Dancehall is a style of music and dance born in Jamaica in the 1970’s. It fuses reggae style rhythms with electronic and hip hop elements, as “DJ’s” freestyle over the music. It has gained popularity all over the world and is a major influence on pop music and dance today. While often criticized for violence and extreme sexuality in the lyrics and the dancing, for many the subculture is an expression of the realities of life in its birth place of Kingston. The style of dancing that men do to Dancehall is called “Shotta” dancing and is focused on complex footwork, while the “Dancehall Queens” performances are centered around acrobatics and flexibility.
This project explores the issues of empowerment, escapism, sexuality and objectification for young women in Brooklyn’s Dancehall culture, in the context of the lack of educational and employment opportunities, and the near constant violence which plagues central Brooklyn.
Brightly clad in spandex, denim and leather, the dancers and club goers begin to trickle into the clubs around midnight, but the parties don’t really get going til around 2am. The DJ might start the night out with more traditional reggae, and as the room fills up, and heats up, and the different Dancehall teams eye each other across the room, he’ll begin to switch the faster, harder rhythms of Dancehall music. Smoke and lights fill the air. The speakers, stacked in haphazard piles above everyone’s head, rattle angrily. When the right beat drops, it's like war drums. Zero Nation, a well known Brooklyn Dancehall team, comes together like a wave, faces masks of stony challenge, stepping and sweeping and hovering in unison. They line up and start to move across the floor.
When Sarah Crosse, a teenage dancehall queen who goes by the party name “Cookie” started to dance, everyone in the room would stop to watch, as she dropped to the floor with precision into splits and handstands, and shotta danced as well as the boys. With a background in ballet, tap, jazz and modern that she had studied since the age of 5, her flexibility and the discipline of her steps stood out, earning her a reputation (“She’s a ballerina!”) in the Dancehall scene of Brooklyn. She and her best ￼friend Chevelle, who goes by Velvet, often danced as a team. The bond between the two, the powerful and formative relationship between a teenage girl and her best friend, was visible. Men took notice of the two beauties. Other dancers “big uped” them. Some older dancers grumbled with jealousy.
The energy in the music, the style and culture of Dancehall had drawn me to photograph at the club the first night, but the kinship between the dancers, the sense that they’re a family, and the way they all use dance as an outlet for all the adversity they experience, kept me coming back.
Many Zero Nation members struggle to make ends meet, working hard at low wage jobs, going to school, trying to build their futures. Some are stuck outside the system, dealing with trauma from the poverty and endless cycle of gang violence that plagues their neighborhoods of East New York, Brownsville, and Flatbush. When they come together, whether they’re practicing or dancing or just hanging out, the tension eases. While they are dancing, their troubles fade away for a while.
When one of her best friends was shot and killed in September of 2010, Sarah fell into a depression and dropped out of school. Gradually with the support of her family and dance teachers, she began to go to her dance classes again, and to use movement as an outlet as she processed the loss. She joined Zero Nation three years ago, thrilled to be a part of a dance team that she had often watched and looked up to. The group became a family to her, and a social group that exists outside of the gang culture which has become entrenched in her neighborhood. However, in Brooklyn’s 67th Precinct, where someone was murdered roughly once a month in 2013 and 10 out of 12 of these crimes have gone unsolved, and 27 shootings were logged in the first half of 2014, the street violence finally caught up with Sarah.
On October 30th, 2013, Sarah and Velvet walked out her creaky wooden front door, running next door for a midnight smoke. They descended the steps and went to cross a narrow driveway separating the two houses,which is frequently littered with plastic toys and car parts for the vehicles her dad works on. In the day time the little yard is full of neighborhood kids laughing and playing. Sarah’s parents slept upstairs, their daughter close to home. ￼Sarah saw a car drive by and then reverse at a high speed. They started running. Shots rang out and she felt her foot jerk. She fell, thinking she’d tripped. Sarah only understood she’d been shot when she pulled off her high top Nike and the blood oozed through her sock from the circular wound. The bullet had ricocheted off the sidewalk as the girls ran for cover from a drive by, and lodged neatly in the center of the ballerina’s heel where it had to be surgically removed. Rumors of the assault flooded the streets of her neighborhood. Shooting at two girls, wounding a neighborhood dancer, was considered low, but maybe not surprising. To some, that level of ruthlessness was a badge of honor. She says she doesn’t know who shot her.
A couple of months after the shooting she posted the following on her Facebook page: “Dear Ballet Shoes, don’t worry guys, I’ll soon pick you back up and start moving you around. I know you miss me and I miss you guys 10,000 percent more. The time will come when I will wear you out until your body starts falling apart. I love you and I promise I will never leave you again.”
In February 2014, Zero Nation congregated in their leader Syrin’s bedroom in Brownsville to lay out a new set of rules for the group. They discussed stylistic elements for the group’s choreography, and banned any intoxication during practices and excessive intoxication at parties. The group established ground rules for monetizing their dancing. Zero Nation’s name would no longer be used to promote parties unless they get paid. Syrin would negotiate rates for music video shoots. Only approved members will teach the Zero Style to newcomers. Gang activity among members would not be tolerated.
Sarah attended the meetings using a cane, which she would occasionally lean against the wall while she moved through some dance steps during team practices, but most nights, when her friends left rehearsals for nightclubs, Sarah would head home. She said her chest tightened when cars came around the corner on her street, and the party scene had its own potential for conflict. She tightened her social scene and started researching a program to help her finally get her high school diploma, finally settling on Job Corps in Edison New Jersey, where she could work on a GED and a trade program at the same time.
In August of 2014 Sarah got up at 6 to do her makeup, and met Velvet and two other friends at a shop in Flatbush to pick up their costumes for “Playing Mas” in the Caribbean day parade. The annual event celebrates Caribbean heritage in Brooklyn, and women from the community don elaborate costumes of paint, tassels, sequins and body paint, to dance to steel drums throughout the majority Caribbean neighborhoods of central Brooklyn. In a red two piece outfit with feathered tiara, Sarah skipped, danced and stomped on the steaming concrete with her friends, and the crowd cheered and men vied to dance with her. Sure footed as ever, her cane nowhere in sight.
For Sarah, now 19, it was a farewell party. She left this fall to begin her studies in New Jersey, where she’s on her way to getting her high school equivalency diploma, and has started a pre-nursing program. She wants to be a nurse like her mom.
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