If you want to understand the connections between jazz dance and its progeny you could read a book or take a course. But how much more efficient and fun just to watch LaTasha Barnes do her thing.
Barnes is a scholar of dance in the academic sense, recently credentialed with a master’s degree from New York University. But it’s her embodied knowledge that’s more rare and influential. A tough-to-beat champion in the club-derived form known as house, she has, without conceding that field, also become a leader in Lindy Hop, a form that despite being created by Black dancers has long suffered a deficit of Black practitioners.
This all makes Barnes a bridge between worlds that seldom intersect, a connector, or a rather a re-connector, since the styles and subcultures that she joins — encompassing much of the world-conquering dance that gestated in African-American communities in the past century or so — are all branches of a family whose members often don’t recognize one another.
It’s this lack of recognition that Barnes can repair, seemingly with ease. To watch her dance, especially to jazz music, is to watch historical distance collapse. Steps and attitudes separated by eras flow through her improvising body not as some premeditated fusion but as a single language she appears to have always known and yet is creating on the spot. The links are self-evident, unforced, authentic without a hint of the antiquarian. They’re active, present, a live circuit. The revelatory shock can make you laugh out loud.
In the Lindy Hop, solo jazz and house scenes, as well as the wider circles of street and club dance, this Barnes effect is well-known. But now, at 40, Barnes might be on the cusp of different kind of recognition. On May 19, her show “The Jazz Continuum” premieres at the Guggenheim Museum as part of the forward-thinking Works & Process series. In August, it heads to the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires.
As its title indicates, “The Jazz Continuum” is intended to reveal hidden links, forgotten continuities. Barnes has assembled a multigenerational crew of Black dancers, experts in various styles, and is putting them in conversation with jazz musicians and a DJ.
“It’s a very personal show,” Barnes said recently from her home in Brooklyn. “It’s about each of us expressing our individual understandings of the jazz we hold.” But the project’s re-centering of jazz also has a public point. “We want to make more room not just for the value of these dance forms to be recognized,” she said, “but for the Black community in particular to return its gaze to their beauty and power.”
In a sense, Barnes is attempting to reproduce her own experience of rediscovery. Her dancing started in utero. Her father was a D.J., and at his parties, she said she would throw off her mother’s groove until she neared the speakers so that Barnes, still in the womb, could get in sync with the music.
Barnes’s childhood in Richmond, Va., was immersed in dance, especially at family barbecues every Sunday. “I would try to do the dances that my aunts and uncles were doing,” she said. “When the song on the radio changed, so did the dances.” She got in step with her grandmother and even her great-grandmother, born in 1928.
Her mother also put her into formal dance classes, but by age 8, discouraged by teachers who told her she had the wrong type of body — too short and muscular — she turned her attention to track and field and gymnastics. Through her adolescence, she never stopped dancing, but it was mostly at parties after the track meet or at clubs, where people would sneak her and her friends in because they could really get down.
At 18, she enlisted in the Army, another family tradition. She rose through the ranks with uncommon speed, becoming a sergeant first class in about half the usual time. As a satellite communications operator, she served in Europe and then at the White House Communications Agency for four years (followed by three more as an independent contractor).
All along, she was drawn to testing herself physically, joining powerlifting teams and entering fitness competitions. In 2004, when she was recovering from a sports injury, she was hit by a car and walked away with a broken hip, back and wrist. Later, she helped identify the driver by fitting her body into the dent on his hood. Doctors discovered that she also had a degenerative disc disease. They told her she might never be athletic again.
After a year of regenerative work, a physical therapist suggested dance therapy. Barnes found a class in popping, the funk style of robotic contractions and isolations. It wasn’t long before a teacher introduced her to Junious Brickhouse.
Brickhouse had recently founded Urban Artistry, an organization in Silver Spring, Md., dedicated to the preservation and performance of urban dance forms. He taught Barnes about house, which she had been doing as a teenager without knowing what it was called. But he also required her to become fully versed in several adjacent styles (hip-hop, waacking), studying with mentors, situating herself in a lineage with originators.
The idea of having people train in many styles, Brickhouse said recently, was as much about connecting people as it was about fostering versatility. “If you’re only a BMX rider, it’s hard to understand surfers,” he said, “and if you’re strictly a B-boy or a popper, the world starts to seem small. LaTasha embraced the openness and the idea that where we come from can inform where we go.”
Brickhouse helped Barnes become a teacher and exposed her to an outlet for her fiercely competitive nature: dance battles. For house dancers, the biggest battle is Juste Debout, a competition in Paris that fills arenas with fans. In 2011, Barnes and her partner, Toyin Sogunro, won the 2 on 2 House category. Barnes quit her White House job and devoted herself to dance full time.
Already, searching for a competitive edge, she had been incorporating touches of jazz dance gleaned from old footage, noting resemblances to house. But then Jeff Booth, a white funk musician who took popping classes with Urban Artistry, started sharing some of the Lindy Hop he had learned elsewhere. Trading steps revealed more similarities.
Enter Bobby White, a swing dance champion, teacher and amateur historian. When he came to Urban Artistry to teach a vintage jazz dance called the Big Apple, he noticed that Barnes, trying the routine for the first time, looked uncannily like one of the least famous dancers of the most famous group of original Black Lindy Hoppers, Whitey’s.
“I had never seen anyone else move that way,” White said. And as Barnes began studying Lindy Hop with him and others, ascending at her usual rate, he marveled at how “she was doing stuff that no one had seen before that still made total sense because it was in the music.”
When Barnes tried a “swing out,” the essential whip-around turn in Lindy partnering, what she thought was, “I’ve felt this before.” From her grandmother, she learned that she had already been taught the dance, by her great-grandmother. “And then it became a way to honor her,” Barnes said. “Every time jazz music comes on, I feel her.”
From White’s perspective, Barnes became an inspirational role model, bringing a spirit of jazz dance that the Lindy Hop scene had been missing as she joined a new generation of Black dancers devoted to the form.
“I’m a Black woman,” said Tena Morales-Armstrong, the president of the International Lindy Hop Championships. “When I started dancing Lindy 20 years ago, I didn’t even know it was started by Black people. I could go to many, many events and never see anybody who looked like me.”
Barnes’s influence, though, isn’t only as a Black dancer in the Lindy scene. At Lindy events, she sometimes demonstrates House. At House events, she demonstrates jazz. Her live circuit is a conduit, especially when what comes out isn’t either/or but both/and.
“In the Black community, we’ve let go of a lot of the things we created,” said Michele Byrd-McPhee, the founder of Ladies of Hip-Hop and a “Jazz Continuum” cast member. “LaTasha has done a great job of showing us how to be aware of our history and claim it.”
Melanie George, an associate curator at Jacob’s Pillow and a jazz dance expert, sees Barnes as a model for a jazz approach to a dance career: “She’s interested in all these forms equally. She’s found a way not to have to choose.” Presenters of concert dance often expect jazz and hip-hop artists to alter themselves to fit, but Barnes “comes to everything as LaTasha.”
And, George added, “what we know about great jazz dancers is the same thing we know about great jazz musicians — it gets richer with time.”
At 40, Barnes is blooming. And what she’s learned about herself may now become apparent to others. “I was always looking at myself as the perpetual outsider,” she said, “without realizing that it was actually the reverse.” She’s on the inside, because the center of American dance is what she knows, what she does.