The Art and Work of the Contortionist

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A contortionist, posed in studio, ca. 1880. From the George Eastman House Collection.

First, let’s dispel the double-jointed myth. Joints don’t come in multiples; however, they do come with what science dubbed hypermobility or joint laxity, both terms for people who can stretch and bend naturally farther than anyone else at the cocktail party.

In certain cultures, or in certain eras – such as the heyday of the American circus at the turn of the 20th century – hypermobility offered a ticket to elite schooling, training muscles, ligaments and bones to configure into impossible-looking shapes, with body parts of all sorts touching each other in some wild game of solo Twister.

The contortionist, the old saw goes, is the only professional who really knows how to make ends meet.

Contortion came to the west from the east during the weird days of colonialism, when European men wrote the narrative of “exotic orientals” and festishized flexibility. Contortionists found work in circuses, in freak shows and wowed their Puritanically-influenced counterparts with what appeared to be a “born that way” aberration of body mobility. What the narrative omitted included the cultural tradition of contortion schools in China and Mongolia as well as the yogic traditions of India that codified a strict curriculum of training, breath work, strengthening exercises and spiritual discipline. That discipline and training required years, starting in childhood, eventually incorporating a fluid artistry to create a serpentine dance of the human body. Contortion emerged, in its home turf, as an exquisite commitment to the belief that the human body is limited only by the smallness of the mind.

Contortion as an art form requiring study and practice caught on in western civilization, leading to a cadre of contortion professionals who continued to try to educate the public about the fact that they looked like rubber people not because they were rubber people but because they spent hours a day, day after day, year after year, training their bodies to put their feet next to their ears. Apparently, other public misconceptions this group faced were assumptions that they had access to special treatments that would give them flexibility advantages. Perhaps they soaked in special Chinese oil or bone-softening chemicals. Ted and Jean Ardini, well-known Australian contortionists, penned an article for Acrobatics magazine in 1971 attempting to stop, once and for all, the outlandish questions spectators asked contortionists about how they could do what they do: “The answer to all the above questions and others too numerous and ridiculous to mention is DEFINITELY NO.” No exotic salves, no chemical baths, no secret elixirs, no sleeping in a bathtub filled with oil. The disappointing truth, the Ardinis revealed, was that contortionists “were all people, quite normal people, who enjoy our work.”

As a rule, the greatest contortionists still hail from Mongolia, a country so steeped in its monopoly on exceptional training that Cirque du Soleil hires Mongolian contortionists almost exclusively. The trainer for their acclaimed water show O is Angelique Janov, a former student of Tsend-Ayush, arguably the most influential contortionist of the 20th century. The magnificence of the cultural heritage imbued in contemporary training inspired a steering committee of Mongolian nationals to nominate Mongolian contortion for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage in 2011. The organization has yet to add it although remains flexible to the idea.

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The art of contortion is believed to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices and poses imitating animals. (Photo: Christine Schindler)

China, too, continues to turn out unforgettable contortion artists who work in the country’s legendary acrobatic circuses that perform all over the world. With its origins in traditional Buddhist Tsam dances and influenced by Buddhist animal poses, contortion reflects its spiritual roots in modern performances. Audience members who know what to look for have a greater appreciation for performance as art versus mere spectacle.

In America, contortion stayed within its prescribed circus limits even though the performers themselves knew they were operating at a physical and artistic level often under-appreciated by general circus-going folk. Because of well-founded concerns for animal welfare and a growing shift in tastes for the American public, the circus entered a new era, and the term “circus arts” began to float in the mainstream. Silks, aerialists, strongmen/women – and contortionists – now find themselves on the cusp of widespread acceptance of their disciplines as performing arts instead of gewgaws in a traveling show. In metropolitan areas, studios offer contortion classes and workshops. In recent years, the profession formalized, hosting a regular International Contortion Convention. The last one took place in Las Vegas in 2016.

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The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China.

You’ll have a chance to exercise this new appreciation for the artistry of contortion at
China Soul: The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. The show features the beloved favorites of the art form from one of the most well-known acrobatic troupes in China: juggling, gymnastics, Shaolin kung fu and, of course, a handful of people bending to the will of their superbly-trained hypermobility.

 

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII Love a Parade!

This year, Macy’s hosts its 91st Thanksgiving Day parade. With all the costumes, singing, dancing, choreography, floating sets and music, a parade represents an oft-overlooked cousin in the performing arts family.

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Theater and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes (left) worked on float designs for some of the early Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His modernist eye created work-of-art-caliber floats, including Cinderella’s Coach, 1926. (right).

Human beings and parading have a long love affair, from early uses in rites of passage to military victories to funeral processions to the American modern spectaculars like Mardi Gras and, happening this Thursday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

In the United States, we parade for holidays, gay pride, soldiers, soldiers who died in combat, giant football competitions like the Rose Bowl, to mark our independence from Britain and to celebrate a newly elected president, mayor or sheriff. If you travel around small-town America, you’ll find as many local festivals as there are small towns and a parade that goes with it. (Chicken Festival, Strawberry Festival, Cow Chip Festival, Festival of Trees, PumpkinFest, GeckoFest … the list goes on.)

Some of the great American parades developed as off-shoots of a bigger parade. For example, take a look at the Mardi Gras Indians. Deprived access to permits because of racism, the New Orleanians of African descent created their own parading organization, ranking structure and processional guidelines. As a show of respect to the native tribes in Louisiana who sheltered enslaved Africans and brought them into their communities, this band of African-Americans in New Orleans named themselves the Mardi Gras Indians.

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They formed tribes instead of krewes and relied on the cultural knowledge of West African and Native American beadwork to construct unbelievably intricate beaded “suits” for the parades as well as gathering the requisite brass band and showing off in processional dancing. Though the origins included (often mortal) fighting to settle scores, eventually the sheer magnitude of artistic ability to create the elaborate Mardi Gras Indians suits (called “masking”) gained national attention. One of our favorite New Orleanians in this tradition is Ronald Lewis who curates and directs The House of Dance and Feathers, a Mardi Gras Indian museum in a trailer on the back of his property in the Ninth Ward.

Here, Ronald talks about the time and effort required to make an Indian suit, and you can catch a glimpse of a few Mardi Gras Indian parades in the footage as well:

Though Mardi Gras and the Mardi Gras Indians specialize in the New Orleans-style brass band, most parades follow suit with marching bands. This Thanksgiving, Macy’s parade features 12 marching bands from around the country as well as performances from celebrities (Gwen Stefani opens the parade this year with “White Christmas,” which we find ironic), Broadway stars (like Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr, who performed at The Straz this past summer) and seven dance troupes. The spectacle of Macy’s parade is, of course, the enormous balloons which make this parade so unique.

From a theatrical standpoint, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade represents a mobile multi-faceted show complete with the “wild-card” variable of navigating an enormous helium balloon. This year’s floating Pillsbury Doughboy is large enough to make four million crescent rolls. That’s a lot to handle.

We speak for many Gen X-ers who cherish the 1997 Thanksgiving Day parade in which Barney the Dinosaur was impaled by a Times Square street lamp during surprise wind gusts and died spectacularly on 51st St. Symbolic as it was culturally, Barney’s death would probably make a great documentary featuring interviews with the unfortunate souls tasked with handling the careening character. Quelle horreur!

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Parades, especially for joyful holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, capture the youthful insouciance of performing arts: it’s fun for fun’s sake. We can laugh, clap, ooh and ahh, be entertained and fawn over favorite characters and performers for no other reason than to enjoy the moment.

Delight for delight’s sake.

We can be grateful for that.

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This year’s parade starts at 9 a.m. EST, broadcast live on NBC. Keep your eyes peeled for performances from casts of four Broadway blockbusters, Dear Evan Hansen, Anastasia, SpongeBob SquarePants and Once on This Island. Florida’s own Flo Rida (get it?) stars on the Krazy Glue float, “Fun House.”

 

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

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Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

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Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

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The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

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Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

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“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.

Givin’ Up the Ghost

It’s hard not to love a holiday that involves dress up, set design, hair, makeup and sound effects. Oh, and free candy. Straz staffers offer up some of their go-to DIY tricks and treats for this weekend’s festivities.

fake blood

To make fake blood that will wash out of clothing use clear dish soap or laundry detergent and red and blue food coloring. A few drops of blue give it that dark shade closer to blood. To make fake blood that is safe to have in your mouth you can use Karo syrup and food coloring or chocolate syrup and food coloring (both stain clothing).
Vivian Rodriguez, marketing and programming assistant

 

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If you’re doing a real “scare,” it can be anything from a whisper to a loud scream (or even silence). And make an effort to not only scare the person in the front of the group, scares to the middle and behind are very effective.
Brittany Horowitz, production administrator, Patel Conservatory

 

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Here is a very easy one: you just need mason jars, gauze, googly eyes, tea lights and glue. Wrap the mason jar in gauze, then glue googly eyes and finally put the tea light inside and light it.
Deanne Hensel, customer service representative, Ticket Office

 

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Here is another easy one. All you need is cardboard toilet rolls, paint (green, orange, purple, black), scissors, and glow sticks. First draw eyes on the roll and then cut them out. Paint the color of your choice, then once it dries, add a glow stick when you are ready to set out.
Deanne Hensel, customer service representative, Ticket Office
**note: hiding these in shrubs and trees is fun for trick or treat night.

 

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If you are wearing a mask with eye holes, put make up the same color as the mask around your eyes and it will appear seamless and natural.
Jacob Zimmer, technical coordinator, Production Department

 

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If you need to grey or darken your hair for a costume, use a toothbrush to apply your select color of greasepaint to the areas of your hair that need white or color. Works especially well on short hair.
Suzanne Livesay, vice president of education

 

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With a little spirit gum, adhesive and theater makeup, you can go a long way. For a simple tutorial on using theater makeup techniques to create a stab wound, read this blog post.
Pics from the Monster Mash Makeup workshop at the Patel Conservatory

 

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

Caught in the Act gets astrophysical with Neil deGrasse Tyson in this pre-show interview about dancing, dealing with Twitter haters and why Neil won’t ever be “on brand.”

Early in October, we grabbed almost an hour of time with the fun, funny and brilliant Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson over the phone (for the record, he asked that we call him Neil). He appears at The Straz Oct. 19, this Thursday, for his talk An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper. We’re huge NdGT fans, but instead of talking all things science, we wanted to get into the general relativity of the man himself. He surprised us.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re so excited you’re coming back to The Straz for another lecture.

NEIL TYSON: I’m flattered that you didn’t get enough last time.

CITA: We’re excited you’re bringing a new show, but what we really want to talk about is you as a performer.

NT: I’m a servant of your questions.

CITA: Great! Preparing for this interview, we watched you and Chuck Nice on Cosmic Gumbo, then watched your interview with Katy Perry. You seem to be able to adjust quickly as an educator to whomever your audience is, so we wanted you to talk about how you find teaching itself to be a type of performing art.

NT: When you’re on stage, you have to keep people’s attention for however long you’re there. And people are paying money to hear you, so there’s some expectation and obligation that you’ve got to be entertaining or educating or some combination of both. Whereas, in an interview, I feel some obligation to match rhythms with the other person … to match outlook … no, to match rhythms. Otherwise, it’s a mismatch to the viewer. Every time you have a mismatch, not as much information or insight will come across in that conversation. There’s nothing more awkward or unsmooth than two people who have two different ways of communicating trying to communicate with one another. You’re wasting each other’s time, and you’re wasting our time. So, I see teaching as having to have a metaphorical tool kit. People have different literacies, different backgrounds, different energy levels, and I try to find what that is. Upon finding it, I think it’s my duty as an educator to interact in a way where the widest possible communication channels are open to that person. If it means referencing sports, if that’s a point of reference for that person, if it means referencing pop culture or TV shows or movies, that’s what I do. So, I spend some fair amount—maybe 15 percent—of my time learning what other people care about and that’s what’s it in my tool belt.

CITA: How do you go about doing this? What is it that you do to spend time learning what other people care about?

NT: I think it’s a matter of paying attention. So, if I see someone speaking to other people and trying to make an impression or teach them and I see people getting bored, I wonder: why do I see that? Was it the delivery? Was it the jargon? Was it the personality of the person delivering the information? I pay attention to that. It takes a level of socialization that most people have, but beyond that it’s just energy to think about what’s going on. If I’m being called upon to serve the interest of the public in any way at all, I might as well put in some effort to do the best job that I can in that capacity. If I do not, then I’m just being lazy. Or, I’m asking people to meet me at the chalkboard rather than have it be I who meets them on the living room couch. So, it’s simply a matter of paying attention: What is the number one show on television? Oh, I’d like to know about that. I don’t have to know every show, but I should know two or three—the characters, the plot lines, what are the other defining elements of the show. Then I have some fluency in that subject. Anyone who walks in the room walks in with a scaffolding of pop culture. If I’m talking about science and I can clad that scaffold with science, then science applied to the thing they already care about opens a communication channel like none other.

CITA: Then did you study education as well?

NT: No, it’s just that an astrophysicist spends so much energy contemplating the universe, the least I can do is spend some of that brain effort contemplating how people communicate with each other. So, I read people’s speeches, how they put their words together to create impact, to create emotion as distinct from content. So, no, I never took an education class.

CITA: What about performing arts classes? Did you ever study music, theater, dance?

NT: I was a performing member of three dance companies over the years in college.

CITA: Get out of town. Are you serious?

NT: It’s not like it was the Bolshoi. These were just college troupes, but it was done in leotards and legwarmers and this sort of thing. And so I greatly valued and continue to value the juxtaposition of strength and agility. With dance, there’s also the additional element of grace. So, dance is strength, agility and grace in this harmony like no other challenge. I did that on the side. I also wrestled. I was captain of my high school wrestling team. I continued to wrestle in college and graduate school although I wasn’t as good relative to other people—it was a whole other scale of people’s advancement and commitment. But, I enjoyed the sport immensely, the one-on-one the purity of it. I persisted through senior year. I also wrote.

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Tyson, during his dancing days.

CITA: Let’s go back to these dance companies you were in. Where these modern dance companies? Were these college ballet companies …?

NT: So, one of them was Afro-Caribbean style. One of them was competitive international Latin ballroom. I wasn’t good enough to be a soloist but definitely good enough to be on the team performance. We were eight couples performing, 16 of us on the floor performing choreographed routines in competition. The third was just called the Dance Team, and it was a combination of show tunes, ballet, modern, that sort of thing. It was more broadly conceived and executed.

CITA: We hardly ever, ever hear of anybody who has performed Afro-Caribbean style even though we have a strong Afro-Cuban culture in Tampa. So, what were you studying? Was this Afro-Cuban, was it a Chuck Davis style, was it Afro-Brazilian?

NT: It was mostly sort of basic things you would do with your body. I don’t know if was a culture specifically. When I visited South Africa early on—I’ve been there several times—I was more of a pure tourist, and we went to an indigenous culture dance day. I’m watching everyone dance and thinking, “that’s exactly what we did in Afro-Caribbean class.” A lot of that midsection undulating, and the hips and arms and shoulders, and how it comes together in a performance. So that’s what it was. My body would hurt tomorrow if I did that now.

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Tyson, during his wrestling days.

CITA: That’s fantastic. It made our entire life to know that Neil deGrasse Tyson did Afro-Caribbean dance.

NT: When I am onstage, I’m self-aware, and there’s so much more I can communicate with an audience than just my voice in the microphone. There is tonality in my voice, there is my body gestures, there is my gesticulations with my arms … all of this comes together … I’d say by the end of a talk, 2/3 came through the words I spoke and the rest is me I guess the word would be “performing” it. My words are communicating, but so is my body.

CITA: Yes. Watching your facility in conversation is really starting to make sense now that we have this information. Body awareness is not something people think about or are conscientious of or study the way dancers do. But, when you see someone who has a conscientious level of body awareness …

NT: Oh, I’m intently aware. Especially since I wrestled. You know, the body of the person you’re wrestling is everything. The bicep, the triceps … it’s sweeping a different muscle to get them to their backs. It’s a whole intense pathway of thought to reconcile what your body is relative to what you can do in a competition. So, yes, I have an acute awareness. I might have a fascination with bodies that have taken shape by the things that are unique to the performance in which they have excelled. So, the body of a football linebacker, or a prima ballerina, or the body of a marathon runner, the body of a Sumo wrestler. I’m intrigued by any and all humans with bodies that have reached the extremes of expression—all in the service of our entertainment.

CITA: Human bodies morph into expressions in which they excel. You are an astrophysicist so obsessed with and acutely aware of celestial bodies as well. Do you ever spend time in contemplation of the connection between the concept of “body,” the human body in motion, the human body comprised of motion it expels and absorbs and how that relates to astrophysics?

NT: Ah, no. Because the human body, we’re a life form on earth like all other life forms—plants, the cheetah that runs faster than any other animal, the condor whose wingspan is the largest of any bird—if you look at features of animals in the world, of plants in the world, if you take in the totality of the tree of life in the world, it’s quite a fascinating place to visit, delightfully. But, that has no direct relationship to astrophysics.

I’ve spoken metaphorically of it, recently: “when I close my eyes, I imagine the solar system with its pirouetting planets as a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity.” That is a figurative sentence of having the benefit of being literally true. Motions of the planets are induced by the forces of gravity, and all objects do pirouette. We call it rotate, but they pirouette.

CITA: We have ardent Neil deGrasse Tyson fans in Tampa. When you started out your career, did you have this end game in mind that you were going to get your degree in astrophysics and become the heartthrob celebrity that you are today?

NT: No, no not at all! It’s still not! Every day when I wake up—it might be 9.4 million Twitter followers [I have] at this moment—it’s like, do they know I’m an astrophysicist? I keep wondering “what’s going on here?” Eighty-five percent of the time you see me in public or I’m anywhere in the public eye, it’s in the service of the cosmic curiosity of an organization or individual that has asked questions. About 15% of the time it’s because I’ve written a book, and the book has marketing people attached to it and they’ll install me on a newscast or a talk show. People come up to me and say “I see you all over the place, you must have a good agent.” I say, “my agent is the Universe itself.” And then they want me to come [on their show or outlet] and comment. So, I’d be irresponsible if I did not comment. But I’m commenting as a servant of the curiosity, not because I wake up in the morning and say “how many outlets can I put my face on today?” That is not a thought that I ever have.

CITA: Right. You don’t wake up in the morning and worry about your “brand.”

NT: No, I am not a brand. [I’ll make comments and] people say to me, “I’ve told you that’s off brand,” and [I think] “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I’ve never tried to build it; I don’t even care. I’ve never even met my brand. Call it what you want, but I’m not going to constrain what I feel is what people want to hear because someone thinks it’s on or off-brand. I don’t think at all about brands. I don’t care. As I said, I’m a servant. Because I’m a servant, it’s not about brands. The only thing I push on the public, if you want to call it that, is a book I might have written.

CITA: Well, you say that, but we saw you in your interview with Chuck Nice, and he was trying so hard to get you to push your book and you wouldn’t do it.

NT: We’re using “push” in two different ways. For me, “push” means to publish it. I wrote it on my own, and now it’s an offering out there. You were thinking “push” as pushing to buy the book, when—in fact—I never tweeted about my book.

CITA: Right, right. That’s what you and Chuck were discussing. That you don’t promote your own books on your Twitter account.

NT: Right. It’s just an offering. So, I will actively write a book for the public for publication. I will actively do that, yes. But the only tweets are thoughts I’m having anyway, so I think I might as well share this; people might be interested. No point in keeping it to myself. So, then I share it. I don’t think “what am I going to tweet today,” no. It’s a thought I’m having anyway, so there it goes. Right. I don’t … I think I used a photo of my latest book in a tweet because it has a really pretty illustration.

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CITA: It’s a nice cover.

NT: But most people put all this stuff on their social media, right? Okay, all these pundits. Of course, you already know what they’re tweeting because they’re going to be telling you stuff you already know they’re going to tell you. But there are others, like comedians, who have strong followings and they’ll say “I’m going to be in St. Louis tomorrow!” I don’t tweet where I am or what I’m going to be doing. Much to the disappointment of, you know … many people [laughs]. That’s not how I use my Twitter stream. I don’t need to tell 9 million people around the world that I’m in Tampa, Florida.

CITA: So, while doing research for this interview, we got kind of angry coming across articles by people accusing you of having this sanctimonious, liberal, left-wing, “sage-on-the-stage” way of delivering information. Like you treat people as though they’re not smart enough to know what you know. But, for anyone who’s paid attention to you, and even in the course of this conversation, it’s obvious you are easy to talk to, that your desire to be a public servant is apparent. Do you care about having haters and people trolling your Twitter feed?

NT: So, there are occasional people who, um, so here’s something that happened. For a couple of years, I would tweet the kind of posts where I thought it was like a clever observation of something that I would like to share with people. There was a subset of people who reacted negatively to it, like “oh, he’s just showing off how smart he is and he’s alienating people.” And I said, “wow”—because that was not my intent, of course—and so the reactions on Twitter to things I post are highly useful swaths of information for me about how effectively I’m communicating. Or not communicating. And second, it’s not just what I get across, but what I think they’ll think if I post this; but, do they actually think this? And if they do not, I’ve failed.

CITA: You conduct it almost like a social science experiment.

NT: It’s not that that’s being done on purpose, but it is a consequence of the medium that is Twitter. I get an instantaneous, neuro-synaptic snapshot of people’s reactions to words I use, to phrases I turn. If I think something is funny and nobody gets it, I will not tweet that way anymore. This is part of the larger story of “are you really communicating with someone or are you giving a lecture.” If you’re giving a lecture, then you don’t care how they think; it’s their job to come to you at the chalkboard or whatever they use today in the classroom. If you’re communicating, then you have to cover most of the distance yourself until you are sitting next to them in their own living room and you’re talking to them like you’re right there. I don’t mind doing this when I’m called to do so.

Here’s another thing. It’s trivial, but it’s real: I used to tweet frequently about the science in movies that I saw. Some of them got famous, like newscasters would report on it, but there was a subset of people—by the way, my goal was to enhance your appreciation of the film, to see things a little more deeply; you know, they got the physics of this wrong, but they got the physics of that right—I view it as no different than if you were a costume designer, and you were like, “no, they missed the period of that costume of that Jane Austen story. That gown was designed in the 1920s not in the 1890s, so they messed that one up.” I’d be thrilled to know that! Or, if you know about cars, and there’s some movie that is set in 1955 and there’s a 1957 Chevy parked on the street, oh my gosh! You’ll never hear the end of it. So, I thought if I could bring science to that same level of analysis, people would embrace it. Most did. But, the subset that did not painted me as a killjoy, as a buzzkill, as ruining the movie for them. I thought “wow, these were thoughts I was having anyway and I don’t need to share them with you anymore.” I don’t have to do it; these are thoughts that will stay in my head. I had some with Game of Thrones, and I thought people would be really intrigued by that. You know, blue breath versus red breath in the dragons, and you have to watch the show to be able to comment on it.

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I was intrigued to learn that people thought that all I wanted to do was attack films for getting things wrong. I started to get calls from talk shows that were like “we want you to come on and talk about this movie and tell us everything that’s wrong about it.” That wasn’t my intent. They wanted to create a segment called “Tyson the Buzzkill.” So, obviously, I wasn’t communicating correctly, so I just stopped. And I don’t know how to resurrect that in a way [that would work]. But anyhow, getting back to the naysayers you’re talking about: it’s interesting to know that they’re out there. I’d say the big fraction of the cases just don’t know what they’re talking about and have a kneejerk, negative reaction. And, oh, they’re accusing me of being liberal which I think is hilarious. Holding aside the fact that I was three-times appointed by George W. Bush to serve on White House commissions in the service of that White House—holding that aside—nothing I ever post is political. Nothing. It’s factual. And if you have a political leaning that either rejects it or accepts it, you are putting a political layer on the facts that I post. I have strong political views, but I don’t publicize them. I care that you think rationally, that you’re an informed citizen—in particular, an informed voter. Quick example: a few years ago, after one of the horrific shootings, I think this one was in Connecticut—after that, I wondered if I should post something, so I did. Here’s the post: “In Wal-Mart, the world’s largest gun seller, you can buy an assault rifle, but company policy bans the sale of rock albums with curse words.”

That tweet was informationally accurate and politically neutral. But, what happened was there were people who viewed it as “he wants to take our guns away! How dare he do that!” so it became this second amendment thing. Other people said “they have the right to do that, to not put curse words in things!” And everybody chose sides, thinking I was trying to get them to do one thing or the other when it’s just contrasting policy within the same company. People think I’m being political when I simply want them to know more about what it is they’re thinking. That intrigues me, too, to realize that they’re out there. I’m just fascinated by this, this de facto sociological experiment.

This one guy, a journalist for a newspaper in Idaho, he had a column. The column was called “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Horse’s Astrophysicist.”

CITA: Really?

NT: The column gave all these reasons for why I was a horse’s astrophysicist: “liberal scientist blah blah blah blah blah, and he wants us to believe this, and Neil Tyson that.” And, he’s sort of trying to appeal to all his conservative, Trump [followers] …

CITA: Of course, staying “on message.”

NT: On yeah, staying on point, right, exactly. So I was like, “should I reply to this guy?” But it’s a newspaper, right? Not some solo blogger, so, alright, I’ll reply. So, I wrote back, line by line. And I said, “you say I’m liberal, but I actually worked for George W. Bush and he was pretty happy with what I contributed. Plus, there’s no evidence anywhere that I’m liberal, so I just don’t know where you got this information. Second, by the way, I practically said I’m not an atheist. Here’s a video of me saying that. I think of myself more of an agnostic. I don’t know where you got that [idea I’m atheist]—what are your sources?” He also said, “I don’t know if Tyson is a good scientist or not. I don’t think he is.” I said, “Google Scholar: you can learn about this. There’s a whole branch of Google where, if you type in search, it goes to peer reviewed articles. Here’s a link to all my research there.” I was very polite and kind about it. His last comment was that I treated a 9-year-old girl badly when she asked if there would ever be life on Jupiter: “the real reason you’re an ass is because you tweeted back disrespectfully to her,” and he points to a tweet with my name on it responding “how can you think anyone can live in a gas cloud? Go back to school.” And I said, “you know, I looked back on the date on that tweet, and here’s what I actually tweeted that day. It was some stupid comment about a movie that I’d seen. So, I have no idea where you got that tweet. It seems to me you didn’t double check your sources. By doing so, you abrogated your journalistic integrity.” And it turns out he got the tweet from Clickhole, which is a joke site akin to The Onion. So, I wrote this whole rebuttal and posted it. Even his conservative friends said [to him], “you asshole, don’t you know Clickhole is a joke site? How could you possibly cite that?” And everybody jumped all over him. He resigned his position from the newspaper. It’s an interesting story. He resigned his position but he still has his conservative talk show on radio, but he resigned his position because the forces against him … people who had respect for him previously just lost all respect for him.

CITA: Did you title your rebuttal “So-and-So is a Real Horse’s Clickhole”?

NT: No … when I’m being right, I don’t need to name-call. I just said “oh, by the way, you said I’m a real horse’s astrophysicist—I see what you did there!” complimenting him for his wordplay. I don’t mind being called a horse’s ass if I actually did something to justify it. But everything he listed, I never did. I don’t mind being somebody’s horse’s ass, but let it be based in reality and not something you’ve invented. That was the thrust of my reply.

CITA: For a talk like An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, how do you prepare with such a chaotic, revolving news cycle like the one happening now?

NT: Oh, so I will go back. It’s not like this week’s news. More broadly, it’s news stories that triggered thoughts I have that I thought you might be interested in and my reaction to it. I go back several years for some of these news stories, but if I came back and did the talk again I’d have fresh news. I will go back maybe three or four years and have stories that you probably missed, but I dug them out and kept them. They’ll have something to do with science literacy or the absence of science literacy in the world. So, it will sensitize you about what it is like to read the paper through the lens of an astrophysicist and an educator.

CITA: Great, that clears that up. Look, we can’t wait to see you soon.

NT: Tell everybody thanks for having me back again.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson appears Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Morsani Hall. Need tickets? Get them while you can.

Stay Savvy and Be Art Smart

How to avoid online ticket scams. The lowest-priced tickets *always* come from strazcenter.org.

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strazcenter.org is the ONLY official online ticket seller to Straz Center performances.

Straz Center season tickets are about to go on sale to the public. We feel it’s our duty to remind you to buy straight from our website if you want the lowest ticket prices. The other websites look legit, but they’re tricking you into paying sometimes hundreds of dollars more for a single ticket. It’s a simple scam, and one our audience members fall for year after year. We try to combat this fraud, but we can’t succeed without you being aware of what’s happening.

Strazcenter.org is the only official online ticket seller to performances in our halls. Anywhere else online will be a scalping scam.

The names look real, and theirs are usually the first and foremost to pop up on an internet search for “Book of Mormon tickets” or “tickets Phantom of the Opera” or “tickets to Straight No Chaser.” They are names like tampatickets.com, carolmorsanihall.com, and even strazcentertickets.com. These companies target unsuspecting buyers who click on whatever websites show up first after an internet search – usually the “sponsored ads” that look almost identical to a search result.

Right now, these types of sites are deceiving Straz Center patrons about ticket prices, availability and seat locations. Unfortunately, many Straz Center patrons have been fooled by such scalping scams that run rampant on the internet.

“The leading factor is haste,” says LeeAnn Douglas, digital marketing director at the Straz Center, who sees first-hand the evidence of ticket brokers buying our tickets under several accounts, reselling them online (or selling the same seats to several people) and then hearing the complaints about ticket prices being too expensive or the anger of customers who have been taken in by online scalpers.

“The easiest way to see that our tickets are being scalped is to search Google for an show’s name plus tickets and Tampa and various ticket brokers’ Google ads will pop up. It’s true especially for the blockbuster shows. Click on any one of these ads and you can see that these brokers are selling tickets at three and four times the actual price,” she says.

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A screenshot of the results the pop up when you search “motown tickets tampa.” Our official website (outlined in red) shows up after four ads from ticket brokers.

The ticket broker business of buying performance tickets and reselling them online at four and five times the value tallies millions of lost dollars for patrons and the local economy each year.

Because most of these brokers work remotely in other states and sell tickets from as many venues as they can – not just the Straz Center – the fraudulent resell of tickets results in dollars derailed into other states and patrons taking a hard blow to the pocketbook.

Arts and entertainment patrons, who are unaware that these “ticket brokers” pose as allies of the venue yet, in reality, are poaching and price-gouging tickets, unwittingly contribute to keeping the scalping rings in business. “I had a friend text me that she wanted to see Il Divo but the tickets were too expensive,” LeeAnn says. “When I asked her to send me the link, I could see right away that she wasn’t on our site. I redirected her to strazcenter.org, and she was very happy because she was able to get orchestra seats for a quarter of the price the ticket broker was asking. In the end, she got great seats with a VIP package from our website for the same price that she would have paid a ticket broker for nosebleed seats.”

With the sheer number of brokers nationwide running these companies, it is impossible for the Straz Center to stop them from buying tickets.

But it is possible – and simple and easy – for patrons to stop supporting these businesses. “We need to educate the buying public on how to avoid buying from a broker,” says LeeAnn. “Instead of automatically clicking the top search result, which is always a paid advertisement, they need to make sure they take a moment to look at the search results and find the Straz Center’s official site. Or better yet, bookmark one of the Straz Center’s websites [www.strazcenter.org or https://shop.strazcenter.org], and then any time they want to buy a ticket for one of our events, there is no need to perform a search at all.”

So, if you purchase tickets online, make sure you, your family and friends use strazcenter.org. Otherwise, you will be overpaying to scalpers without even knowing it.

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This is how the Straz Center’s official website, strazcenter.org, appears on a mobile device.

The Straz Center and its arts and entertainment allies continue efforts to fight on behalf of our patrons. A $300 ticket to a Broadway show from a broker could pay for dinner, an overnight hotel stay and a show at the Straz Center price – all money nourishing our local businesses and economy.

The Straz Center’s mission is to inspire audiences and artists to dream and discover, to create and celebrate, and part of our commitment is to make sure audiences know the truth about consumer issues in the arts.

Please help us spread the word about buying tickets directly from our website as we prepare for another spectacular season of performing arts. This way, we can all stay savvy and be art smart.

Frogmen Trainer Becomes Prince to Little Mermaids

The true tale of a dream that could only happen in Florida.

In a certain well-known story playing at The Straz this July, a certain red-headed mermaid desperately wants to become human. In Florida, however, there are certain humans who desperately want to become mermaids.

And, because this is Florida, they can.

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“Mermaid Taylor” image courtesy of Andrew Brusso.*

One hour north of Morsani Hall burbles and gurgles one of the greatest, most famous natural wonders in all of Florida, the glorious Weeki Wachee springs. That’s saying something considering this state also harbors the Everglades, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, as well as supports the motley assortment of wild panthers, bear, boar, alligators, pythons, manatees, crocodiles, sawfish and bison in the same state. Yet, Weeki Wachee resides, funneling 117 million gallons of cool spring water every day from depths so extreme the bottom has never been found.

So, it should feel somewhat appropriate that, in 1949, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II looked out across the evocative, blue expanse of Weeki Wachee springs and said something like, “hey, I bet I can build an underwater theater and have a mermaid show.”

This man, Newton Perry, cleared the rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars from the spring, built an 18-seat theater in the lime rock six feet underwater, then launched what would become one of the hottest tourist spots in the nation only a few years later, thanks to the corps of pretty girls in bikini tops and shimmering, half-body tails. In the 1950s, Florida was miles upon miles of expansive wilderness threaded with a handful of dirt roads – almost the opposite of what we see today – but the allure of a teenager in a bullet-bra bathing costume eating a banana underwater drew carloads of curious tourists to the underwater marvel.

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Mermaids took ballet classes to improve their performance in the water in 1960 (L) and Elvis Presley’s visit to the park in 1961 (R). Check out more historical photos on Weeki Wachee’s Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings.

Perry figured out how to hide slender breathing tubes amid the underwater scenery so the performers could have access to air during the run of their shows and stunts. The mermaids did not (and do not) have an easy job despite appearances and air tubes. In a current sometimes strong enough to knock off a cinched SCUBA mask, holding their own and holding their breath while creating the illusion of gliding and floating gently through enchanting waters requires the strength, stamina and skill of a competitive athlete.

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Susan Backlinie, known for her role as Chrissie Watkins, the first victim in Jaws, is a former Weeki Wachee mermaid. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

In the sixties, American Broadcast Company (ABC) bought the spring, tipping the scales toward international fame. They upgraded to a 400-seat theater and made the attraction a bonafide springs-and-mermaids theme park. Whereas the Weeki Wachee mermaids had been local gals, under the ABC banner women from around the world auditioned for the show of a lifetime as a swirling, twirling mermaid performing eight sold out shows a day. During this heyday, Weeki Wachee boasted 35 mermaids on the payroll, with many of them living in special mermaid cottages on site. They were, and some argue still are, Florida royalty.

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Buccaneer Bay Waterpark, located inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

Today, Weeki Wachee springs exist as a state park, full of family-friendly activities – including the beloved, often sold-out daily mermaid shows. They have a full roster of mermaids and two princes that you can read about online if you want current information. If you have a little starfish who needs to practice writing and penmanship skills, the mermaids and princes are happy to receive Tail Mail letters from fans and the mer-curious (under 17 years old only, though). Weeki Wachee holds junior mermaid camps, too, and even a “Sirens of the Deep” adult mermaid camp for those people who want to unleash their inner merperson. That’s the upside. The downside is that the camps for both little and big humans are sold out through October 2017.

After 70 years, Newton Perry’s post-war Florida mermaid dream still ignites the imagination and affirms a more uplifting, charmingly literal interpretation of “swimming with the fishes.”

Thus, common Jamaican crab wisdom holds: it is better, down where it’s wetter.

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*New York-based photographer Andrew Brusso grew up on Anna Maria Island. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Surfer, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Golf Digest and other notable publications. He joined the 2008 effort to save Weeki Wachee springs by photographing the mermaids pro bono for a fundraising calendar. He’s been photographing them for the annual calendar ever since. To see his extraordinary work, visit andrewbrusso.com.