Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finger Tutting and King Tutankhamun

by Drew Martin
Fingers have always been crucial to 
creating art and communication: from signing a language to pecking Morse code. More often than not, fingers are busy holding tools: pens and pencils, paintbrushes and stone chisels. Music has perhaps celebrated the dexterity and possibilities of fingers more than any other art form or manner of communication. The "digital" demands of the harpsichord preceded the qwerty keyboard of typewriters by hundreds of years.

While finger movements have been essential to dance from the beginning of time, the art form of finger tutting has taken it to a whole new level. It is really a microcosm/subset of the breakdancing scene that started in the late 1970s.

Breakdancing itself is a derivative of tutting, which references King 
Tutankhamun, more popularly referred to as King Tut. In the 1970s funk dancers began to mimick the stiff, angular positions locked into the stylized paintings and sculptures from ancient Egypt.

King Tut was the pharaoh of the 18th dynasty (1332 BC – 1323 BC) but his tomb was not discovered until 1922, which renewed public interest in ancient Egypt.

The relics of his tomb hit the road with The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour from 1972 to 1979. The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the exhibition for its display in the United States, which ran from 1976 through 1979. More than eight million people attended.

So while breakdancing started on the streets of New York, the influence came from the revival of ancient Egypt art that hit New York like a sand storm.

And just as unlikely as this active street dance originating in the calm galleries of New York's greatest museum, Taylor Swift recently mainstreamed finger tutting in her Shake It Off video, in which she comically inserts herself into various dance style groups. She finger tuts side by side one of the greatest, PNUT.

I first watched her video in response to reading a harsh critique I read by a woman who identified herself, in a popular magazine, as African American. She slammed Swift for twerking with black women. I was expecting something like Lily Allen's Hard Out There twerking video but it was much more benign, playful, and self deprecating. She tries to pull off several styles and they all end with a kind of klutzy attempt. She half-asses her way through ballet, breakdancing, modern dance, ribbon dancing, and cheerleading, and pokes a little fun at Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. The tone is what you see in the animated gif here: someone (in this case PNUT) doing something really well, and Swift fumbling, and it works...it's cute.

I know that trying out different styles in music videos has been done before but what immediately came to mind was KT Tunstall's Hold On music video. I rewatched it to see how she handled a style that might raise an eyebrow and my jaw dropped. There are a couple seconds of her standing with three almost-naked African warriors doing vertical leaps.

Popularizing cultural arts is always an issue but I am not sure if people should take offense to acts like The Bangels Walk Like an Egyptian song/music video or Steve Martin's King Tut performance on Saturday Night Live.

Watch the video at the bottom of this post to see Mark Benson's seminal tutting moves. 

Watch the video below to see "
The Best Finger Dancers in the world, all in one video! Dancers: CTUT. JAYFUNK, NEMESIS, PNUT, STROBE, ERA"