Stephanie L. Batiste
This chapter argues that the African American dance practice of krumping editorialized in the 2005 David LaChapelle film RIZE defines a space of home as a system of feeling in early twenty-first-century Los Angeles. It offers the notion of kinetic affect as a means of understanding dancers’ charismatic formation of community within dance practice and its spaces. Krump dancing reveals a rich world of love and pain that characterizes life in black Los Angeles. The dancers’ commando-style ownership of venue, content, embodiment, and performance presentation challenge the confining spaces of ethnographic film, urban disenfranchisement, and stereotype.
“An Interesting Experiment in Eugenics”: Ted Shawn, American Dance, and the Discourses of Sex, Race, and Ethnicity
Paul A. Scolieri
The “ethnic dance” movement in the United States is closely associated with Ted Shawn, the “Father of American Dance” (1891–1972). Shawn and his wife and dancing partner, Ruth St. Denis, founded a dance company called Denishawn, whose repertory incorporated Native American, “Negro,” and Spanish folk dances. By the mid-1920s, Shawn viewed American dance in terms of moral and physical purity—a philosophy he based on the discourse of eugenics. This article explores how the eugenics movement informed Shawn’s vision of American dance in the 1920s, particularly with respect to two of his related writings, The American Ballet and “An American Ballet.” It explains how Shawn’s personal and professional relationship with Havelock Ellis, a British physician who was a leading proponent of the eugenics movement in Europe and whom he considered his idol, influenced his views about eugenics. It also examines how Shawn’s anxiety about his own sexual “unfitness” (his homosexuality) shaped his racist, nativist, and xenophobic “experiment” with eugenics in American dance.
“And I Make My Own”: Class Performance, Black Urban Identity, and Depression-Era Harlem’s Physical Culture
Christopher J. Wells
This chapter applies spatial practice theory to the intersections of power relations, social spaces, and embodied performance in the dance culture of Great Depression-era Harlem. Tracing the movement in black communities away from signifiers of ethnicity toward social-class-based hierarchies, it shows how ethnicized tropes have been used to exoticize and commodify black identity and to create the American black/white racial binary. This strategy has its roots in the marketing labels of the slave trade and the performative tropes of minstrel shows, and it continued in the floor shows of the Cotton Club and other “jungle alley” nightclubs in Harlem. The chapter charts the trajectory of the Savoy Ballroom’s drift from an upscale, dignified dance palace to an incubator for the lindy hop and Harlem’s other popular dance innovations. It argues that considering dance demands a model of ethnicity that creates more space for individual agency and processes of self-definition.
The black-cast backstage musical Stormy Weather (1943) is the first Hollywood film to explicitly celebrate black achievement. Featuring key figures of African American dance and more black dance numbers than any other mainstream musical, it testifies to the versatility and—crucially—the hybridity of jazz dance culture. This article analyzes dance in Stormy Weather by addressing questions of appreciation, appropriation, and assimilation in the context of both film and dance history. Stormy Weather’s panoply of styles and stars negotiates several contradictory processes: white appropriation of “authentic” black talent, black assimilation to “classy” white styles, but also black adaptation and appropriation of hitherto white domains of performance. Through its self-referential narrative of dance history—and through some omissions—it simultaneously chronicles the history of black performers and racial stereotypes in white Hollywood, and thus reveals the industry’s strategies in the exploitation of black talent.
Reviewers of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) often claimed to be bombarded, overloaded, or pathologically infected by the film’s rapid-fire imagery and eclectic cultural references. This chapter explores these visceral experiences of spectatorship, focusing on the film’s dance sequences. It argues that in these sequences, choreography and digital technology (including computer-generated imagery and editing) combine to allow spectators to physically experience on-screen bodies that are historically and culturally complex, distant, and “other.” Alison Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memory” (2004) suggests that films can physically connect spectators with pasts and memories they have not directly experienced. This chapter argues that Moulin Rouge! achieves this physical connection by tapping into, and updating, a bohemian tradition of cross-cultural and transhistorical self-performance.
Authenticity and Ethnicity: Folk Dance, Americanization, and the Immigrant Body in the Early Twentieth Century
Jessica Ray Herzogenrath
During the Progressive Era, settlement workers attempted to regulate dance both within and outside settlement house walls as a method to instill proper “American” body behaviors, particularly in immigrant bodies. This essay examines the paradoxes of folk dance as encouraged by settlement workers in early-twentieth-century Chicago and New York. Settlement workers aimed to assimilate immigrants to American ideals of health, refinement, and respectability through the body; in folk dance they found a satisfying mode of nonsexualized dance, which also acted out a romanticized desire for simplicity in the midst of rapid modernization. The evidence reveals that folk dance in settlement houses traveled two paths: ethnic clubs devoted to the practice of immigrant traditions and structured classes offered to girls and young women. These developments fulfilled the project of Americanization prescribed by the settlement movement and provided a means for immigrants to continue folk practices from their home countries.
This chapter examines the history and practice of skin color prejudices in the ballet world, especially as they relate to conceptions of “whiteness.” The ethnic roots of ballet (Kealiinohomoku) and Africanist influences on George Balanchine, which led him to invent a new kind of classicism (Dixon Gottschild), are considered, as is the dance world’s reception of these topics. It is suggested that Balanchine might have been a strong force for the integration of ballet had he not been limited by his racially hidebound context. It is also suggested that ballet might always be “the kingdom of the pale” unless the ballet world moves beyond superficial ways of seeing.
This article examines the dancing joke-work of Jewish film stars as ballet swans in Be Yourself and Funny Girl. It shows how the joke of the Jewish swan queers white heterosexual femininity while revealing the sustained power of its classical Western-centric swan tropes. In situating Jewish swan humor within theories of parody, queer discourse, and gendered joke-work, the article highlights the pleasurable embodiment of enduring Jewish female stereotypes and reveals a comic dance legacy of the funny girl body unfit for love. It also explains how the humor of ballet parody and the swan constructs the Jewish funny girl body; how Be Yourself and Funny Girl stake a claim in ethnic and sexual otherness as sites of comic expression and critical difference; and how each film embodies critiques of classical ballet and its idealist proscriptions for white women even as both sustain romantic fantasies of female leads.
This chapter seeks to recuperate the dance legacies in Saturday Night Fever (1977) through a choreographic and cinematographic analysis of the film’s dance sequences. The ways the camera centralizes racialized, dancing bodies offers a perhaps accidental acknowledgement of the debt owed to black dancers. Centered around John Travolta’s Italian-American character Tony Manero living in a homogeneous Brooklyn neighborhood—where blacks were (and continue to be) unwelcome—Saturday Night Fever paradoxically exposes and pays tribute to the black roots of the screendancing. Travolta’s training for the film uncovers a complex dance history that reflects significant interracial contact behind the scenes as well as between and within singular bodies. There was interracial mixing in the backgrounds of the film’s top-billed choreographer, Lester Wilson, and Travolta’s uncredited dance instructor, Deney Terrio, and the modern, jazz, and street dance roots of the choreography shifts the film into a history of American concert and commercial dance practice.
The Best Dance Is the Way People Die in Movies (or Gestures Toward a New Definition of “Screendance”)
On screen, inanimate objects can be made to “dance” as surely as human dancers can be reduced to the status of objects. This is one way screendance redefines dance and establishes its uniqueness as a genre, differentiating itself from every conceivable form of live, theatrical dancing. For example, in David Hinton and Yolanda Snaith’s Birds, the only “dancers” are finches, owls and bluebirds; creative editing of “found” documentary footage imbues the birds’ movements with “dance-like” qualities. But in so doing, it inadvertently blurs essential distinctions between dance-for-screen and countless other screen-based “dance-like” experience, for example, the harrowing bullet-riddled final moments of Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s film, often described as a “dance of death.” But no one proposes that films like Bonnie and Clyde are screendance works. This essay examines the contradictions that arise when we define screendance in ways that de-emphasize the prominence of human dancers.