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Posted on 2004-04-30 09:52:26 by Denver

The Apollo
The other night I took my cousin Connor Kelly to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The host and the band opened Amateur Night with a couple of songs and some announcements.
"We got some white people in the house tooonight!" he said.
The house was packed, Connor and I sat a little lower in our seats in the orchestra section. Besides us, there were probably forty or fifty white tourists from Michigan scattered throughout the 1400 seat auditorium.

Then the host, in a loose fitting powder blue shirt and pants outfit (I would almost describe them as pajamas) announced a dance contest and asked for volunteers. At least a hundred screaming black teenage girls pressed toward the stage with their hands in the air. He picked six of them and a large black guy. Then he said "I need one white guy."
Connor and I ducked. I felt a bunch of hands on my back. There was a lot of screaming and I squinted my eyes at the stage as the host pointed out into the audience and stuck his finger directly between my eyes.
I took a deep breath and got up and hurried down the aisle.

'He made a mistake here. They picked the wrong guy. I'm not gonna do some tin man dance for these people.'
I breathed through my nose and made my way up on the stage to the back of the eight person line. The band was playing the Apollo theme song as the host explained the rules to the audience and got ready to introduce us. He pulled the first contestant to him.

-What's your name?
-Where you from Cheryl?
A roar cascaded through the house. Four hundred people from Philly stood up and cheered.
-Alright Cheryl from Philly, let's see it!
The band started playing 50 Cents "In da club" and Cheryl proceeded to shake her ass up and down- hands and hips moving side to side. Thirty seconds later the band finished and the host moved on to the next contestant
-What's your name?
-Where you from Denitra?
Again a roar of hundreds shook the house. Denitra was ten years old. The band started a hip hop song and Denitra began a low flying assault on gravity and blended arms and legs and ass with the rhythm and tempo until she was like a human catapult. There was huge applause.
And so it went. Six, five, four, three, two. The heavy guy before me did a side to side Temptations style dance and won a big applause for his efforts.
I took deep breaths and tried to decide if I should do the Eppie (a dance my friend Steve Eporson originated with hands on the side in a hitchhiker pose) or the Ed Gillespie (in which an extra beat is added to the normal rhythm of the feets contact with the earth). I thought about the workshop in Japanese Butoh dance that I had gone to the week before. If I could somehow incorporate the rhythmless beauty of the Tree posture I might be able to match the innovation and burst the expectations of the twelve hundred black people waiting with baited breath to see the white guy do the robot.
The host grabbed me.
-What's your name?
-Where you from?
There was silence.
-Chico California!
A few hands came together.
-Okay. Alright Denver from Chico lets see it!
Standing there with the lights on me and the audience rolling out into the darkness and my feet standing on the stage of the Apollo I had a connection with the past, with D'angelo who got his start on this stage, with my brother who sat with me in the living room after Saturday Night Live watching Amateur Night at the Apollo and watching Stevie Wonder interpreters and acapella gospel groups and tap dancers and a hundred years of dancing and singing went pulsating through my body and a fear like no other snaked through me and a film formed over my eyes and I just tried to channel the energy.
The band launched into the bassline from 'play that funky music white boy'. I bent down and curled into a ball, using the technique I had learned from the Japanese butoh master Atsushi Takenouchi, in a workshop he had conducted the previous week.
Feel the earth through the soles of your feet he had said.
Feel the water fill up inside you
Slowly the host began to sing the lyrics from offstage.
"There was a funky singer
Playing in a rock and roll band"
I began to uncurl from the ball and let the water flow into my roots, my trunk. My branches slowly began to reach for the sky.

"And everything around me
Got to stop to feelin so low
And I decided quickly
Yes I did
To disco down and check out the show"

The braches had reached their maximum height. My eyes flipped open and were filled with the blur of a thousand quizzical glances. My jaw clenched tightly as I began to rock back and forth and squint out into audience. I noticed some people in the section with their arms raised. Were they mocking me? It looked like they were motioning toward me in some kind of solidarity. Yes, they had let their arms swell up with nature. It was good.
The host appeared from the side wing singing-
"Dancin' and singin'
and movin to the groovin'"
He raised his arms and began walking the earth as tall oak with wind blown arms outstretched toward the heavens. He closed the distance and our branches intertwined. He held the microphone out and we both spit into it together-

Play that funky music white boy
Lay down that boogie
and play that funky music til you die
Ohhhh til you dieeeeeeeeee

The band finished. There was applause. My ears were ringing. My body was numb. My eyes shot to the floor. I was ready to exit but the host motioned us to the front of the stage in a line. He put his hand over the first contestant and asked for the audience's vote. There was howling and screaming and huge applause. Oh no. They were going to vote on me. They were going to give me dead silence except for my poor cousin all alone out there in the sea. The voting continued. I was last and as he put his hand on my head a burst of applause came, the most gratifying ovation I've ever received. He moved me into a line of four semifinalists. Oh no. Another round of possible rejection. I silently prayed that the ten year old from Detroit would win. I just wanted to be flying over the building. The crowd gave Denitra a thundering ovation I was clapping for her as well. Then I felt like I shouldn't be clapping for my competition. I should appear like I want to win. I stopped clapping. I clapped for all of us. and the rest of us received decidedly more middling applause and Denitra won an Apollo t-shirt. I almost felt like puking. The host finally let us go and I slunk off the stage with a high 5 to the guitarist in the band. It took over an hour for my pulse to return to normal.
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