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Dance Divas 

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CRYSTAL WATERS

STORYTELLER

(MERCURY)

JULIET ROBERTS

NATURAL THING

(REPRISE)

CE CE PENISTON

THOUGHT 'YA KNEW

(A&M)

Although the dance-music boom (aka the disco revival) of the late 80s and early 90s is over, dance music is alive and well. Artists with commanding voices are releasing diverse and often superb full-length CDs, and several labels have taken to smartly packaging compilations of current club singles. Finally dance music has taken root, nourished by the fertile ground of cultural and technological change. This is no small feat; for almost two decades dance music survived as a club-based singles music with very little help from its friends. Major-label support was scant or misguided. The few critics who followed the scene seemed more interested in career advancement than in the music itself. Producers stuck to a limited set of styles. And dance-music partisans rarely provided adequate rebuttal to charges that the music was aimed at their feet, and not their minds.

But the millions attracted to this music are not mindless. The dance constituency is predominantly comprised of minorities, women, and gays, groups that don't buy into rock's promised-land-is-full-of-backstreets ethos. These folks sought their pop transcendence from those moments on the dance floor when the beat of the music and the beat of the heart are in sync. In these instances the song and the music become pure emotion, and the perils inherent in being "the other" fade into the distance. This shared catharsis is at the core of dance music. Where rock--the music of marginalized and futureless youth--traffics in anger, dance music, an anthem of people just as disenfranchised, advocates shared faith as empowerment.

The boom yielded platinum and multiplatinum albums by Bobby Brown, Janet Jackson, Deee-Lite, and Johnny Gill. And it produced such important works as Jackson's Control and Brown's Don't Be Cruel--seminal recordings in the fluid funky style that became known as New Jack Swing. It also spawned dreck like C&C Music Factory's Gonna Make You Sweat and Jackson's Rhythm Nation, dance music reduced to a conformist, militaristic beat. By the time the boom petered out amid lip-synching scandals, it seemed as misguided as the original corporate strategy for disco: take the music out of New York and airbrush it to play in Peoria.

Dance music has survived and now thrives because of its bond to fashion. These days career arcs and family ties no longer imprint their indelible stamp on personal identity. This instability has made the concept of self more malleable, allowing for expression through alternative badges such as tattoos and piercings. Perhaps the most radical thing you can do these days is be yourself: out (preferentially and otherwise), loud, and proud. It is precisely this concept of self as pliant that has guided lovers of the nightlife for years. Where better to be Garbo for an evening, or imagine yourself a model with your own private runway, than a nightclub? Drag didn't grow from transsexualism; it came straight out of nightclub glamour, with Diana Ross singing "Upside Down" on the sound system. When compared to the saggy-jean hip-hop crowd and the flannelocracy of indie rock, dance music seems like a paradise of possibilities.

So too does the dance floor: during the revival, dance-music styles began to proliferate. "House," often used as a generic label for all dance music, specifically refers to a sophisticated, sensuous style of post-disco dance music; it was joined in the mix by Latin-tinged "freestyle," rock-oriented "techno," the jazz-rock conflagration known as "acid jazz," and dance music's own back-to-the-future movement, "classic," which harked back to the anthemic stylings of 70s disco. Dance music producers began creating distinctive hybrids and discovering singers to match. This was a welcome relief from the typical dance single: a galloping beat and a singer wailing from the mountaintops over it. Three recent recordings, Crystal Waters's Storyteller, Juliet Roberts's Natural Thing, and Ce Ce Peniston's Thought 'Ya Knew illustrate the vitality of current dance music. Each diva has put her distinctive stamp on a diverse collection of material, some of which merges traditional dance styles with hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues.

Waters's release is the best of the three; it fulfills the promise shown in her 1991 hit "Gypsy Woman." Waters has the driest, grainiest voice of any pop singer since Stevie Nicks, and she puts it in the service of her own complex and often topical lyrics. No silly love songs here. These attributes ignite when combined with the eclectic sensibilities of her producers, the Basement Boys. The songs range from jazz-fusion ("Is It for Me") to 60s soul ("I Believe I Love You") to hip-hop-inflected alternative soul ("Ghetto Day"), with a smattering of house tracks thrown in for good measure. Waters's jazz phrasing and understated inflections provide a dynamic alternative to the conventional approaches.

Roberts is also a compelling singer with a warm creamy voice and wide-ranging tastes, but you'd never know it from the first single, "I Need You," which in terms of technique is standard-issue. Roberts first came to light as part of the British pop jazz group Working Week during the mid-80s. On Natural Thing she displays her wit and elegance with suave readings of mid-tempo tunes, such as "Tell Me" and "Force of Nature," that at their best recall the tasteful restraint found on the Dionne Warwick-Burt Bacharach collaborations of the 60s. When presented with conventional material, however, Roberts struggles and tends to oversing.

Conventional up-tempo material has never proven a problem for Ce Ce Peniston, who first busted out of the pack in 1992 with "Finally," one of the last great wail-over-the-top singles of the dance boom. Her brassy exuberance and dramatic range recall young Chaka Khan. On her new record, however, she attempts to broaden her terrain with mixed results. Peniston can still turn standard up-tempo dance tunes into anthems, including "Hit by Love," and her mid-tempo, rhythm-and-blues- flavored numbers, such as "Searching," highlight the pungent lower registers of her voice. It is on the slower numbers that she falters. She has the chops to sing great ballads, but the tunes are all gloss: Toni Braxton, whose burnished, naked emotionalism has redefined the urban contemporary ballad, would have trouble breathing life into them.

Their flaws notwithstanding, the quality of these recordings bodes well for the future of dance music, as do other trends. For instance, the music is gaining partisans from the step-aerobics crowd, many of whom have never thought about setting foot in a nightclub. Also, dance music is well suited to the emerging technologies of CD-ROM and CD-I: always a remixers' medium, it's hard not to imagine people putting their own spins on dance singles via interactive media. It would give the term "house mix" new meaning.

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