Dance Genre Buzz – Bill Shannon’s Stepping-Roll

Bill Shannon performing in Australia - Skateboard Aerial move with his skate/dance hybrid movement style

Dance Genre Buzz – Bill Shannon’s Stepping-Roll technique

Bill Shannon is an artist who has created a unique movement style; a skate/dance hybrid, called the Stepping-Roll technique.  Influenced by breakdancing, hip-hop, silent film aesthetics and disability culture, Shannon’s unique hybrid of movement defies gravity with devastating style and grace.

Diagnosed at the age of 5 with a rare form of arthritis that affects his hips, Shannon dances on crutches and a skateboard, and has developed an extraordinary vocabulary with impeccable timing, fluidity and body awareness.

Bill Shannon is known internationally as a conceptual, interdisciplinary performance and media artist.  He considers his work rooted in street/club culture and informed by the fine arts.  He is widely recognized in the dance/ performance world, the underground hip-hop and club dance scene as well as the disabled artist community.  His performance and video work have been presented nationally and internationally.

View a video showcasing Bill Shannon’s Stepping-Roll technique

Evolution of Movement Style

Broken Puppet style of Boogaloo dance form

Bill Shannon moved to New York to make his name, both as a street dancer known as ‘Crutchmaster’ and as a performer and choreographer who combined a new style of movement with an artistry that piquantly questions the relationships between street and stage, audience and performer.

Throughout his career, his technical language to describe his unique movement style has grown.  First termed ‘the Shannon technique‘, his style has evolved into what he terms the ‘Stepping-Roll‘ technique.

Bill Shannon is seen in the photo on the right, where through the weight distribution of the Shannon Technique in a performance art piece.  This photo showcases Shannon’s Broken Puppet Style of Boogaloo Dance Form which is one of the schools of Hip-Hop dance.

Shannon's Saddle-Forearm Mid Uprock move

This next photo demonstrates Shannon’s Saddle-Forearm Mid Uprock move, dancing in a Top-Rock Style a form of dance in the Hip-Hop Tradition that predates the technically complex breakdancing of today.

In the early ’90s, Shannon was part of Pittsburgh’s vibrant underground art scene, and later returned in 2004 at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, during which he performed a series of improvised street shows.  Outside Pittsburgh, though, he has been prolific.  Shannon has performed in group and solo stage shows, street performances and installations around the world: Jordan, Russia, Finland and Australia.

Throughout his career, Shannon’s press coverage has been favorable. In 2001, Dance Magazine put him on its “25 to Watch” list. “Dancing on futuristic steel crutches with curved bases, Shannon is a beautiful alien creature gliding through space in loping strides,” wrote Sally Sommer. “Through his dancing Shannon forces you to look at life afresh, to see movement with clear vision.”

Critics admiringly note how his public-space shows interrogate standard notions of both “disability” and “audience.” And his desire to evoke ideas and emotions through movement means Shannon gets more comparisons to Chaplin than to break dancing crews.

Hanging Dog-Leg and Aerial move

The photo on the right demonstrates Shannon’s Hanging Dog-Leg and Aerial move within the Shannon Technique Lexicon
performed Image from Belgrade 2010.

Check out a video clip showcasing Shannon’s Sweeper-Spin move and his versatility on crutches.  Moving up in levels of complexity, this video shows his transitions from a flare into a float.  Since Bill Shannon is well known for his video work and performances, you can find many more videos on YouTube on his channel or those uploaded by his associates.  (Find the links to Bill Shannon’s website, video channels and social media sites below).

On some days, Shannon is incapacitated by pain, and he needs the crutches if he’s on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time.  But as these videos demonstrate, they also permit him to do things a crutchless person couldn’t, so that his performances blur the lines between what it means to be able and disabled.  His work embodies other paradoxes as well.

Shannon is in competition with an image of himself: the center of attention who often feels invisible behind the crutches that have symbolized his career.  He struggles not so much with his disability as with the way other people think it defines him.

Or as Shannon puts it, “I’m an artist trapped in a human-interest story.”

Check out the 2007 Interview of Bill Shannon with Pop Tech as he discusses the relationships between street and stage, audience and performer.  This ingenious performance artist’s work will challenge your notions of disability.

Skate/Dance Hybrid

In motion, especially on wheels and propelling himself with rhythmic sweeps of his crutches, Bill Shannon combines a surfer’s grace with a skateboarder’s knowing navigation of concrete — hopping curbs, cutting around steam grates, slipping between wheel-less, gawking bipeds.

With specially modified crutches, Shannon skates and dances while pushing forward with crutches.  Stepping Roll is basically a hybrid of the three kinetic lineages Bill Shannon’s life has taken him through. (1) mobility via crutches, (2) mobility via skateboard, (3) footwork via dancing to house music.

Stepping Roll is essentially weightless because Shannon uses crutches to push along the board instead of his legs.  The weightless effect on the feet as his arms push allow manipulations and dance steps on the surface of the board in absence of weight.  The form is at its root inherently rhythmic because Shannon moves his whole body in a left right left right pattern that my arm set and my shoulders bounce to.  The unique use of the platform of the board that Stepping Roll manifest is similar to the way a long-board surfer might “hang ten” or “walk the dog”.  The fact that Shannon’s steps are on beat and performed while rolling on pavement in traffic creates an effect of people reacting to it not as skateboarding and cheating with crutches, but one of that’s an entirely new thing that the skateboard and the crutches are equally essential to.

This photo illustrates sequential images of a difficult technical combination move created by Shannon called a Sweeper-Kickout to Crossed-Up-Heel-Hold No-Handed-Rotation.  Its a trick move that applies Shannon Technique in a Skate/Dance Hybrid.

Stepping Roll gets interesting when Shannon expresses Classic B-Boy Freezes over the course of city blocks, uprocks down sidewalks fakie to no footed rolls.  These hybrids are retro skating in the sense that they are not ollie based but based on carving lines and body stances that reflect
street dance and dogtown equally.  Like poppers and b-boys Shannon wears crisp bright shoes when he throws down on the skate repping footwork and a soulful flowing house head openness to the music.   Shannon is also limited by an inability to jump off the board and land hard on his legs.  In short Shannon
won’t try stuff that will further damage his hip though his own awareness and timing of his moves.

Bill Shannon came to define the form as Stepping-Roll after practicing it for years and after realizing that it was important to classify what was happening.  The form is still in its infancy in terms of possible tricks though Shannon has a few moves that are only performed within Stepping-Roll including Rolling No Footers, Tip Stalls, Floats to Shuvits and Ghost Glides.

Bill Shannon reports that “People would say I was urban slaloming, or freestyle skiing on a skateboard.  Lay people (non skaters) yell at me on the street to “get a patent” or they yell “that’s ghetto” or “isn’t that nifty”.  Wanna see something nifty?  Take a 360 degree bird’s eye look into Bill Shannon in action in this video.

Media Projects

Bill Shannon has also recently released a DVD entitled “Translations from Pavement”.  This DVD features excerpts from multiple solo projects in crutch street dance, including performance art, video installation, practice sessions and design along with a demo reel of Shannon’s unique group projects.

Post hip-hop troubadour RJD2 teamed with dance and media artist Bill Shannon for the ‘Work It Out’ video.   Director Joey Garfield took to the streets of New York and captured one continuous shot of Shannon, injecting RJD2 into random roles throughout the video.

Shannon has also directed and choreographed for short films including a video mixdown excerpt entitled “Keep Pushing Yourself” from his group work SKETCHY.  This clip features dance battle performed live by b-boy Cyclone (Step Fenz) NYC then delayed live by VJ Glytch (NYC).  This clip was excerpted from an evening length choreographed performance at Kaii Theater in Brussels Belgium 2007.

The beauty of Bill Shannon’s movement is as inspirational as it is mesmerizing. The fluidity of his dance moves was seen as the perfect embodiment of VISA’s flow campaign.  In the TV ad not only does Bills choreography represent life flowing effortlessly but his flow and movement throughout the film turns a mundane shopping trip into something quite magical.

Shannon created a multimedia piece called The Invisible Man Epilogue Remix 2007, for a Washington, D.C. gallery. Like H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, the character in Shannon’s video installation is bandaged, though now he’s a “burn-unit escapee.” And like the title character of Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel Invisible Man, he is “socially invisible.”

“I watch my condition cast a shadow across any attempt to speak and be heard,” runs a line from a proposed monologue.  Shannon portrays both the bandaged figure and a videotaped dancer on crutches; during the performance, the bandaged man will use the video to illustrate his own condition.

Wells’ Invisible Man went murderously mad; Shannon blames it on the character’s doomed attempts to return to normalcy.  In a proposal for the piece, Shannon writes that his work “shows how madness can be averted by hosting the gaze rather than being subject to it.” Or, as Shannon says in real life, “In my work I’ve entertained the notion that normalcy is not always the best option.”

In 2003, videos by Shannon were featured in Art, Lies and Videotape, a group show at the Tate Liverpool that included work by Diane Arbus and Yoko Ono.  View a history of his works here.

Shannon’s career includes work that extends beyond his own performances.  For example, in 2001, he joined the creative team for the Cirque du Soleil show that became Varekai.  He choreographed two acts for the world-renowned Montreal-based theatrical circus: an aerial duet, and a solo dance on crutches for the Russian tumbler Vladimir Ignatenkov.

Working with British acrobats Andrew and Kevin Atherton, Shannon spiced the Cirque’s overwhelmingly modernist aesthetic with something street.  Over the twin brothers’ protests (documented in The Fire Within, the cable-TV series about Varekai, now available online), he got them to forgo pointed toes and lifted chins for the right-angled limbs of skateboard aerials (and, as Shannon points out, of Celtic and ancient Egyptian art).  The finished act, with the brothers swinging and soaring on straps, was a hit (Varekai played Pittsburgh in 2005).

Documentary Film and Upcoming Events Featuring Bill Shannon

Bill Shannon is collaborating with filmmakers Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans to create a feature-length documentary entitled ‘CRUTCH’.  Part of the documentary will be filmed on location at the 2012 NYC Dance Parade and Festival.  Learn more about the documentary on Bill Shannon at  Stay tuned for updates on the film’s release.

Bill Shannon is one of the Grand Marshal’s for the 2012 Dance Parade and Festival on Saturday, May 19th.

Catch Bill Shannon performing his Stepping-Roll technique on the streets of New York, and later at his performance on the Main Stage at the Dance Festival in Tompkin’s Square Park.

Feel free to take photos of Bill Shannon at the event, and enter Dance Parade’s annual PHOTO CONTEST for a chance to win.

You can also share your photos and videos of Bill performing his Stepping-Roll technique on Dance Parade’s Facebook page.

Visit Bill Shannon’s website, ‘Like’ his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @whatiswhatcom.  Check out his video channels on Vimeo and YouTube and share your comments on his videos.

Genre Buzz: Dance Education Series

Genre Buzz Source: Excerpts from articles on Bill Shannon listed on Wikipedia- and personal notes from the artist himself 

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By Dawn Paap, Editor for Dance Genre Buzz Series