Word Play Combinations, Metaphor and Mimesis: Janelle Ginestra's "7 Rings" and a Few of my Favorite Things
In her choreography for the song "7 Rings," choreographer Janelle Ginestra plucks "lashes" from Ariana Grande's sung list of favourite things and places her hands above her eyes, palms out and fingers splayed, fanning them down and back up to the forehead like a two-syllable blink. Played out over six groups in the course of this class video,1 this and other moments of word play affirm the choreographer's connection to the music and to Hip-Hop dance praxis, while through the use of repetition and camera close-ups specific to this screendance genre, the viewer gets to play along. Through the use of this compositional tool, class videos become expressions of fandom, promoting the recording artists whose songs they use while also showcasing choreographers and dancers. In this analysis, movements directly connected to the lyrics of the song can be seen as moves to cement the connection between the choreography and the song and, by extension, the choreographer and the musician.
Close interaction with the music, particularly the lyrics, at multiple levels of mimesis and metaphor is a definitive component of Choreo Hip-Hop2 as a movement genre and class videos as a screendance genre.3 Frequent Ginestra collaborator WilldaBeast Adams calls this choreographic mode "word play,"4 a term which has a long tradition in Afro-diasporic creative practices.5 Choreo inherits this approach from promotional popular screendance beginning with the innovations in the vocal choreography of Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins, who used lyric-based mimetic movement with popular steps to highlight the music.6 This led to televised live performance choreography on Soul Train and to music video choreography. Through this indebtedness, word play Choreo highlights the choreographers' and dancers' attentiveness, creativity and humour in relation to the given song, emphasising the song's characteristics.
Word play in choreography also derives from Hip-Hop's freestyle mode, where rhythmic and lyrical matching demonstrates musical and cultural competence. It likely developed first historically in improvisation, which is often how it is first encountered by individuals. In her solo freestyle in "7 Rings," dancer Audrey Lane comes out of floorwork to stillness, pointing three times in a semicircle, hitting the rhythm as well as the meaning as Grande sings, "They say, 'Which one?' I say, 'Nah, I want all of 'em." As with choreographers, in these moments, dancers show knowledge of the music, generic expectations and cues as well as their skill to make compositional choices that are not only quick but clever too.
Class videos emphasise the music's attributes while also highlighting the skill of the choreographer as defined within the community of practice's aesthetic values. There are many kinds of word play in Choreo combinations, often related to the level of metaphor in the lyrics. When acts or objects mentioned are literal, the gestures that accompany them may be directly mimetic. For example, when accompanying "I write what I sing," the dancers scrawl across the air in front of their bodies before bringing their hands to their faces, fists holding invisible mics up to their mouths. Other times, movement might be referential but novel, as in the shot highlighted in this essay. Ginestra's choreography for the lyric "lashes" exaggerates the length and position of the current false eyelash trend by making them hand sized. This creates a new not mimetic movement that is nonetheless traceable to its real-life referent, such that lyrical engagement leads to movement invention.
When lyrics use metaphor or slang, the movement might operate at the same level as the lyrics or it might literalise them. Working at the level of the slang in the lyrics "turn me into a savage," which connotes someone unconcerned with the opinions of others, Ginestra choreographs arms extended out front of the body to clap – that is, to say to clapback or respond forcefully to criticism. Choreo also plays with metaphorical language through its denotation. When Grande sings, "My lip gloss is popping," which means it "looks really good," the movement literalises this both in height and rhythm as the dancers' right arm pops up, flinging to full extension before retracting quickly. Deciphering this kind of choreography engages the audience in the dancers' and choreographers' playful interpretations while also drawing the viewer deeper into the music.
Often, within a week of a newly popular song's release, multiple choreographers post videos using the same song. In this context, word play is one way to distinguish a combination because of the thorough knowledge of and appreciation for the song it requires. In addition to promoting the talent and innovations of their makers, word play class videos are fandom practices that change the reception of the song for future viewers and listeners by inextricably linking movement and music together. As viewer Amber Meloche commented, "I watched all the 7 rings choreo and no one compares to the intricacy that [Ginestra] includes in her dance," demonstrating the manner in which the word play of the combination reinforces Meloche's fandom of both Ginestra and the song itself.