Defrantz, Thomas F, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African
American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.
Summary of Work
For the purposes of my comprehensive exam list studies and dissertation research, I read chapters 1 – 7 of this edited collection. The work broadly covers how African American dance has been perceived and performed from slavery to near the present day. Thomas F. Defrantz starts off the collection by briefly discussing the struggles of terminology for African American dance. He states that he will use the term black dance or black vernacular dance in spaces where there are only people of color present, but always uses African American dance to refer to the same thing in mixed cultural groups. The reasoning is complex, and largely revolves around the history of the term black dance: it was often used as a pejorative, a term that meant it was lesser than European dances like ballet. White dance critics did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the work and made no efforts to understand or learn, meaning that the reviews in the paper of performance works were often derogatory or backhandedly complimentary.
While there were two important works on African American dance in the mid 1900s—Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance and Lynne Fauley Emery’s Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970—there are problems with both of those works. The Stearns put a focus on the term vernacular, making very clear that the dance styles they are talking about will never be high art or even really considered worthy of such a title. Emery’s work tries to document too much in travelogue form, and she doesn’t consider that there is more to these dances than race and the slavery-to-freedom narrative. Yet these two works are the foundation for the few other books that have been written on African American dance forms, and since the records on the dance forms are poor, there are a strange amount of methodological approaches taken to studying and writing about the dances. Defrantz states that the best scholarship out of the last decades of the twentieth century comes from scholars Kariamu Welsh Asante, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jacqui Malone, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Their works have served to diversify the scholarship on African American dance.
P. Sterling Stuckey discusses the challenges of converting African religious dance tradition into Christian worship. He briefly discusses the forced dancing on the boats during the Middle Passage crossing, and then goes on to say that the fact that the dances remained even after that and all the oppression and hardship they faced proves the importance of dance in African culture. But since there was such a mix of tribes, the dancing changed to become a language of slavery and communication across cultural boundaries. Stuckey then moves his focus to the Ring Shout, discussing it as a form of worship that involved shouting praises and shuffling the feet side to side while in a circle. Despite the many attempts to stop the practice, black people found ways to keep it in their worship. Stuckey also states that these dances were able to cross from religious to secular, and that while many times the steps were the same, the context is what made the dance different; thus, much like the African understanding of secular versus sacred, the line between the two is blurred. He states that Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin best describe the function and uses of these dances, citing Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain specifically as an example: the character Elisha performs a solo form of Ring Shout in the church as he dances and the crowd and preacher join in, creating something almost akin to Juba. The novel also contains prime examples of the Ring Shout in communal form at the church as it is done to tambourines and piano music, indicating that the Ring Shout is a very important and all-encompassing religious experience for these black Christian communities.
Nadine A. George discusses the struggles that black female vaudeville performers faced when going on the circuit. She focuses specifically on the Whitman sisters, discussing their rise as gospel focused performers and then moving away from the gospel performance to do vaudeville shows. They were light skinned, meaning that they could pass as white, and they performed on both the white vaudeville circuit and the TOBA circuit. George states that to their credit, they never did deny their black racial heritage, and yet that also brought its own set of challenges. These women, in order to “look black,” donned blackface and performed in it for most of the show. They also performed some stereotypical acts in order to keep the crowd pleased, and they were often fighting to get paid the rates that they had been promised. They were also in charge of being matriarchs to the picks that they had traveling with them, knowing that if they didn’t take good care of the children, it would ruin their business. At the same time as all of this was going on, they also often dyed their hair blonde and came out on stage for one number without the blackface, confusing many audiences because they wondered what white women were doing on stage during a black minstrel/vaudeville performance. They also had crossdressing acts, which challenged expected gender norms. Their business acumen and talent made these women the longest running vaudeville performing group, and they gave many great dancers their start, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In spending more time looking at the challenges, both gender and racial, they faced to accomplish all of this, George hopes their work will be more widely recognized and studied.
Marya Annette McQuirter discusses the myth of black people having natural dance talent, particularly focusing her studies on the 1940s forward. She states that there are problems with that precisely because every dancer goes through an awkward learning stage, but that stage is never represented in any studies or literature. Taking Malcolm X’s autobiography as an examples, she states that he goes directly from being unable to dance from lack of experience to a top jitterbug dancer magically: it is his African heritage that mysteriously gives him the ability rather than teachers helping him through awkward learning stages. It is narratives like that which put fuel on the fire of the stereotype of the natural black dancer. McQuirter states that there were many black people, especially those coming from the countryside, who did not dance and could not dance. If they wanted to go out on the town when they moved to the cities, they then had to go through an awkward learning stage in order to be able to dance at the clubs. As a parting statement, McQuirter asks her readers to realize that “The dance arena . . . did not offer a retreat from this awkwardness, but it was where women and men worked out the complex and difficult moves required to navigate the new and different terrain of urban centers throughout the United States at mid-twentieth century” (99).
Richard C. Green focuses on the career of Pearl Primus, a phenomenal black dancer who made many of her choreographic works about social issues (including the famous choreography to Billy Holliday’s Strange Fruit). Learning her dancing skill set at the New Dance Group’s school on a scholarship, she was influenced by the government’s efforts to use art to placate a people ready to riot. Her work was also shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, with figures like Locke and Hughes and Garvey speaking out about how to solve the “Negro Problem.” When she made her professional debut, she was very well received, and yet at the same time she did not rise to the fame that Josephine Baker and other lighter skinned performers did. Primus was considered a “real” black dancer due to her skin color combined with her dance movement choices. She did perform on Broadway and in an opera, and she staged many performances, some of which had lukewarm receptions, Given her history, it is troubling to Green that Primus is being used as a rebranding tool for both black dance and modern dance, her history being revised or erased in places that it becomes no longer a full picture of Primus. The revisionism reveals a truly American Dilemma where people feel they have to choose between calling Primus a black dancer and calling her a modern dancer. With revisionism like this occurring to push specific racialized agendas, it becomes even more important to be able to preserve a full picture of Primus as a dancer.
Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa give a brief overview of African people like Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham who started African dance companies in NYC, many of which still operate today, although only three companies in the country are internationally recognized: Ko-Thi, Muntu Dance Theater, and the African American Dance Ensemble.
Sally Banes and John F. Szwed discuss the history of the instructional dance songs, which create a form of dance notation for people to learn popular dances of the time. They state that the instruction song was a long-standing tradition among black communities, where they would use songs to call out dance steps. The songs were always only part of the picture for learning the dance: the songs assumed some level of familiarity with dance steps that would be taught in communities or at parties on a dance floor. There would be people present who could help others who were unfamiliar with the dances learn. The songs take many forms that reassure the listeners that the dances are popular, that everyone is doing them, that they are easy to learn, and that they should learn it too. They give examples in the text such as “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Locomotion” as well as “The Monkey” and “The Twist” and “The Jerk.” The songs had declined by the 60s but saw a revamp in the 70s with the Disco age, but the songs were much less specific with their instruction. The only place that such songs seem to exist in the present day is in country line dances done to country music. Banes and Szwed conclude by stating that these instruction songs contradict Adorno’s belief that popular music was an opiate, because these songs required their audiences to pay close attention, and they were encoded with specific cultural and communal knowledge. The one problem that the instructional song poses is that of appropriation: by making the moves mainstream, they are often watered down and found bereft of their cultural heritage.
Veta Golar discusses the blues aesthetic, stating that it is more than just sad songs and hard times, but comes to embody “(1) art that is contemporary, that is created in our time, (2) creative expresssions of artists who are empathetic with African American issues and ideals, (3) work that identifies with and reflects popular or mass black American culture, (4) art that has an affinity with African/U.S.–derived music and/or rhythms, and (5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic” (206). These aesthetic ideals combine to create something that is important to cultural production and black art forms. Golar states that Albert Murray’s belief is that it focuses and relies very much on vernacular. Therefore, the popular is the heart of the blues aesthetic. This aesthetic also opens up the blues to non-black artists. She looks at Dianne McIntyre’s work to discuss how the blues aesthetic can be seen in modern dance, stating that the rhythms she uses are a big part of that aesthetic. She performed many different dances that included dances which highlighted black cultural roots. Her aesthetic movement choices made the blues aesthetic clearer and more accessible to many audiences outside of black cultural audiences and connects those experiences to other people’s lives; her work is a form of cultural outreach.
Discussion of Work
The theory section of this collection will be very useful to me for my dissertation for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly that there is a reference to James Baldwin’s work in the piece on Christianity and AfAm Dance. Stuckey’s chapter specifically deals with not only the cultural importance of the Ring Shout but also the transference of that tradition into literary culture. The dance is an entryway to understand the cultural importance of the religious worship in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The presence of the Ring Shout multiple times throughout the work demonstrates that it is important to be aware of the dance’s cultural importance in order to properly read or analyze the work as a whole and its representation of black church worship services. The literature is as much a cultural artifact as the dances, and it requires readers to have a level of cultural competency in order to fully understand and appreciate the works instead of consume them and appropriate the material for our own popular or scholarly purposes. This is particularly true of scholars, who have argumentative agendas in writing about these works: refusing to acknowledge the important cultural points in the work becomes an act of assimilation into the broader term of Western, and therefore white, culture.
Generally speaking, the collection brings up important discussion questions: should we be referring to the dances done as black vernacular dances, African American dances, idiom dances, or something different from all of those? How can words, performers, and dances be reclaimed from a pejorative history? At what point is someone appropriating black art forms (in creating, using, consuming without knowledge of the roots of the art form)? What motivations do we as writers have when we approach this rich cultural history to make arguments about the dances’ validity? How can we avoid the dangers of the need to create an “Africanist” notion of African American dance?