It's in His Legs: A Dance Enigma in New Orleans
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because dance and music and community can take any of us into other worlds.
By Tim Doody
The author is a “particularly troublesome, even dangerous, anarchist,” according to a report by ABC’s Nightline.
Under unrelenting sun, a hundreds-strong, majority-Black procession flowed through New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. Horn players blew irresistible funk. Aunties rump-shook. Street toughs buckjumped. Champagne flutes tipped and blunt smoke wafted. But where, I wondered, had Spider-Man gone?
More happened that Sunday afternoon — May 10, 2015 — than a white outsider like me could hope to process. The procession steered up St. Bernard Avenue and toward a 25-foot-tall railroad bridge. And there, on the bridge’s edge, was Spider-Man, also known as Taray Roberts, a lanky, 23-year-old dude of color who sported a black T-shirt, tarmac-colored basketball shorts and permed hair with a blond tuft.
Taray strutted, crouched, hoisted hands and slow-fucked the whole world. The poured concrete he danced upon was three sneakers wide, and he had had a few drinks. His eyes were open wide and glazed, like it was him up there but not him.
It starts with my hands, with me snapping. And I pretend to beat the bongos on my legs.
Taray Roberts, aka Spider-Man
Taray is part of a tradition that manifests in one Black neighborhood of New Orleans or another most Sunday afternoons. It’s called second line and, sometimes, “the church after church.” Community associations, or social and pleasure clubs, have been orchestrating these roving celebrations since the 19th century. The first line is for club members, who dazzle with funky steps, handcrafted plumage and a carefully considered route. The second is everybody else. Second lines challenge the laws of gravity and American apartheid.
Taray second-lined for the first time when he was 8. He hooked his hand into his grandma’s back pocket — Now hang on, she said — and off they went. Taray lives in the Ninth Ward, line-cooks, caretakes for grandparents and studies nursing at community college. The day I treat him to lunch, he chooses Houston’s, declares himself a foodie and orders a lemon drop martini with a rack of ribs. A bullet is lodged just above Taray’s bladder. “I’m feeling it right now,” he says between sips. “A little sting, a little pain.”
On May 12, 2013, two young men fired semi-automatic pistols into the Original Big 7 Social and Pleasure Club’s 17th Annual Mother’s Day Second Line. They aimed for and hit a rival gang member. They also hit 18 paraders, including Taray’s mom, Latonya (arm), and Taray (abdomen, hand). Taray’s brother, then 7 years old, was not hit — Latonya and Taray shielded him.
Taray lay in a spreading puddle of blood. “Don’t you close your eyes!” Latonya yelled. Friends begged cops for an ambulance and cops remained silent. Taray’s biological father eased his son into his yellow Camaro SS and sped to the emergency room. They were stopped en route by cops who tallied charges — fleeing a crime scene, running a red. Then the cops about-faced and offered an escort. At the hospital, a detective interrogated a barely-there Taray — Why’d he shoot you? What’s his name? — until Latonya shrieked his ass out the room. The miracle for mothers that day? Nineteen gunshot victims and nobody died.
At the procession this year — the 19th Annual Mother’s Day Second Line — Taray skipped, crouched and spun through a crowded street like he was dodging linebackers in slow, syncopated motion. He’s vigilant now, especially when crowds become large and less familiar. Still, he regularly enters what athletes call the zone and mystics call trance. “When the tuba and drums are on point,” he says, “I can’t hold it back. It starts with my hands, with me snapping. And I pretend to beat the bongos on my legs. Next thing you know, it’s in my legs.”
What that “it” is that courses through Taray can be debated. But let’s agree that when it’s happening, Taray gets down, as in physically closer to earth, as in energetically open to possibility and/or spirit. Let’s also agree that it’s an old-school phenomenon. In Aesthetic of the Cool, Robert Farris Thompson argues that the “strong leans,” “deep knee bends” and “circling” deployed by second line dancers go back to West Africa, to the Kongo people who, through said moves, unleashed erotic power, healed psychic imbalance and got the party started. And what, I asked, did Spider-Man think of that? He digs it but clarifies: “I don’t imitate. I originate.”
- Tim Doody, OZY Author Contact Tim Doody