Underground gay dance movement
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When asked what makes a good documentary, producer Adam Symansky replied, "Take me somewhere I have never been, show me something I have never seen, let me meet people I would never have a chance to meet, and show me the world from their perspective." If Symansky's criterion is the standard, then "When the Beat Drops," the new documentary premiering on cable Logo TV Aug. 9 (then shown throughout the month and streamable beginning Aug. 10), hits the bull's-eye. This vibrant movie received the Outstanding Documentary Jury Award at this year's Frameline and a standing ovation when it screened. "When the Beat Drops" not only reveals the underground dance movement "bucking," but also uncovers courageous creative resistance in the often-stigmatized world of black gay men.
Bucking began over 30 years ago. Black female majorettes first performed this athletic dance, resembling a horse leaping with an arched back, at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), mostly in the south. This style became more mainstream when it was popularized in Beyonce's music video "Single Ladies." Its edginess, flamboyance, and sensuality immediately appealed to black gay men, who adapted it in their own safe underground LGBTQ nightclubs, fearing prejudice and promoting social stereotypes if they danced it openly. Like ballroom dance depicted in the landmark documentary "Paris is Burning," bucking led to its own unique culture, style, and rules, even its own feminine costumes, creating fiercely competitive teams.
Directed by choreographer Jamal Sims, who has worked with Madonna and arranged the dancing in Disney's live-action film "Aladdin" and the upcoming "Descendants 3," this rapturous documentary echoes the passionate excitement of the dancers. The star is Big Tony (Anthony Davis), who spearheaded the buck sensation in Atlanta in the early 1990s, recruiting guys, teaching them the moves, then initiating the team competitions, "becoming a force of education and affirmation," and in the process creating a family of gay black men in that city through their Phi Phi team.
The film centers on several dedicated performers, their struggles and triumphs as they risk everything for the love of their art. Big Tony was mugged in a grocery store parking lot in 2003, shot in his left knee, never fully recovering, but his faith in God enabled him to persevere. He knew he was gay from a young age, wanting to be Wonder Woman rather than Superman. Fortunately, his family was supportive. He acts as the spiritual rock, exemplar, and mentor for the younger dancers, all of whom are educated professionals in their day (mostly corporate) jobs.
We meet Napoleon, who teaches music in high school and is the CEO of a nonprofit music advocacy group, Band Room Nation. He worries that if students or parents find out about his bucking, he could lose his job. Flash, enrolled in a college business management program, has his mother, a lesbian called Little Man, living with him, having been released from prison for selling drugs. He started the Buck Radio program, showcasing the dance and community issues. Together the team fights misconceptions about them: that they are feminine, wish they were girls, they're all bottoms and flamboyant. They reveal that there are many in the gay community who aren't open to bucking because of these biases. Reluctant to be seen in public, they view their performance as a potential threat to their professional lives. Some are not even out to their families. The documentary culminates in a major competition, the Big Buck, against their chief rival, Sundari from Detroit. The judges are current and former female majorettes. The riveting face-off will leave audiences at the edge of their seats.
The film succeeds at every level, particularly the hypnotic dance sequences. We observe team members arguing behind the scenes but also supporting each other as they encounter obstacles in their personal lives. The message here mirrors mythologist Joseph Campbell's dictum: Follow your bliss, especially if you have a passion for something, no matter how unpopular. Don't allow society to judge or constrain you. But also, even in the gay community we need to accept each other as we are, recognizing the unique talents our differing backgrounds can offer, dealing with our own bigotry and internalized homophobia. Kudos to the fabulous gay team Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato for producing this dazzling introduction to a hitherto unknown world.