Last September, 22-year-old Kingston University student Scott Carthy sat at his laptop in his London apartment and watched a YouTube video of New York City’s subway dancers for the first time.
In the grainy, poorly lighted video, young men hung upside down from the car’s overhead railings. They whipped their long bodies around the metal poles. Every movement synced with the beats blaring from their boom box.
Above ground, and more than 3,000 miles away, Carthy saw this “Showtime” subway ritual — as familiar as a “Seinfeld” rerun to any New Yorker — with the fresh, forgiving eyes of a tourist. Their feats of strength and grace mesmerized Carthy, as did their unflinching confidence.
Six months later, Carthy touched down in New York City for production on a documentary-film project. When he boarded a subway for the first time, two men posing as brothers entered the car and bellowed the two words that send thunderbolts of social anxiety through local passengers.
Watching the live dancers, and the riders whose eyes glazed over or rolled, persuaded Carthy to direct a short film that captured the art of their performances. The result is “1050.6(c),” a seven-minute video that champions this immensely rich subculture.
Coincidentally, Carthy’s interest piques at a time when subway dancers are desperately in need of a champion.
Cracking Down On A Subway Subculture
Five and a half million people ride New York City’s subway rails every day. Commuting on the N line over the Manhattan Bridge during rush hour is hot, crowded, and sometimes smelly.
It’s an unforgiving environment for the subway dancers, who seem to elicit equal amounts of dread and admiration from their fellow passengers. But whether you see them as a nuisance or performers earning a livelihood, the New York City Police Department is taking a renewed stance against this subway subculture.
Section 1050.6 (c) of the New York City Transit Rules of Conduct states that performers are free to use the subway stations as their stage but cannot operate in the cars themselves. Last year, two dancers were charged under this section, NBC New York reported.
Forty-six subway dancers have been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment since January, an NYPD spokesman said in April. Another 50 dancers with less flashy tricks (essentially those who keep their feet on the ground), have been charged with the lesser count of disorderly conduct.
In total, subway panhandling and peddling arrests are up 271% year over year with 371 arrests in 2014, compared to 100 by this period in 2013, according to NBC.
The sharp increase appears to be rooted in a quality of life campaign helmed by newly minted Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
Bratton, who cut his teeth in New York City tackling subway crime, was brought up on the broken-windows theory of policing: Crack down on small but highly visible crimes of disorder such as turnstile jumping, prostitution, and vandalism, and rates of more serious crimes will fall as well. Panhandling falls into this low-level crime category.
It’s an approach Mayor Bill de Blasio firmly believes in.
Still, the freshman mayor has insisted there is no such “crackdown,” despite the documented spike in arrests in the first few months of his tenure. In an interview with WNYC radio-show host Brian Lehrer in March, he argued that the arrests are made on a case-by-case basis and are consistent with both “the notion of protecting public safety and recognising that we’re trying to build a different relationship between police and community.”
Looking Through A New Lens
With the risk of retribution higher than ever, subway dancers may be able stave off the arrest spree if they can harness support from their fellow riders: the residents of New York City.
And Carthy, the student-filmmaker, has a plan.
When Carthy first encountered New York’s subway dancers — in that YouTube video last fall — he noticed that most of the related videos in YouTube’s vast catalogue were filmed on iPhones. The resulting footage was grainy, poorly lighted, and appeared to have been uploaded almost instantaneously.
“It’s brutal, it’s quick, it kind of desensitizes people,” Carthy said.
He got the idea to slow down the process and shoot a creative, professional-looking video with high-grade equipment and a director’s eye.
“When you see how long [their bodies] are, how far they can go around the poles, things like that, that’s when you can see it as a proper art form,” Carthy said. “People will appreciate it differently … It’s nice to potentially go somewhere and say, ‘This could be something else, through film.'”
Hanging With The Talent
Armed with his Canon EOS 7D camera, a stabilizer, and a high-end lens he rented from a photography shop for a couple hundred bucks, Carthy exited the subway at 34th Street — Herald Square. That’s where he met his guys, Junior and Shariffe.
The young men eyed the subway stairs, waiting for a rush of passengers to exit. They performed small tricks and hollered to build hype. A crowd began to gather.
Carthy approached and asked if he could film them. Junior and Shariffe didn’t mind because people filmed them all the time.
Carthy knew that if these two dancers were to grant him inside access to their world of busking, he needed to show them how he worked and how serious he was. “I’ve discovered that they really don’t know what you can potentially do for them,” Carthy said. “So I went home and edited the footage into a 30-second clip.” He layered music over the video and synced the product to his phone.
He returned to Herald Square the next day to find them dancing, jumping, and joking. He approached again, more sheepishly this time, and showed the clip on his phone. “I said, ‘I’m here till Sunday. If you give me two days, we can do a film,” Carthy said. They were more than interested.
Over 10 hours, he followed Junior and Shariffe through the subway tunnels, over bridges, onto rooftops, and in the streets. When the camera was recording, they carried on with their routine and Carthy tried hard not to interfere.
He also developed a deeper sense of appreciation for their showmanship. They entered the subway car with incredible courage. There was a greeting to the people, a script, cues, and a back story.
“You go to see a [Broadway] show, you’re watching actors. Here, you’re watching dancers get into a persona for the show. It’s the exact same, they’re performing,” Carthy said. “They’re not going to come out and say, ‘Hi, I’m John. I dance a little.'” They come out blazing and introduce themselves as brothers. “It’s all part of it.”
Deciding For Yourself
During the shoot, Carthy noticed the enthusiasts and the dissidents. “Some people are so surprised by it and they clap and cheer. But there are other people who are, like, ‘Ugh, this is happening again.'”
He said he gets it. Some people see it every day of the week. They just want to keep their head in a book. But at the very least he can foster a discussion.
Performing in the subway cars is illegal. And while Carthy refuses to outwardly take sides, he expresses his concern for the potential extinction of this meaningful and historic subculture. If the people of New York channeled their voices in defence of these performers, would it carry some influence in the mayor’s office? Could it stave off more arrests and prevent the art from being abolished? These are questions Carthy wants people in Europe, the U.S., and around the world to ask.
The final version of his video, named for the section that bans dancing in the subway cars, already has more than 6,500 views on Vimeo and coverage from numerous culture blogs.
To expand the conversation he plans to shoot another film. He’s launched a Kickstarter project to help fund his return trip to New York City. Donations will go toward costs associated with equipment rental, video production, and screenings. One of the blogs that posted his first video plans to digitally premiere the sequel.
And whether this film or the next incites change in this New York City controversy, Carthy is satisfied knowing he accomplished his most important goal: to preserve the art.
The crackdown has rattled the community, and one of his subjects recently informed him he no longer dances on the trains. Even as one of the most talented underground performers in the city, it’s too risky, Carthy said. And few of his friends still do.
“Part of the idea of this project was, just in case [subway dancing disappears entirely], we can have this in 10-year’s time — an honest representation of what happened,” Carthy said. “This will be one last glimpse of a subculture that will more than likely cease to exist very soon.”
Watch Carthy’s video in full and decide for yourself: Should subway dancing be banned in New York City’s subway cars?
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