Bicycle Art: Bike dance with the Derailleurs

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In honor of Bike to Work week, we're featuring one aspect of bicycle art per day. Check back regularly for homages to Cyclecide, Bicycle Porn, the Bicycle Film Festival, and more. By Molly Freedenberg

de rail leur [di-rey-ler]. noun:

1. a gear shifting mechanism on a bicycle that shifts the drive chain from one sprocket wheel to another

2. a Bay Area-based group of badass girls who dance on, with, and about bikes

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The Derailleurs. Clockwise from left: Agents Contrary, Flux, Chaos (Eliza Strack), Joke Star, Agitator, Verve (Hollis Hawthorne), Take the Lane, DoubleOO, and Edge. Photo by Alicia Sangiuliano.

Perhaps my favorite development in the world of bicycle art is bike dance, the strange and beautiful hybrid between high school drill team and BMX bike crew.

It all started - in its current form, at least - with the Sprockettes, who formed almost six years ago in Portland. A group of bold, fun-loving ladies donned pink and black outfits and performed synchronized dance and bike tricks at the Multnomah Bike Fair, a one-time show that was so popular, it not only grew into a regularly-performing dance troupe, but spawned a bona fide movement.

Inspired by the Sprockettes, bike enthusiasts in other cities began to form their own troupes, each choosing their own "power colors" and establishing unique identities with their own combination of synchronized moves, bike tricks, acrobatics, and fire. (Check out a full description of the history of bike dance here.)

The Sprockettes performing in Davis last summer.

But though each troupe was impressive in its own right, few members of any troupe had backgrounds in actual dance. Most moves and choreography were fairly simple. Which is where the Derailleurs come in.

In March of last year, Eliza Strack, co-founder of the Sprockettes and recent Bay Area transplant, and her roommate Hollis Hawthorne, a trained dancer and avid bicyclist, embarked on a new venture: to put the dance in bike dance. The duo wrangled a ragtag group of biking and dancing women - including me - into a gang of turquoise and black-wearing pedal pirates. And then we all got to work.

Which wasn't easy. Some of us could ride, but had never danced. Some could dance, but weren't comfortable on bikes. We had to define who we were as a group - democracy? monarchy? collective? - and who we were as a dance team. We were careful not to poach bike moves from other teams - an especially difficult challenge for Eliza, who had helped choreograph most of the Sprockettes' dances - which narrowed our options considerably. We struggled with our bike-to-dance ratio, often leaning too far towards the latter. And we struggled with how hard it is to dance with objects that require maintenance, take up space, and, fundamentally, weren't designed for dancing.

Derailleurs perform at Cyclecide's Pedal Monster in September '08.

While we figured it out, we started performing. The Derailleurs made appearances at Maker Faire, the Art of the Bicycle show at Art SF, several Cyclecide-hosted events at Ace Junkyard in the Bayview, the Sprockettes' Bike Dance Invitational in Portland, and the Trunk Boiz Bikes for Life and Silence the Violence Ride. And the support we received from the bicycle community - and bike dance community in particular - was huge. One member of Chain Reaction, an all-male bike dance troupe in Portland, affectionately dubbed us "the Dallas cheerleaders of bicycle dancing."

Around the time I took a hiatus from the group, the remaining girls were featured in Momentum Magazine. Not long after that, Hollis took her fateful trip to India, where a motorcycle accident put her in a coma. (For background on Hollis, her injury, and the efforts to heal her, check out our series of blog posts about the topic, starting here.)

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Hollis Hawthorne, also known as Agent Verve.

This is where the story gets both tragic and heartwarming. Because as difficult as it was - and still is - to cope with the reality of Hollis' condition (which is improving, but sloooooowly), it's been amazing to witness what the bike community has managed to do for her. It was thanks to Eliza's blog that the word spread so far and wide. I believe it was the novelty of bicycle dance that captured so many people's interest (in addition to the sad story itself), including newspapers in India and donors in Europe. And it's been primarily other bike dance troupes and bike activism groups that have organized events and fundraisers, culminating in the $100K that helped fly Hollis home from India and will help pay her medical bills here.

Though mind-blowing to me, the strength of the bike community came as less of a surprise to Eliza, who has witnessed the power of the bicycle as an agent of community and empowerment far longer than I have. She tells stories of touring with the Sprockettes and being supported by bike crews in every city. "They'd set up a show, give us a place to stay. If we were there too long, they'd help get us a job," she said.

She likens the scene to the early days of surfing and skating, when lovers of those sports were outlaws forced to band together. And like the development of those sports, she hopes one day bike dance will become mainstream.

"I always wanted it to go worldwide," she said, refreshingly devoid of the exclusivity or ownership many founders of subculture movements seem to possess. "When new teams start, I'm like, 'Yes! Our plan is working!'"

In fact, she was one of the people who crafted the Sprockettes' five-year-plan, a forward-looking manifesto that would culminate in an international dance off. Exactly five years to the date, the Derailleurs performed for almost 11 other bike dance troupes at that exact event. Watching the Sprockettes perform for the zillionth time in that warehouse in Southeast Portland, she cried with pride.

Small Movements from Nickey Robo on Vimeo.

"It's about pushing the limits of fun, and what is possible," she said. "It's sustainable living. Recession proof. D.I.Y. And a whole culture."

Most recently, the Derailleurs have performed at Gold Rush, a benefit for Hollis, and at the Cougar Run, a bike-themed birthday event for a member of Cyclecide where the all-male break-dancing bicycle troupe The Brakes performed (yay!) and the Derailleurs were cut short by the cops (boo!). What's next? A performance at Sunday Streets is possible. There will certainly be some Derailleur presence at Bike to Work Day events (just look for the cute girls in turquoise, black, and bling). And soon, they'd like to go on tour.

In the meantime? They'll keep doing what they do so well: riding their bikes, dancing their asses off, having a great time, and supporting bike culture however they can.

For booking and more info, visit www.myspace.com/bayareaderailleurs.

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Damn those bikes are hot. Derailleurs perform at Sprock Out With Your Cog Out.

And for an extra bit of fun:

The Brakes at Velomutation in 2006.

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