Abdiel Jacobsen (“Abdiel” professionally) spent the majority of their young life trying not to be “too much” for the dance world.
Growing up, Abdiel trained in ballroom dance, where a man always “led” the routine and a woman followed. Even after joining the storied Martha Graham Dance Company in 2011, they still found few roles for nonbinary people like them and little space for their queerness and fluidity.
But on the dance floor of clubs in New York City six years ago, Abdiel finally had an “aha moment.” That was when they discovered hustle: a disco- and Latin-influenced movement style created by people of color in the ‘70s, alongside house and voguing.
Abdiel remembers being mesmerized by a brown-skinned gay dancer in heels named “Stiletto,” who was “totally celebrated and accepted for just being himself.” Unlike other partner-based dance styles, hustle encourages dancers to both lead and follow their partners; there is no need to fit into a male or female role.
“It was just so euphoric,” Abdiel says of attending those early hustle parties. With its unique openness to queer dancers, hustle brought Abdiel’s gender fluidity “to the outside” for the first time. And since then, they have dedicated their dance career to both learning and educating others about the movement style.
Abdiel brings that passion for the dance form to Jacob’s Pillow in Lenox this summer, partnering with fellow hustle devotee Joana Matos to create “Hustle at the Pillow.” The interactive performance takes place on the outdoor Henry J. Leir Stage on Aug. 18.
Matos, a dance teacher based in Portugal, has been a part of hustle dance communities for a dozen years. She’s serving as creative director for “Hustle at the Pillow,” and has incorporated some of the style’s history into the show.
During the AIDS crisis, amid widespread paranoia and misunderstanding around how the disease was spread, hustle dance communities were one of the few places where queer and straight people still came together to touch and share space with one another, she says.
On the dance floor at a hustle party, you’ll feel a family-like sense of “deep support,” Matos explains. “Week after week after week, you see the same people, you touch the same people, you move with the same people, and we kind of grow together,” she adds. That unique bond has united communities across their differences for decades, she says, and she believes it has a role to play in bringing together today’s increasingly isolated and siloed world, too.
Like other styles of partner dance, hustle is all about learning to listen to and play off of the person you’re dancing with. But unlike its counterparts, hustle encourages you to explore a more fluid way of navigating that relationship — something Abdiel believes queer and straight dancers alike could benefit from.
“When you have a conversation with someone, are you the only person leading everything, [with] the other person just responding to you the whole time?” Abdiel asks. “It’s natural for us to ebb and flow, to take the lead, then to follow, when we have conversations with people.” As society evolves to understand the fluidity that lives within all of us, Abdiel argues the social dance world must follow suit.
Currently working on an MFA in dance at the University of Washington, Abdiel is focusing on the “cultural and historical preservation of hustle” and has support from the Guggenheim to create a work called “Do the Hustle,” intended to document hustle’s history and share it with a new generation.
Audience members won’t just watch from afar during “Hustle at the Pillow”; they’ll be encouraged to try the dance themselves. By getting everyone to experience the fluidity of hustle, the show’s creators hope to share not just a message of inclusion, but one of liberation for people of all backgrounds.
You can dive deeper into dancing the next day, when Abdiel will lead a hustle workshop at the Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield.
Thasia Giles, Jacob’s Pillow’s director of community engagement, says the workshop requires no prior dance experience, and that participants will learn more about the history of hustle and get lessons on both leading and following.
If dancing to disco in a church sounds unusual, it’s all part of the fun to Abdiel, who holds hustle parties in New York’s Central Park and is known for turning classes even in traditional ballet studios into infectious dance parties. Will tinsel and a mirror ball be part of the experience? It could happen.
This story has been updated to correct where Abdiel has received support for the “Do the Hustle” project.