Primary Source Codes.

Tamika Abaka-Wood
10 min readOct 6, 2023

Gut Reactions + Fieldnotes.
Written within 24 hours.

Practice: Stop writing when you’ve pushed through the words — not necessarily to reach an answer but to find new explorations once something has shifted. Edit once, and once only. Press publish.
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Primary Source Codes.
Written on Sabbatical. Weeks 1–2.

My friend Ryan Lynch made a remark mid-conversation over coffee in Bed Stuy — “well, that makes sense because your primary source code is dance.” Ryan is someone who appears as though they spill out complex, layered ideas without much work. He can intuitively and poetically name concepts which feel as though language is too prematurely developed to communicate. It just seems to flow out of him. ‘Primary source codes’ — I understood the concept as a question — ’which systems and lenses did you come to understand yourself and the world through, primarily’?

Objects d’art do not exist in the dance world. The ephemeral rules over the material. Dancers carry a deep knowing that nothing in this world is completely still. The work — i.e. the body — is always in relation to the space. Choreographic works are rarely confined to a studio or stage — rather, practically everything around dancers abounds with relativity. To me, dance is the practice of intentionally selecting what is worth paying attention to at one particular moment in time, and what is not.

When I dance in the dark with strangers I feel porous — able to tap into a lineage of those who have come before me — in ways that words, sounds, artefacts, archives and documentation do not allow as viscerally. On occasion, and far less frequently and assuredly than I used to experience, I have the ability to move my body in ways which do not belong directly to me. I can sometimes find inherited blueprints which feel entirely ‘correct’ to me. Correct but faint, as though markings are itched clearly in capital letters with fine Black Sharpie pen buried under layers and layers of tracing paper. I truly believe we all have the ability to tap into those who have come before us, whether we recognise the ability to or not. You just have to find the right modality and conditions for you. When I dance in the dark with my people time can collapse in on itself. Time is not sequential and ordered, as we have been led to believe, removing any space for liminality. The dance leaves space for a possibility of connections to jump through time in a glitchy way — the past becomes the present. The present becomes the future. The present is the only time-space we really ever exist in, right?

Through dancing I understood how to be an individual within a larger collective. I learned that devotion to both myself and others were not just equally as important as each other, but were fundamentally reliant on each other. Practice, practice, practice — sweat equity is the only equity that counts in the studio when no one in particular is watching — who we are when no one is watching translates into who we become when everyone is watching. So far, I have told you a few of my imprinted philosophies and ways of being which I carry to any world I happen to find myself within.

I’d been trained in ballet, tap and modern from the age of 5 until I was 14 years old — straight lines, glasses filled with water on the boney backs of children, red lips, blue eyeshadow and ‘skin-coloured’ tights. Exams and certificates were the gold medals we were chasing:

1. Pass 2. Pass-plus 3. Pass-Merit 4. Pass-Honours 5. Pass-Distinction.

This was one distinct chapter in my life when knew I was really fucking good both objectively and subjectively — a rare and fleeting accomplishment. I knew what was expected of me from the examiners and I delivered in those pressurised rooms. I knew how to add flair and character into choreography where it was required on the stage. I was 14 years old when I last felt talented both in a quantitative and qualitative sense.

As the story goes for so many teenage girls in London, especially racialised girls, I left that world and ended up in the less established world of ‘street dance’ — whatever that means. I tried breaking, popping, locking, commercial, house and waacking on for size. During these years, I went above and beyond the realms of where I was supposed to play. I slowly trespassed into the ridiculously seductive, toxic and cut-throat world of professional dance with real grown-ups.

I auditioned and was accepted into Re:Birth Dance Troupe, I performed at Sadlers Wells [Lilian Baylis Theatre], dripped in sweat during house training with Turbo at Centre Stage Studios, and always brought a notebook and pen into any and every session with Kenrick Sandy of Boy Blue, pre-MBE. When I was 17 years old a commercial choreographer called Dean Lee, taught at our community dance school, BDYD, run by the incomparable Georgina Alexiou. The first piece he taught us was to Aaliyah’s ‘Rock the Boat’ — my body still remembers the first three 8 counts of his work. He switched between choreographing to the lyrics, the high hats and the bass. This was the first choreography work which felt complex, nuanced and gave us all of the right conditions to become the music for the first time. The key distinction was his musicality.

After his 12 week stint with us he asked me stay after class and told me that I should seriously think about pursuing dance, but I would have to train seriously and hard. I’d been noticed and singled out — someone who was well-known and respected in the industry believed in my ability. I came home and told my parents I was thinking of applying to study dance at University. That got shut down so swiftly, without a performative attempt to even entertain the possibility.

Nonetheless, Dean invited me to Pineapple Studios where he assured me I’d be challenged but safe. It took an hour to travel to Covent Garden. The class cost 8 Great British Pounds and I took the central line to get there. I arrived at the class nervous but willing to push past the fear. I approached the door of the studio which was nestled in between an Adidas store and Tapas restaurant. The container of Pineapple studio was completely transparent — there is nowhere to hide — long length windows leading directly into Studio 1 where tourists would come and watch eagerly. I stepped inside, and was told there was an additional 2 Great British Pound entry fee. I come from a money-insecure family. I did not have the extra 2 pounds with me to make it to 10, and so the receptionist turned me away at the door.

I trained with Dean in various open classes that summer after I got a job working at a bar in Ilford which I’d thrown my joint-18 birthday ‘shubz’ in. From that event forward friend Grace Kimani and I would turn up to an exclusively empty lounge area at the top of two flights of stairs, after a long day at school studying for our A Levels — two Malibu and cokes, of course — and act like we owned the place. We got talking to the bar owner, Gary, after the hype of Redbridge, Barking and Newham blending in one place, with Sparkz DJing — whining, bubbling and gunfingers all night and not one single incident — a rarity. We were a good crowd. We knew his bar hadn’t seen liveliness like that in a minute so we negotiated our terms. We’d throw 3 events create the flyers, invite our friends — he’d take the bar money and us the door money. This was my ticket into Pineapple Dance Studio, cash-rich, never caught slipping again.

The first time I danced in the dark with strangers was under the arches of London’s Charring Cross at Heaven nightclub. It was during the summer when I was 14 years old. There were no prior qualifications, documents, tests or IDs required to gain entry. My gut reaction when entering this nightclub and seeing a clearly established but fresh dance-style for the first time was: “I don’t know it is, but I like it, and I don’t know why — but I like that too.”

I define style as an insistence — Sontag did it first, Zadie Smith was the conduit for the definition to reach my world. Different people insist on things in different ways of course — subtly, stubbornly, unintentionally. We all insist consistently whether we’re conscious of it, or not. The style I was was witnessing that night was both combative and encouraging in nature. I couldn’t quite make out whether the reactions of the crowd were laced with adoration or disgust — truly — sickening! The remnants of each battle left a seductive and precarious tension suspended in the air.

Within this practice, I saw the crowds purposefully create and protect the physical space on the dance-floor for movement artists to breathe deep, long luxurious breaths. I saw the dancers create perfect lines in the body, no glasses of water necessary, whilst creating aesthetically-beautiful but awkward positioning. I could feel their commitment to both rigour and flair in equal measures. Voguing never was and never will be my style. The isolation, the clean lines and the attention to detail is inspiring, and absolutely not my forté — I admire from the outskirts as close as I can get.

The point was to make yourself bigger, to expand, to physically take up as much space as necessary, and then some more. There was only one clear rule I could decipher at Heaven — no touching in the battle-space where dancers could be seen, but plenty of touching on the outskirts where people made their own private worlds.

That specific bodily reaction I’ve come to chase over my lifetime is heart-achingly elusive — “I don’t know what it is, but I like it, and I don’t know why — but I like that too.” There are only a handful of times I recall feeling this distinct irregularity — I always meet it with a slow, knowing smile that creeps across my face, sometimes with an audible ‘nahhhh’ — the sense that this is the emergence of something that will become seminal. One of those rare occasions I felt it deep within my bones was at BADAWA [Barking and Dagenham African Welfare Association] Youth Club the summer I turned 15. I stood on the edges of a small carpeted room, sweat dripping from the ceiling, desperately trying to blend in with the rhythm of the amassed bodies I’d found myself meshed within.

Within this practice, I saw the crowd pack in as many people into the space for the musical-artists to breathe short, shallow, necessary breaths whilst spitting bars. Each and every Grime artist operated like an old school on-the-stove kettle — chemically, the water is slowly heating up, reaching boiling point, steam rising in the air until it is undeniable that this alchemy can’t be contained — the distinct and seemingly sudden whistle in an otherworldly pitch that causes a visceral reaction no matter how many times you’ve heard it. Their practice was about making the intangible, tangible sonically. Gunfingers close to the body at all times — “‘top of the flats can’t see us, but you can hear us’ — Mike Skinner made it clear.

A new cultural phenomena, which was unfolding not before our eyes, but deep within our psyches that summer at approximately 140 BPM. The point was to negotiate our bodies amongst one another — to constrict, contort and physically take up as little space as possible so those with the microphones could speak what could no longer be contained. The whole point was to be heard.

Yesterday, O’Shea Riley was a movement-artist voguing outside in New York City. Perfect lines, equal commitment to rigour and flair. They were a person practising their artistry and their becoming out loud. O’Shea was killed in a homophobic attack.

Today, I spent an hour and a half at Mark Morris Dance Centre wrestling with the fact that my pick-up rate isn’t what it used to be, that I am unfamiliar in the ways that my body moves to music. The reality is that this old instrument I still carry around — my body — used to be fine-tuned. I am not a musician who can tuck away those unrealised dreams in the back of a closet. But in some way I carry those unrealised [or evolved] dreams with me. Dancers spend their time looking at themselves in full length mirrors day-in-day-out. I feel this unfamiliarity of self deep within my core — when I don’t recognise a facial expression on Zoom, when I catch the unfamiliar way my body moves in a mirror — or worse on a friend’s Instagram story, when I get in my head during a DJ set. The list goes on.

But today, I am overjoyed with the house drills we are exploring, and especially for the low-centre-of-gravity, grounded West African-movements our teacher, Kim, is interspersing within the practice. Today, I am alive, I am safe and I am exploring. I’m not entirely sure if I’m objectively or subjectively good. But I am present. Tomorrow, I pray that we organise our bodies with both Voguing and Grime sensibilities that result in those needing to be seen becoming seen and those who need to be heard becoming heard.

Paris is Burning.

References/ Context.
Read: Emma Warren. Dance Your Way Home.
Your pen-game is immaculate, and your words inspire me constantly. Thank you.

Experienced: Matthew Lutz-Kinoy. The Filling Station commissioned by the Kitchen at Dia Beacon. Shouts to Rayna Storm for the invite. You’re a gem, I cherish your friendship + artistic POV.

Photographed. By Kameron Richie. Photo above.
The baddest bitch I know behind the lens, and on Erzulie’s dancefloor.

Danced. At Mark Morris Dance Centre, Brooklyn.
Tattoo, Mine: Pearl Primus by Bruno Levy.
The NYC-based-Trini-honorary-Ghanaian-dancer-choreographer-anthropologist-writer-extraordinaire.

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