The intertwining of Bruk Up dance and Asperger’s Syndrome told in the words of this inspiring British performer and the wonderful visual production of Fred MacGregor

Dance is a very powerful form of communication. It can allow us to get in touch with ourselves. It can allow us to build solid relational bridges and connections with others. Dance for Jamal Sterrett, a young visual artist and dancer from Nottingham, is all of this amplified exponentially. Because Jamal in the Bruk Up style has found a way to express his own vibrations, energy and point of view shaped by his daily relationship with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Thanks to Fred MacGregor’s visual production, divided between a photographic series and a wonderful shortfilm, and Jamal’s direct testimony, we can understand the meaning and importance of this art form and its individual and collective value, we can perceive the totalizing connection between this performer’s body, his interiority and rhythm.

How did you experience your first contact with dance?

It happened in 2013. At the time I was studying Graphic Design in college and Jay Z released a video that enchanted me. I checked all the credits of the video in order to find out who were the incredible dancers involved and discovered the Bruk Up dance community. Instantly I fell in love with this art form and decided to learn it. Since that epiphany I have continued unabated to practice in the streets, to inform myself, to do what those dancers were doing and to think like them. After some time, I also managed to get in touch with some of those performers. This year, for example, the famous Ghost came here to Nottingham from New York and we made a film together. One of my heroes slept on my sofa; it was a crazy experience, made possible by the people who surrounded me along the way.

Could you define the Bruk Up style?

Originally it was the typical dancehall style mixed with popping elements (funk and hip hop dance style based on the technique of rapid contraction and subsequent relaxation of muscles ed.). It originated in Jamaica in the 1990s, the first major exponent being George Adams, who then moved to New York and started dancing in big music videos, such as those of Busta Rhymes. Bruk Up is a style that established itself in the poverty of the New York blocks, driven by people who wanted to elevate themselves and improve their mindset. I was fascinated by the ideological basis of this dance and by its spiritual elements: it is not just a street dance practice, it is a higher art form about your body, your individuality, your philosophy.

You talk about individuality, but dance is also communication. What does this duality mean to you and what kind of feelings do you experience during your performances?

Dance is the medium that makes me connect with the world. Words create connections, but at the same time they can form prejudices and barriers. Your body movement, on the other hand, is something solid and concrete, everyone can relate without superstructures to the movement: it is truth, it is an extremely deep state, unfiltered, that allows me to present myself to the world. I believe that dance is something inherent in our DNA, it is naturally present in each of us. When I dance, spirituality, heritage, memories, ancestral sensations come together: it is as if I enter ‘in the pocket,’ a state of exploration, of presence and absence that makes me do unplanned things. Every day I wake up differently and my state of mind influences my movements. I think I have gone and continue to go through different phases, it’s something that all artists have in common a little bit. In the beginning for example everything was pure passion and exhilaration, but now I feel more like a scientist trying to study and perfect my notions and possibilities.

In your daily life, what kind of relationship is there between Asperger’s Syndrome and dance?

Dance cures Asperger’s. I’ve always had trouble talking to people, social interaction has always been a big personal dilemma. Dance has helped me connect with the world and define myself. When I dance, I feel calm, peaceful and functional for society. Asperger’s Syndrome makes me hypersensitive, and this has positives as well as negatives. Light, temperature, sounds… My brain perceives and processes these things in an extremely complex way. To make you understand this complexity, just think about how a person with Asperger’s thinks: the linear A-B-C for me turns into a continuous jump from A to I, from I to B, from B to G, and so on, and then back to the starting point. When I look at a tree outside the window I focus on an infinity of details and my brain gets lost in this intricate sum of little things. Through dance I am able to access my emotions and my inner world, I am able to express all this flow of feelings through my face. While dancing I can’t pretend or be in control, it’s all pure authenticity, it’s all pure me.

You’re undeniably a role model. How do you handle this status?

It’s good to be inspired by others, but I think people should not follow the same steps that other people take. Dance should be a personal experience, a path that teaches you to find yourself, to think about who you really are. I love different points of view; the single perspective is always fallacious. Here in Nottingham 50 percent of the community supports my vision and what I do, the other 50 percent think I’m an odd person, probably wish I would get a job…. But it is something that every artist has to face. I didn’t accept Asperger’s until recently, I only wanted people to judge me for hard work and creativity. It is crucial to control one’s narrative, especially when dealing with sensitive issues, because there is always the risk of losing something along the translation. I always wanted my artistic evolution to be as real as possible, then I understood that artistic performance requires authenticity, and I made the decision to talk about Asperger’s Syndrome.

What are your future plans?

In the future I hope that dance will make me travel to unknown countries and cities. I would like to perform in my own show and always find new opportunities. Here in Britain there are not many platforms or paths for individual talent, dance is very highly institutionalized. I hope to help a paradigm shift, because dance has to start from a personal need and style. A few fundamentals are enough, personal expression must come through freedom.

Credits: Jamal Sterrett
Photo Credits: @freddie_macgregor
Text by Gianmarco Pacione