Step Up Revolution: A Dance Battle over the Fate of American Cities
With the Oscars just around the corner, I am sad to note that my favorite film of 2012 is not up for any awards. So I submit, for your consideration, the merits of Step Up Revolution, released last July and now out on DVD. Dd has already done some coverage on this film—it is the fourth installment in a franchise of dance competition films that began way back in 2006 and its popularity with audiences around the globe and critical acclaim are inversely proportional. The first Step Up won a Teen Choice Award for dance movie. It also launched the film career of Channing Tatum, who starred opposite his now-wife Jenna Dewan.
I saw Step Up Revolution this summer at the urging of a fan of the series and urban dance films in general. I expected entertainment and a couple of hours in the air-conditioned darkness. Maybe there would be cool dancing. Maybe it would be unintentionally funny. I did not anticipate my mind would be blown. On very rare occasions Hollywood surprises with a film that is not only good entertainment, but weighs in, meaningfully, on important issues of our times. I am no dance film connoisseur, nor am I expert in dance. I count dancers and dance movie fans among my close friends, but I am a professor of urban studies, and I research and write about the politics of urban design. I cannot evaluate what the film tells us about dance today, but I found that on two subjects that are near and dear to my heart—the relationship between art and politics and the question of people’s involvement in the fate of the cities they live in—Step Up has a lot to say.
The premise seems simple: boy and girl meet, fall in love, meet obstacles. Also, both want to succeed as dancers, but face artistic and personal challenges. Can they stay true to themselves and their art? What price will they pay to make it? So far, so humdrum. Also, Emily and Sean, our protagonists, are from different social classes. No surprise there. But the catch is that Emily is the daughter of the greedy real estate developer who wants to tear down the vibrant Miami neighborhood where Sean and his dance crew pals live, replacing it with a large and shiny new hotel complex. Now things get a little more interesting.
Sean and his group, The Mob, choreograph flash mob dance performances in the city of Miami and then post videos of them on Youtube. They are trying to get enough hits to win a contest. They could really use the prize money, what with their crappy service jobs at Emily’s dad’s hotel). But, more importantly, as Sean explains, they are dancing to represent the voiceless people of Miami, the working folks who don’t have a say in this growing city dedicated to tourism and conspicuous consumption. The Mob dances out on Ocean Drive for recognition, or for what urban theorists like to call “the right to the city.” The right to the city means the demand of folks who have been excluded to participate in the making of the city. To determine what shape it should take and what spaces they will occupy, from housing to public space.
When we use more familiar terms like gentrification or talk about a lack of affordable housing, what we are taking about is how certain powerful actors are making decisions about how land is used in the city in ways that benefit them financially, rather than creating a city that responds to the needs and aspirations of the people who live and work there. Thus, in Step Up Revolution, it means the City Council rubber-stamping the new development meant for tourists and the wealthy on the site of a tight-knit neighborhood, despite popular opposition to the plan, because a wealthy developer backs it. In real life, despite great controversy, the City and County of Miami just paid more than 80% of the cost of a new stadium for their baseball team. While the benefit of Marlins Park to the public can be debated, decisions are regularly made in cities large and small to use collective funds to finance private, for-profit spaces rather than projects that would directly benefit city residents.
The interesting thing about the idea of the right to the city is that its political demands are also tied to an artistic project. The city should have room for creativity and self-expression, ideally it would become a collective work of art unto itself. The arts, too, play a prominent role in protesting the current state of affairs and demanding such a city. Dance plays a part in this. Anthropologists and their ilk make much of dances like Turfing (in Oakland, which made it big via Youtube in 2010) or flexing as a way in which the dancers lay claim to their turf through an act of expression and creation and contest mainstream images of their disadvantaged neighborhoods. This is what the Mob tries to do in the film as well—they’re not criminals, they’re artists, and the city is their canvas! Their mobs are clever acts of what is called détournement—what seems like a carjacking is actually a dance party, or a staid museum opening is turned on its head with the introduction of living, moving, arts.
But when their neighborhood is threatened, and being heard is not an abstract question but one that could mean the difference between losing their homes or maintaining a cherished, if challenging, way of life, the stakes for their art become much higher. It is Emily, the developer’s daughter, who rallies them with the film’s best line: “It’s not okay to make art for fun anymore. Enough with performance art. It’s time for protest art!” So the Mob turns to protest art, to really use their dancing to make concrete demands for their rights to the city. The irony (stop reading here if suspense is important to you!) is that their new protest art is not as compelling as their old art for art’s sake (or fun), nor is it effective. The waterfront development is still approved, whether the community is down with it or not. So what good is political art, in the end?
That is one conundrum the film presents us with, one we can ponder for days on end. But it’s not the only paradox. Though the new development is approved, the dancers ultimately win some concessions. By demonstrating the cultural contributions of Miamians (and more cynically, by showing the developer their worth as cultural assets he can use to sell the city and this development to outsiders), the Mob negotiates a vague compromise. It’s not too clear what benefits this will provide—something along the lines of Community Benefits Agreements in urban planning. In New York City, where I live, megaprojects like sports arenas, high-rise housing, or shopping centers frequently get valuable land and financial incentives from the city. They promise to contribute something in return, but there is little enforcement and follow-through. A developer gets public funds to do his thing, but makes concessions by way of guaranteeing affordable apartments, living wages at new jobs on the site, or a new park or another amenity. In real life, things don’t always work out as promised, and citizens have little say.
It’s not a revolution that Step Up seems to trigger, but business as usual. The Mob said they wanted to have a real voice. The real triumph at the film’s end questions the ends of their politics altogether, when The Mob jubilantly celebrates cutting a deal with Nike. Both Mob and movie have sold out! Step Up Revolution, which was all about exposing the undemocratic nature of American cities, is actually a big plug for sneakers! But that’s not so clear, either. An endorsement deal, rather than dead end jobs where the dancers can be, and are, fired at will, could be one form of real economic power. Is it wrong for the Mob to want a deal with Nike, if the whole point of the flash mobs in the first place was to score $100,000 from the Internet? (Truth be told, it wasn’t so much money for such a large crew.) Is it wrong to make art for fun and profit, rather than general betterment? And what about Emily’s future in modern dance?
Step Up raises more questions than it answers. In fact, it answers none. But these are questions that need to be asked. Art is important to me, and so are cities, but is it important that the arts be enlisted in fighting for better cities? As a teacher, it is disheartening to encounter young students who have been attracted to New York by its cultural vibrancy, yet who accept inequality and a lack of democracy in cities as a matter of course. Bringing up political questions about who decides how cities will change seems both extreme and pointless to them. Does a more just city mean giving up the pleasures of Nikes, or Step Up movies, for that matter? For raising these questions in the place you’d least expect, with a half-dozen super-fun choreographed numbers, Step Up Revolution deserves higher honors.