- Let’s Get the Rhythm: The Life and Times of Miss Mary Mack by Irene Chagall
The earliest collections of American childlore include hand-clapping games. Approaches to these games have varied across theoretical eras in folkloristics, but the consistency with which interest returns to this genre reinforces its powerful appeal. Irene Chagall’s documentary, produced in collaboration with City Lore and Public Arts Films, introduces the variety and significance of hand-clapping games to a twenty-first-century public, positioning itself to valorize and honor this often-dismissed oral tradition of girls, and in particular, girls of color. As a genre often “hidden in plain sight,” hand-clapping games span the world, yet tend to be played by girls between the ages of 6 and 11. Let’s Get the Rhythm asserts that young girls’ play matters at a deep level and that it may even [End Page 242] expose fundamental qualities that make us human.
The documentary brings together a range of community members, invested professionals, and academic experts who provide context and fresh approaches to hand-clapping games through their own personal experiences as well as through disciplines as diverse as dance, ethnomusicology, folklore, poetry, neuroscience, ethology, primatology, art history, and early childhood movement. Their commentary balances, deepens, and reinforces the voices of the girls themselves, especially contemporary African American children in New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Girls from 8 to 17 give their own critiques, commentary, and explanations of how hand-clapping games work, how they learn them, and what they think about them. In addition to this commentary, the film includes a wealth of videotaped performances of children of varied ethnicities and nationalities, with additional footage from places including Los Angeles; Washington, DC; Brazil; Japan; South Korea; Mexico; Russia; Spain; Israel; Tanzania; France; Portugal; the Netherlands; Thailand; the Gilbert Islands; and Angola, from as early as 1931 to the present day. Various dimensions of hand-clapping games are presented in a somewhat curvilinear path between the local and global, and between the present-day and the historical, touching on major topics that link together.
The documentary begins with the topic of the games themselves, focusing on their rhymes and movements. Lyrically, hand games reflect perspectives of life from children’s points of view and may incorporate references to “drugs, sex, and violence” or try out words of adult language that would otherwise be forbidden. Shawna, age 17, comments that she and her friends often had two versions of a rhyme—one was “PG” for performance around adults. Sarah and Erin, both age 8, share a version of a rhyme they modified; the film screeches to freeze-frame as they reach their transgressive lyrical climax. In tandem with the lyrics, ranging from poetry to nonsense, game movements also create the opportunity to try out identities, whether silly, serious, or sexual. Ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt notes that while many gender stereotypes appear in the rhymes, the difference is that the girls are saying them. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Urban Bush Women dance company, describes their perspective as “I’m going to do this motion, because that’s what I see women do.” Through hand games, girls find a way to try on grown-up identities and face their own coming-of-age.
The difficulty and rhythmic complexity provide an additional challenge to dismissing hand games as insignificant. Beyond the intensity and dedication that girls show in perfecting the games, their success overwhelmingly depends on their mutual cooperation. Some games require the ability to mutually produce polyrhythmic patterns of two over three (e.g., “My Boyfriend Gave Me a Box”), while others actually operate on a constantly changing meter that requires quick adaptation and skill to keep up (e.g., “Slide”). Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria describes the polyrhythmic quality of everyday human life, yet acknowledges that producing such rhythms intentionally can be challenging: “You have to really be on point to develop not only the concentration to maintain...