Occupy Your Ass
I want to talk about ass.
Not about getting ass, but about having one, moving one and watching one.
A lot of importance is placed on the ass, and for good reason. The ass holds the largest muscles in the body. When it’s strong, so are the joints of the hips and lower back. A nice ass isn’t just enjoyable to look at, it implies a level of fitness that’s important for everyday movements, including those of a sexual nature. When you see someone move their ass well, it can be awe-inspiring, life-affirming and, yes, titillating. Nothing wrong with that.
Today there are many styles of ass movement, including traditional African dance (which ultimately gave birth to all movement forms), traditional Polynesian dance (in which sexuality is not separated from everyday life), freak dancing (which is very different now than it was when I was in junior high), booty-poppin’ (which consists of moving your butt as if it was made with independent parts), stripper dance (popping your ass with a pole, as seen at Mary’s in Portland), and twerking (which goes hand-in-hand with Southern bounce music). Google Big Freedia’s track “Azz Everywhere” and you will see black people, white people, boys and girls all bouncing their buns together.
As an expression of sexual freedom, the booty pop is to my generation what the twist was to my parents, only much more complicated. Here’s an overly simplified history: Movement that essentially replicates sex was first used ceremoniously eons ago, to celebrate life, attract a mate and invoke fertility. Then, 2,000 years ago, St. Paul deemed bad all things sexual, especially women. Sex could only exist between a married man and woman. Anything outside of that was degenerate. Some people started capitalizing on human sexual repression and shame.
Movement that was once a natural, celebrated, integrated part of human culture is now something “exotic” that people pay to see. As industry and technology evolve, people become increasingly removed from their own bodies. All of this informs the way we view the body in motion.
Michael Upchurch wrote about my ass in The Seattle Times in October. “Sometimes you encounter a dancer who’s a master isolationist, able to play every inch of her physique as if it were its own individual piano key,” he wrote. “Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two buttocks pop such independent moves as Amy O’Neal’s did.”
Upchurch was referring to a solo I am developing called The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, which questions the way art is bought and sold, the economics of the body, my past and current influences, and what truly makes something innovative. Structured like a nonverbal lecture and demonstration, it explores creative modalities such as paying homage, sampling, imitation and cover songs. For each modality, I perform an example and then project a slide that puts it in context.
The virtuosic butt pops Upchurch noted come from a section called “Exhibit B: The Imitator,” in which I perform the choreography from Ciara’s “Ride” video. I’m obsessed with its simplicity of form and self-aware use of female clichés. Ciara dances in a white photography studio in tight black leggings, kneepads, high-top kicks, a black short-sleeve shirt that shows her six-pack and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap with her long locks hanging down her back. The video cuts between Ciara precisely and confidently moving her ass, pelvis, spine, hands and feet, to her standing next to a car in a black bathing suit, six-inch platform heels and a fur coat. Toward the end, she rides a mechanical bull in a wet T-shirt. Then she’s on her knees, ass to the camera, popping each cheek to the track’s bass drum pattern—a skill that takes a lot of strength and control.
While performing Ciara’s movement and making it my own, I felt powerful and sexy. It was fun. But I could feel conflict in the audience. After the show, one of my African American friends said, “I want you to do this in Pittsburgh where I’m from. People would go crazy!” One of my best friends was angry while watching me dance, but I pleasantly surprised her with the text projection that followed.
The projection explained that when I first saw Ciara’s video, I was blown away by her dancing ability, her grounded sensuality, and her balance of masculine and feminine energy. I was turned on in a life-affirming way that sparked the desire to create. I wanted to move like that. So I spent hours in the studio learning Ciara’s every move. As I watched the video over and over again, I realized that life has trained me to look at women as men do—and to be empowered by it. I started to question where empowerment truly comes from.
I’m flattered that my ass impressed Upchurch. I appreciate virtuosity and, as a dancer, strive for it. It’s exciting to witness. But too much emphasis on virtuosity can make us lazy and divorce movement from its context. As a choreographer, I don’t just string moves together; I create context for movement by manipulating time, space and energy. Sometimes the results are purely aesthetic and sometimes ideas about culture emerge. In a performance about persona, money and power, it says a lot that my ass was still the center of attention.
Amy O’Neal is a dancer, choreographer and teacher living in Seattle and making work as AmyO/tinyrage. She gives a talk about her latest solo on Dec. 10 at The Project Room.