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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

Samba Meets Swing
by Dawn Pick

While echoes of America's re-discovery of swing music continue to be heard in clubs and dance halls across the nation, students in Brazil are moving to the same beat - but with an entirely different set of steps.

"I heard Sinatra's 'The Coffee Song' before I left for Brazil and decided to bring it to play for the students who I would be instructing," said Mark Wheeler, head of the UGA dance department.

But while playing the song, with its swinging big band musical arrangement, Wheeler made an unexpected discovery: The students could dance to the song, but they were dancing the steps of the Brazilian samba. "Through these students, I found that both the Brazilian samba and swing - a very American dance form - thrive on the same music," he said.

Wheeler, who has trained with preeminent teachers of ballroom, jazz, modern and tap in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas, and at major American universities, has developed a reputation for his ability to fuse ballroom dance techniques with modern dance. This reputation has brought him invitations to perform and teach at universities in the United States and Brazil.

Last summer, Wheeler was invited to the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil to conduct a four-week dance workshop and to Rio de Janeiro to restage a piece of his swing choreography for the dance company of Carlinhos de Jesus, among the best known of contemporary Brazilian dancers.

According to Wheeler, who directs the UGA Ballroom Performance Group, such projects are an integral part of the dissemination of his choreographic research. "I must have students in order to bring my ideas to life," he said. "I totally depend on them. I cannot do my research without them.

"A critical part of my research and exploration is studying dance. I can't just read about it. I need to own the movement so that I can teach my dancers. And my research cannot exist without my dancers," he said.

Choreographic research may begin, Wheeler said, with an idea for a dance or with an occasion that needs a dance piece performed. For example, his creation of "Consider the Circle - A Tribute to the Olympic Games" for performance during the 1996 Summer Olympics was "inspired by the visual idea of the Olympic rings," he said.

"Once my research [for 'Consider the Circle'] brought me to the concept of the cyclic nature of life, my task became to find the placement of dancers in space and time that would, in collaboration with sound, communicate to the viewer my concept," he said.

Wheeler uses the students in his performance group to help him create and eventually perfect the individual movements and group formations that comprise a piece of choreography. "You develop movement motifs and then you manipulate them," he said. "Sometimes a dancer may make a mistake, and you love it. It's a kind of a divine accident.

"Choreographic research is art-making, and the world values art. Arts are not valued for their practicality, but for the humanity and the intrinsic design they reveal," Wheeler said. "My greatest source of gratification is knowing my work works for the audience."

E-mail mwheeler@coe.uga.edu for more information.


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