After the subway: the hardships of New York’s young ‘showtime’ performers
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As the number of performers on the New York subway grows, so does passengers’ intolerance for loud and sprawling "showtime" acts. But despite their jaunty demeanour, a new documentary reveals the hardships beyond the subway for some young dancers.
“This is begging without words,” 20-year-old performer ‘Forty’ tells director James Burns in his short film, “We Live This,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week.
Forty is homeless and desperate not to return to what he describes as “the certified hustle”. Brought up in a volatile family situation, he dropped out of high school early and spends each day figuring out where to sleep. But on the subway, as he and his co-dancers hang, swing, and twist on the bars with impeccable precision, his confidence is convincing. “This is panhandling,” he says, “but it’s “begging with a smile, not with a frown”.
He’s part of a group called ‘We Live This,’ (the film is named after them), who Burns follows on and off the trains in their quest for money, acknowledgement, and ultimately, fame.
Some five years into the city’s showtime phenomenon, the group faces daily conflict with both rival dancers (there may be more than a thousand dancers competing in the city) and fed-up commuters, who have grown increasingly tired of the performers, some of them openly expressing their frustration.
Furthermore, over the past year the police have ramped up arrests of dancers while the New York train authority, the MTA, has targeted showtime dancers in their latest courtesy campaign (which also chides applying make-up, sitting with your legs wide apart and not letting people off the train first. “Poles are for your safety, not for your latest routine,” the poster reads.
But for dancers like Forty, Tyty, Ted and Khalil, their lives depend on their “latest routine”. Aged between 14 and 20 and with little or no financial aid from parents or elders, what can make them up to $150 on a good day (and $20 on a bad one), is worth risking occasional arrest for.
“I’ve got to change my life around because nobody’s going to help me but myself,” says Tyty, whose father is in prison. Fourteen-year-old Khalil's father is also incarcerated.
Burns, whose own father was absent and spent time himself in jail from a young age, decided to make the film after watching subway passengers grow increasingly annoyed by the young dancers.
“People in New York are on the grind, they have tunnel vision on the train, they’re thinking about their next destination, what they need to do,” he told FRANCE 24 in an interview on Thursday. “I don’t think they think about these kids as much as they perhaps should. I wanted to find out who they are when they're off of the train.”
While he recognises the city’s safety concerns (although the MTA has never released any statistics on performance-led accidents and mishaps are rarely heard of), Burns believes that jailing performers, even overnight, is “a little aggressive”.
“These kids are incredibly talented, they train intensively and they’re very supportive of each other – there's a lot of heart there” he said. "They also have a pretty amazing system down, they know what times are the best, which trains to catch, which days... it's very efficient".
‘The train is a trap’
Forty says that performing on the subway keeps him from resorting to petty crime. But while the boys dream of making dancing their career, few are known to have made it off the subway.
“In a way the train is a way out because it gets them out of the streets,” Burns said. “It’s a positive thing and they’re doing what they love. But on the other hand it’s a trap, because at the end of the day they’re performing on the subway for peanuts. And they’re also having to worry about being arrested for it.”
As police continue their crackdown and commuters grow increasingly hostile to the dancers, Burns said the group is “very aware of the negative attention”.
“People have their own problems, their own lives,” says Forty in the film. “I don’t want to cut into people’s lives because mine’s unfortunate. “The crowd shouldn’t know what you’re going through.
“But, I want to do this, I should do this, I need to do this. This is what’s going to take me further than underground.”
“It’s hard because these are kids who already feel alienated,” Burns said. “That’s what makes them so wonderful, that they’re resilient: no matter what people say, they’ll go out, get back on the train.”