Art Culture

Busking Bumbershoot

| February 25, 2022 | 0 Comments
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Oh, sweet Bumbershoot. Bumbershoot is a homegrown Seattle classic, a three-day summer arts and music festival encompassing all of Seattle Center (you know, where the Space Needle reigns supreme). I rocked out to Kings of Leon, nodded my head to Sage Francis, and got my groove on to Zap Mama. But the best part of the day was when I took off my Adidas, threw on a dance skirt, and for the first time tried my hand (well, my feet) at busking the streetcorner.

The ancient art of being a busker (a good U.K. word) involves performing your artistic trade on sidewalks, in public squares, and by coffee shops, in the hope of getting a few dollar bills thrown into your hat before you are shooed away. It can be a thankless job. It can also be a real joy.

bumbershoot busking

Here are some general busking guidelines:

  • Begin by finding a good spot.Populated, but not too crowded. Well lit, and not too noisy. A place where people are passing through is good
  • Put on your performance gear.It will not do to be wearing your shlummy street clothes. People want to be transported. Like a living statue (and what a career choice that is) they want to feel that you are somewhat magical.
  • Put down an upside down hat or open music case in obvious proximity.Throw in a few dollars – “seed money” – so your audience won’t be afraid about giving the first ones to give you a one, a five, heck, maybe a ten dollar bill.
  • Now work your trade.But take it easy. You will be here for a while, and your audience will be drifting in and out, so don’t exhaust yourself.

The more practiced your shtick, the better. In the Gran Plaza in Madrid, I saw a magician and juggler who worked a comedic bilingual show and gathered scores of people willing to give him a half hour of their night and few of their euro-dollars. He had been doing his act for twenty years.

I’m a dancer, and so I’ve never had the gumption to dance on the street corner before. It’s too revealing, I thought, my body too on display, too objectified, and standing, twirling, stomping alone there I would be unsafe. But on Bumbershoot day two, I was with my old friend and collaborative partner, a klezmer violinist named Craig, who has fiddled his way up and down the cobblestone streets of Europe. We’ve performed together a lot, and lately we’ve been trying our hand at klezmer (jewish) and flamenco (gypsy) fusion. So we threw down a straw hat, he picked up his bow and I my castanets, and there on the street we, two barefoot gypsy-style broke liberal-arts-grads, broke it down for all to see.

I swirled. I stomped. He bowed furiously. We worked too hard at first, and to little effect. We were dripping sweat and we realized we had chosen a poor location. People weren’t circulating through, and those who were there were watching the larger stage in the distance. One man recorded us on his digital camera. He came up to us and told us he was with the press, and asked us some questions. This, for some reason, meant he did not have to throw us a buck. We received, in total, one dollar bill and four quarters for our efforts.

We regrouped and tried again on a corner where people would be passing from Andrew Bird to Devendra Banhart or to Zap Mama, or on their way out of the festival. We were near a merry-go-round but too far away for its tinkly music to be audible. We threw down our hat and some seed money. I broke out my big red flamenco shawl with long fringe, which makes a very exciting swirl in the air. We took it easy this time. A few passers-by smiled and called out ole! as they walked by. I made eye contact with as many as I could, but I always turned back to Craig, to the pull of the violin, to the rhythm of my swirling shawl and flipping skirt. I began to realize I didn’t need to sweat. I could just turn in circles, do an occasional showy flip of the shawl, and make marking steps in time to the beat. Occasionally, I burst into footwork, when I felt the heat rising up in me. There was none of the pressure nor the formality of a stage performance.

A couple dropped a few dollars in our hat and then sat down right there on the street to watch. As soon as they did, another group stopped on their way out of the park. I watched their enraptured faces as I turned and flipped with the shawl, as the music bounced and cried, and when we finished, they all burst into applause. I made a little bow, and they thanked us for giving them the perfect finish to their evening. I felt glad, but also a little silly, since I had been taking it so easy.

We made $15 bucks for 20 minutes of music and dance, which is sweet. But it was split two ways. At a festival it cost $35 to enter. Using my $160,000 liberal arts education in dance and performance. So it goes. I double majored in writing too, and now, look, I’m busking for you, on the internet. Here’s my hat. Now look at me go!

Ba-da-ba-dum-dum-dum! Woo!

Category: Contemporary Art

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