girls would do, and he would use some of the tricks they used. He would take some of those things and incorporate them into his own show. Now, that’s just a story I heard, but it came from a reliable source. It came from things he used to do when he was touring with the Revolution. He used scarves, poles and a lot of sliding, so I can see that being true, but I’ve never used that as my own source of inspiration. Prince as an artist has always been a huge influence because he’s always been about art. He’s always been about pushing the envelope and using different media, sounds and textures to create. He would go wherever his feeling took him.
On your Facebook page you said “The age of the skilled improvisational dancer has come and gone among mambo dancers.” And you went on to say that “The true essence of the art form is dying”. Why do you think the essence of the art form is dying and what do you think its going to take to revive it?
A miracle. (laughs). I have to clarify. A lot of times people will hear me talk about other dancers and dance forms. Obviously, I’m not a ballet dancer. I’m not a tap dancer by trade. There are a bunch of forms I’ve done but they don’t define me. So when I talk about my inspirations it wasn’t about the genre, it was about how they approached their craft. I love street and Afro-Latin dancing. One of the amazing things to me, especially being Caribbean, is that music carries a life. It’s not just about presentation, it’s about communicating. That’s what dancers used to do in mambo. We used to communicate with each other. Whether it was communicating what we felt in our own personal core, or what we felt the music that we where dancing too was saying. It was more about communication than presentation. Most people, many of whom are performers, are only worried about presentation. When you hear people talk about what they like about a certain show, they don’t know what they should be looking for. They’re only focused on presentation. When you only worry about presentation then you’re only looking for what’s on the surface because that’s what people see. A lot of people are dancing, but there is no soul attached to it. And the ones that have the ability to show you their soul, so to speak, are worried about being made to look bad. They don’t want to risk putting things out there so, as a result, they start playing it safe and the dance suffers for it.
What kind of advice would give to someone who may have the ability to show you their dance ‘soul’, but may be worried about how they are being perceived?
Let go and let it out! Don’t worry about what people are going to say. It’s supposed to start with expression. If you’re in the performance business obviously you have to care to a degree about what other people think of your work, but that can’t be what defines what you do. Someone once said, and I’ll paraphrase, ‘To create what’s selling is easy, the challenge is to sell what you’ve genuinely created.”
I’ve heard you say that you’re a hip-hop dancer first and a mambo dancer second. What is it about hip-hop dancing that’s so special for you?
Let me first say this…the state of hip-hop dancing right now and the way it’s being commercialized and promoted has it in a very dangerous place. That’s just from the commercial side. There is still a lot of sick hip-hop dancing going on. I don’t really care about ‘reality TV’ and shows like “So You Think You Can Dance?”. I don’t really see how they’re helping the cause. Anyway, there is a vibe in hip-hop that drew me to dancing. It’s hard for me to qualify my feelings because it’s cultural. I love a good beat that just makes you move, and sharing that vibe. When I said that ‘I was a hip-hop dancer first and a mambo dancer second’ I meant that my first love, when it comes to dancing, was hip-hop. I don’t put it before Afro-Latin dancing, and I actually prefer Afro-Latin dancing more than I do hip-hop.
Talk about dancing with Julissa…
I love dancing with Julissa because we feel the same way about hip-hop. We love dancing to hip-hop and choreographing for it. We love teaching hip hip. We still love it…but there is only so much you can do when presenting work inside of the hip-hop genre as a dancer, especially as a dude. Females have more latitude. It’s pretty much one-dimensional. Afro-Latin dancing is beautiful because its dictated by the messages in the music and the instrumentation. It can be classic, traditional, urban, folk…It can be hard or soft. It can be about lines or no lines at all. It can be about a long, elasticized feeling or a short, choppy phrase. There is so much in it that you can do.
You did a dance piece called, “The Love & The Death”. It was an amazing piece of choreography and dance art. Can you talk a little bit about that performance and what message you were trying to convey from that piece?
Thank you for liking it. The piece itself was about what I was feeling and what I don’t feel anymore about my own dancing, and the art of Afro-Latin dancing. I don’t do that piece much, I think I’ve maybe performed it twice. I won’t do it much more than that probably. I’ll tell you the basic message behind the piece. There is a life and relationship that starts with the stage, and it evolves. As you get more into your craft you start to feel more excitement and passion. You start to experiment with different ideas and concepts, after you’ve gotten through the traditional approach. Then you get to a point where you either return to playing it safe for the sake of keeping your work, or you continue to experiment with different things. That’s what determines whether or not you die as an artist. That was what the heartbeat and flat line represented. The other inspiration for the piece was that the music wasn’t saying anything to me anymore. When I see most people perform I see them begging for the approval of the audience. That’s not dance…at least not to me anyway. There are professionals I know, who are very well known, that I’ve had this conversation with and they disagree with me. To them the performance should be about pleasing the people, but often times the people don’t really know what they want. The people want something good, but in the absence of the water people will drink the sand. If people want to watch dance bad enough then they will watch horrible dancing. There are professionals who are so worried about losing work that they’re playing it safe and doing it strictly for the audience. That’s when you die. At that point you’re dead.
So that’s why you didn’t have any music in the piece was because the music was no longer speaking to you?
Yes. The biggest message was that my own personal rhythm is the most important thing for me to dance too. That rhythm is not determined by any recorded work of music. It’s literally personal and doesn’t belong to anybody else. There are times when you perform a piece and you think it’s really great, and you feel it at that moment. But even with pieces that are close to your heart, there are days when you’re performing it, but you really feel like doing something different right at that very moment.
Who are some of the current day dancers who are living up to your own personal expectations of what dance should be? Who has your respect? Let’s start with performers.
Sekou McMiller. He understands the power of dance. Joel and Anna Masacote. Franklin Diaz. There is a joy to Franklin’s dancing and a connectivity that he brings. There are too many people that I respect for me to name them all, but those are just a few. I’m also a fan of Burju Hurturk as well as Juan Matos.
What about teachers?
Not to be redundant, but I would say Sekou is an excellent teacher. Shaka Brown is a very good instructor. Brown understands the dance and what it is to be an instructor. A good instructor doesn’t go in to show what they can do. That’s the problem with a lot of dancers that are on the road. When it comes to instructing you have to get them to reach a level that they can achieve. You have to help them discover what is in them that they didn’t know was there. So you’re a good instructor to me if the student begins the class with the thought that, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t do that’. But you manage to get them at least 75% there through the course of the hour. And you don’t make it about getting them to do the dopest thing that you (the instructor) can do. The instructor isn’t there to do that. That’s what performing is for. When I give a private I tell my student, “I want to give you enough today so that you’ll never have to come to me again”. You should be able to understand what you’re doing with your body, and why you’re doing it, without having to be at my feet listening to my instructions. Instructing is a business, and I understand that, but some instructors give their students just enough to keep them coming back and paying them money instead of giving students their moneys worth.
Let’s talk a little about Flava Invasion 2.0…What you’re vision was for that event?
The reason for the ‘2.0’ was that it was a bit of a revival for the event and we had a little different approach. The collaborative effort for the event had changed from the previous one. My vision for the event was to return some honor to the dance form. People are tired of going to events that don’t enrich. The market has gotten saturated and there are too many unqualified people performing.
People don’t want to pay for workshop passes because the people that are teaching aren’t qualified to teach…but they are being allowed to teach because they’re bringing people and selling passes. That’s whats qualifying someone to teach a master workshop at a dance convention. Then there are people who are so desperate to perform that they’re paying promoters to before even if they’re work may not be quality. I’m all for people paying dues, but the way we paid dues was the right way. Right now, as long as people pay money the promoters are letting them on stage. So you build up an audience who doesn’t really care about dance…they just care that they’re seeing someone they know perform regardless of how bad what they’re doing. You’re paying for a dance recital regardless of how qualified they are. It has nothing to do with the talent level or quality of the craft. Therefore the art form doesn’t get its proper respect when it’s as legitimate as every single respected dance form in the world.
Flava Invasion is for dancer professionals who really care about their craft, and there are many more people that I can name that I didn’t from your previous questions. The problem is where are these professional going to present their work? The promoters will tell you that no one comes for the shows. So what’s the point of having a show? That doesn’t make sense. That’s flawed logic to me. I’ve had this conversation many times before with promoters! So how do we get them to come for the show? It’s obvious. Make the show good!
With Flava we make sure that our audience gets two things. They are able to see a great show. If people are going to pay for it then we’re going to make sure it’s great. Second, we’re discriminating when it comes to the workshop instructors. Not in a bad way. You have to have a certain ability and stature in the field if you’re going to be a teacher at Flava Invasion. And it doesn’t have to be someone that everyone has heard of as long as they’re on a certain level.
Do you have a favorite dance memory? A performance of yours that stands out in your mind?
(laughs). Hmm. I’m extremely critical of myself. Extremely…I’d say the first Puerto Rico Congress that we did. It was my first major event. This was back in 2001 or 2002. If you want to establish yourself in the business then come out doing you. Don’t try and come out doing what’s already working for other people. I do know that that’s one of the reasons I do have respect from my peers is because I came out of the gate doing me. It was a hip-hop performance and I was trying to represent for A-T-L. We came in with the attitude of , ‘We’re hood. We’re black’. (laughs). It had a mix of house and Ludacris. We did it in Puerto Rico in the middle of the week and got a standing ovation. Nobody knew who were we were. It was a great memory because it was our first time out of the gate and we were doing a huge event. It was the show that put me on the map. It was a really good memory. It served as validation to do something the way you want to do it and people will still like it.
For more information on Gordon Neil please visit his Facebook page: Gordon Neil Facebook Page