Art, body, community, Creativity, Fitness, Music

Fan Dancer

Back in March, we knew it would be a little while. Night clubs shuttered along with gyms, studios, and all the rest of public life. No contra dancing at the Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom on Friday nights. No proximity to my absolutely favorite Zumba teacher at the rec center on Saturday mornings. We’d have to figure something out. For this old gal, keeping the spirit intact means movement. Dance is as much a necessity as toilet paper and reliable wifi.

The irony was clear from the beginning: the businesses keeping their doors open were not ones I wanted to support. A few of my more savvy Zumba instructors went virtual, offering Zoom workouts at no cost a couple days a week. It was oddly comforting to catch a  glimpse into the kitchens and living rooms of people I’d only seen at the gym. I felt less alone in my own mess, swinging my hips in the tiny rectangle of space carved out in a condo which absorbed schoolroom, office, and the entire universe of entertainment options on two days notice last March.

That little while stretched into weeks. Then months.

I was definitely going to need new ways to dance.

Twice weekly Zoom Zumba is fine in a pinch, but a pinch is an impossible posture to sustain. Being inside cannot equal being stuck, not when it is already so hard to breathe. When the kid was at his dad’s and the partner at his home office, I started expanding the search.

The virtual world offers up dance options that blow past borders and time zones. Instructors in Puerto Rico and New Zealand are leading sessions. On beaches. In gardens. Classes in giant warehouses. I stumbled upon songs I’d never heard before, or songs I had heard before put to new choreography . I returned to old Kazaxe videos from the Millennium Stage when a serious sweat was needed. PopSugar videos which my co-workers had raved about. Mike Peele’s Hip Hop Fitness. The upbeat and pan-African Kukuwa Fitness. BollyX. French Afro-Vibe instructors Doris Martel and Maryam Kaba. Tahiti Dance Fitness.

And then I found the TML crew.

Or the TML Crew found me, thanks to Google’s creepy-crawly algorithm. In any event, I clicked.

Somewhere between that day last March and now, I became a fangirl.

The general format is cute dudes in almost-matching T-shirts + pop tune + synchronized choreography + a tiny bit of camera energy to make it interesting. Nothing ingenious. Once I started dancing to TML Crew, I couldn’t stop. Every of those pretty faces radiates delight, as if each dancer wants nothing more than to be doing body rolls in sync for 3 ½ minutes with thousands of internet strangers. 

I started doing body rolls in sync with them. A few songs. Then a few songs a few days a week. Then sometimes 5 or 6 days a week. 

For 11 months. I’ve learned close to 100 dances. And counting.

TLM Crew is a dance group of young men based in the Philippines led by Mark Kramer Pastrana. Some of them used to be — maybe still are — quasi-breakdancers. The exact number of dudes in the crew varies. The core is about seven: Mark, Fritz, Jay, Alan, John, Paulo, and Maverick. Others show up regularly, like Carlo and Gio and Reysan and Rain.

The influences are Zumba-adjacent: Salsa, Bachata, Reggaeton, Cumbia, Merengue. They might drop belly-dance moves into K-Pop song that’s become a viral TikTok hit. They are millennial and GenZ, brand-savvy and hustling. They promote on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. They lead live sessions at shopping malls. They create videos. They stream paid classes for $10US a pop. They have merch for sale, though not much — T-shirts with their logo. And wristwatches.

Not since my teenage obsession with the Grateful Dead (yes, my friends, 13 live shows in 6 states) has star-struck adoration been my MO. The filmmakers, theorists, podcasters, and comic franchises on which so many of my friends geek out fail to capture my attention. Fatigue and strained bandwidth have merged into indifference, and the best I can manage most days is to engage creation but not creator. I am often too taxed by work and parenting to go the next step, to learn about the source. 

Cases in point: I devour everything by N.K. Jemisin but it would never occur to me to attend her book talk. I’m only vaguely aware of an actual songwriter hidden behind the lyrics I belt out while making dinner. My mind can barely retain the name of even one of the in-the-flesh humans who dance next to me in the actual Zumba classes I have been taking at the same place and time. For years.

Yet I am definitely an emerging TML superfan. Who’s who in the video when a new TML choreo drops? I can tell you instantly. I have my faves (Jay Laurente has excellent moves; Fritz Tibay is a giant goof who loves to wiggle). Kramer, the mastermind of the whole brand, he’s got a little grin, a signature head wobble. He flirts with the audience. He winks. He gives us smoldering looks then sticks out his tongue with a grin. I love it all, basking in a performance it’s easy to imagine he is enjoying this as much as I am.

Check out that head wobble at 1:44

Here’s what this fangirl has learned: TML Crew has made over 300 videos. The oldest choreography on the TML Crew YouTube channel is an amateur video from June 2017.

Mark Kramer and Fritz Tibay are clearly getting a kick out of the whole thing. You can almost imagine these breakdancing buddies kicking back with San Miguels on the front porch. 

“You know how we can make bank?”

“How?”

“Zumba.”

“What? You’re tripping.”

“No, listen. Hear me out. The Zumba ladies are legion.”

“Zumba ladies? You mean like my mom and her friends at the gym?”

“Yes. And every one of of those ladies is paying.”

June 2017, the earliest Kramer/Tibay choreo appearing on the TML YouTube channel

However it happened, the Zumba ladies ATE IT UP. TML crew is an international sensation. Mark Kramer Pastrana’s TML Crew Youtube channel has 1.72 million subscribers and over 480 million views. At some of the live events, it looks like they’re leading an entire aircraft hangar full of rapturous women.

Here’s what else this fangirl has learned: Synchronized movement holds power. It may tap into a psychological need for connection to a group, and synchronous movement is somehow tied to the strength of relationships. The TML Crew dopamine release I am experiencing is a global phenomenon. You can find TML fan pages based in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan. Along with their core crew, they have spinoff crews, including a group in Vietnam. Back when it was safe to tour, the crew performed to Lycra-clad crowds in dozens of countries, including Dubai, Myanmar, the UK, Hong Kong, and Brunei. They partner up for performative rivalries with other dance crews. Despite this international fandom, there is not, as far as I can tell, a single article or bio published in English. And you know I’ve been looking.

Here’s another thing this fangirl has learned: Yes, every artist claims to love their fans. Symbiosis between creator and consumer generates sales. Or shows. Or albums. Or publications. I’m not fooling myself that I’m anything more than one click in a nameless collective. TML Crew dudes don’t know they have a fangirl out here in the suburbs of Washington DC, an almost-50-year-old mom working from home and bopping around her living room with them. Yet none of this rational understanding makes me any less appreciative, any less delighted when their groove unlocks mine. The mere existence of Kramer and his crew gives me a thrill.

Sometimes Fritz gets to headline

Here is what this fangirl has not learned: Anything, really, about the actual people in the crew. They could all be misogynistic homophobic assholes as easily as they could be radical antifascist feminist vegans. Most of the TML Crew videos end with text across the sky, “To God Be The Glory,” and at least Kramer identifies publicly as a Christian. But what does that tell us? 

Fans live in the tension between creation, creator, and appreciator. We want our artists, these public beings with opaque private lives, to be decent people. But we also have to practice decency ourselves by engaging with the art and avoiding the urge to burrow into their personal stories without their consent. We also have to leave some room for forgiveness of transgressions (up to a point) when they don’t live up to our fantasy projections of who we want them to be.

Every so often, TML Crew members post videos from their own houses, like this 30-minute workout. Tangled cords are visible spilling out from behind the TV, jammed-together couches, family photos, a car in a cluttered garage. A year into this pandemic, and I am still finding comfort when I peek into people’s lives. I also know I’m not owed any greater access than what they offer willingly.

Being a TML Crew fangirl is a study in contradictions. The language barrier exacerbates the odd sense of opposing perceptions. One the one hand, the choreography is accessible. There is no dance prerequisite for joining in. On the other hand, accessibility is a tricky term, because there is also something troubling about the sameness of the crew members: slim, able-bodied, pretty-faced, young, light-skinned Filipino dudes. 

On yet another hand (how many hands we got here?) a group of young men dancing together disrupts gender norms even while reinforcing them. Sashes and cutoff jeans, crotch-grabbing and belly undulations, wrist twirls and pelvic thrusts. Even if the TML Crew is ostensibly a group of straight guys — who knows? — could LGBTQA+ Asian folks be hiding in plain sight? Does the very existence of the crew expand the options for the anonymous fanboys in places where maybe it isn’t so safe to shimmy in a pink tie-dye? It’s quite possible, despite their politics or ideologies, they are opening up little pockets of creative possibility in living rooms all over the world.  

They are for me.

Whether or not connection is their mission, their project creates connection. Maybe that’s why it feels like I’m somehow part of this thing that’s happening 13 hours and 14,000 km away. I may be the only one in my neighborhood watching them, but I am one of over a million around the world. Even with the revenue hit from cancelled tours and scaled-back live events, these dudes are continuing to bring us fan folks — wherever we are — the dance. They keep us moving. In sync, 3 ½ minutes at a time. A little less alone for a little bit longer.

Jay’s got moves for sure!

2 thoughts on “Fan Dancer”

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