January 28, 2021

"Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap: The difficulty of choreographing to ethereal yet stirring-awake music

Dream pop flourishes during the vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, when people are in a refractory state. Floaty, isolated, not engaged with the rest of the world -- suspended in a sensory deprivation chamber so they don't overload their hyper-sensitive nervous system.

A previous post looked at the vestiges of this trend into the following restless warm-up phase, when people are just coming out of their slumber and beginning to get their bodies moving again. See the links there to earlier posts on dream pop's 15-year cycle in both the indie and mainstream worlds. Usually there's just one or two dream poppy songs in the warm-up phase, and they tend to have a bit more rhythm and beat, now that people's needs are different and they need to get moving around after waking up.

The examples I cited were from the year-end Billboard charts, and included "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado for the late 2000s. But there was another song from that phase that exemplifies the pattern even better, although it did not make the year-end charts (it did make it into the top 40 of the weekly Hot 100 chart):

"Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap (2005)

This is rooted in the zeitgeist of the early 2000s vulnerable phase, which produced mainstream dream-pop songs like "Only Time" by the New Age queen Enya. Here, the a capella places all of the droning layers of harmony onto the vocal line, but it doesn't sound any less floaty and dreamy for want of instrumental droning layers.

Unlike the early 2000s, however, the zeitgeist of 2005-'09 produced a song with greater range in pitch and melodic meandering, more building up and releasing of tension within a measure and over the entire song. It's more like someone who is stirring awake, and working themselves up into heightened activity levels -- not someone who's merely floating through a dreamscape or wallowing through a heroin-like daze.

And there's a clear break in the iconic line ("Mmmm whatcha say?"), where a more insistent rhythm erupts. This makes it more danceable, just like the other dream pop vestige songs, only it's a human voice rather than a drum kit that marks the beat. Still, that adapts it better to a warm-up phase zeitgeist, when people suddenly come down with dance fever.

Out of curiosity, I wondered "has anyone danced to this song before?" It's a capella, dreamy, highly lyrical, not heavily rhythmic until the final section -- it's just what the interpretative dance crowd would be into. And indeed, there are dozens of videos on YouTube showing individuals up through large troops performing to it.

Yet most of them suffer from a choreography whose movements are overly explosive for this low-key, nuanced music. And most of the rest suffer from the opposite problem -- low-energy and languid movements, but without the tension coiling up and ultimately exploding in the final section. I'm not talking about the technical proficiency of the dancers, but the program they're given to work with by the choreographer.

Songs like "Hide and Seek" are a real test of intuition, since the stereotype of interpretative dance is being overly exaggerated, random, or inappropriate in relation to the music, which then feels like it has no relation to the body movements. Music and dance are too intertwined for that dissociation to please the audience. You can search YouTube for "dance hide and seek" to see what I mean, as there are too many to link here.

At the other end, the choreographer is too nervous of the dance coming off as a stereotypical wild-and-crazy performance that's out of touch with the music, and opts for muted, limp, and slow movements throughout.

This song requires both a languid and passive component, to show the dream-like state from which the singer is stirring awake, as well as a more energetic and assertive component, to show that she's somewhat uncomfortably stirring awake rather than continuing to slumber on in dreamy bliss. Fluid, limp, and soft -- both coiling in tension and releasing it -- then explosive, taught, and hard.

There ought to be a good deal of "floor work" -- kneeling, crouching, sitting, laying down, etc. -- to suggest the horizontal posture of sleeping, dozing off, or languishing in a daze. But also punctuated by periods of erect posture, to suggest the stirring awake process that gets you solidly on your feet and moving around with purpose.

Of the many videos I checked, this improv dance by Jasmine Wright is by far the best, as the comments attest. The only complaint that the trained dancer commenters had was "too much floor work," but again they're missing that it's necessary for this song. It's not supposed to be a display of movements that dancers and dance audiences like in general, but a reflection of the particular mood of the specific music she's dancing to.

Choreographing a group of dancers to such an intensely lyrical and personal song is a daunting task, and the only good example I found was this performance from the University of Waterloo Dance Company's Acro Group. Like the solo improv above, this one features lots of floor work to convey the languid mood, but also moments of coiled tension (naturally suited to acrobats holding a pose), with the explosive movements saved until the final section, including a perfectly timed tumble to the "Mmmm whatcha say?" line.

So far, there are only a handful of videos on TikTok using this song, but it's apparently a fave for dancers, so it could do much better, especially since there's the late 2000s revival under way.

It's a credit to Imogen Heap for making an ethereal a capella song that the most corporeal people on Earth cannot help but move their bodies to. It's not the typical disembodied, floating-and-swaying dream pop song, but one for stirring awake and finding your footing during the restless warm-up phase of the excitement cycle. It's no wonder it was heavily sampled in the R&B hit "Whatcha Say" by Jason Derulo, also from the dance-crazy late 2000s.


  1. Amber Frost's time-traveling kid sister spots you on the dance floor.

    Lots of memories of that song during the summer of 2008, one of the most crazy summers ever. Going out dancing 4 nights a week for awhile there...

    And a formative time for the wild-child early '90s births. Horniest and most exhibitionistic generation since the early '60s births (both a 15 and 30-year cycle).

  2. When she logs onto her MySpace tracker and finds out you (random hot guy) viewed her profile.

  3. Why is everyone on their smartphone again when they go outside?

    It seemed like everyone was putting away their smartphones last year and getting friendly again. Now everyone is back to smartphone addiction.

    I thought we were leaving the cocoons cycle, but it seems like we somehow reentered it.

  4. I've noticed that too, although mainly the past several weeks or months, like an anxious reaction to the instability caused by the election theft, storming the capitol, etc.

    Alternatively, maybe a broader swath of the population is going out in public, as the cocooning era winds down, but these newcomers to public spaces are less comfortable doing so, so they use the phone as a crutch.

    It seems bad, but it's better than them being holed up in their pod completely, never to be seen outdoors.

    Hard to say right now, either way.

  5. Found this on CD at the thrift store for $1. Worth it for "Hide and Seek," though I can't really get into the rest of the album.

  6. This song is like "Tom's Diner" -- a capella that's sampled into a dance hit during the restless phase when dance fever takes over.

    "Whatcha Say" by Jason Derulo in 2009, "Tom's Diner" remixed by DNA in 1990.

    Only diff is the source song's phase -- restless phase for "Hide and Seek" (2005), vulnerable phase for "Tom's Diner" (1987).

    Could be other examples from the late '70s and early '60s, but I won't check now. Otherwise, just an interesting coincidence.

    Still, dance fever takes over so much in a restless phase that they'll even transform an a capella song into a dance groove.

  7. "I thought we were leaving the cocoons cycle, but it seems like we somehow reentered it."

    Yeah, I've seen the same thing. I think its more like a last death grasp - the authorities trying to put the brakes on a new, freer and more social society. Certainly connected to a recent resurgence of Covid panic. It won't last much longer, though.


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