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Improvising Social Exchange: African American Social Dance

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores African American social dance structures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in which improvisation operates as a crucial methodology and ideology. It demonstrates the unimpeachable centrality of the physical practice of improvisation and shows that “creating while doing,” or consistently asking questions while moving, becomes foundational to the emergence of a black social self in communion with others.

Keywords: African American social dance, identity formation, corporeal orature

Broadly defined, social dance operates as an unavoidable and essential site of identity formation for individuals and groups; in mythologies of American youth culture from the 1950s forward, it stands as a primary site of improvised selfhood. In African American communities, the importance of social dance to group cohesion through changing historical eras can seldom be overstated. Social dance allows its practitioners access to modes of personal expression that provide urgent clues of physical capacity, desire, social flexibility, and an ability to innovate. In social dance, we discover the ever-expanding range of possibilities that might define individual presence within a group dynamic.

This essay explores African American social dance structures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, where improvisation operates as a crucial methodology and ideology. Improvisation provides a methodology for the construction of social dance exchange. Improvisation also stands as a foundational ideology of black social dance practice. Conceptually, this twinned resource demonstrates an unimpeachable centrality of the physical practice of improvisation: “creating while doing,” or consistently asking questions while moving, becomes foundational to the emergence of a social black self in communion with others.

A black social self might be one that imagines itself in communion with other black selves, even as it distinguishes its capacities along lines of ability, interest, and desire. Black exists in relationship to other markers of identity, black and non-black, and the process of relationship determines possibilities of recognition that undergird its existence. In other words, black is not a thing, but rather, a gesture, an action, a sensibility made manifest. Thus, a black social self is literally a concept in motion, shifting and forming according to the terms of encounter that determine social relations.

(p. 331) Social dance offers a site where black motion can be generated, accommodated, honed, and appreciated; it offers a place of aesthetic possibility connected to personal expression. For this chapter, social dance might be dance created in situations without separation of performer and audience, and without a predetermined intention of expression. The sites of this genre include school auditoriums, church basements, house parties, nightclubs, and rented ballrooms, and the genre becomes manifest within event celebrations such as family reunions, cotillions, weddings, school dances, and birthday parties. On these sorts of occasions, and in these sites, social dance emerges as the consecration of an event by the group, as an embodied aesthetic marking of presence in time. Non-linear creativity within social dance motion distinguishes it from goal-oriented athletics or the politically tilted gestures of rallies or sit-ins (choreographies of sport or protest). For our purposes, social dance hinges upon the possibility of expression and communication as its own goal within a particular time and place. Social dance occurs outside of everyday interactions of commerce, meaning that it cannot be paid labor, and, significantly, it requires the participation of a larger group who recognize the dance event as such. Defined thus, by its own occurrence and participation, social dance constitutes ritual practices that characterize individual action within communal communication and exchange.

Rhetorics of African American Improvisation

The adage that African American culture “makes something from nothing” underscores emphases on improvisation and composition that surround black presence in the New World. Pundits and cultural theorists can easily align black social dances to an “American inventiveness” and “do-it-yourself-ness” foundational to an understanding of an American self. In this narrative line, youthful America creates itself out of incessant volition and ambition to achieve. Similarly, improvisation arrives as ambition toward achievement; as an ability to move unexpectedly toward a goal, as well as an ability to move as the situation demands. The performance of intentional, directed movement allows for a recognition of the act of black social dance improvisation, and creative invention in the moment characterize its possibilities.

Black social dances also align this necessary moving-to-express with an embodied realization of pleasure. The assumption of a serious pleasure within the invention of physical improvisation merits special consideration here. Black social dances conceive of social, rhythmic motion as pleasurable, and essential, modes of interaction and exchange; improvisation intends to allow for playful, liberatory embodied choice-making within the context of the group. The pleasures of social dance relate to its musicality and embedded processes of choice-making within agreed-upon group structures; the practice of dancing in this genre demonstrates emotional and spiritual well-being.

(p. 332) In a nod to the general tendency to value literature over orature, some dance scholars have labored to define improvisation as choreography in black vernacular (social) dancing. Dance literature, or choreography, might be work that could be recorded on paper or via technologies of visual media, while improvisation might be more akin to structures of spontaneous oration and rhetoric. In 2001, theorist Jonathan David Jackson called for a valorization of sensing, or emotion, in social dance as a “path of intelligent knowing” that might resist the violent Platonic/Cartesian split caused by writing (Jackson 2001, 43). In black vernacular dance, “improvisation means the creative structuring, or the choreographing, of human movement in the moment of ritual performance,” a structuring that aligns improvisation with intentional composition (44). This line of argumentation tends to re-stabilize choreography, or writing, as the ideal model for dance practice. But improvisation, especially in black social dance circumstances, conveys its own pleasures and urgencies without necessary recourse to translatable signs and symbols that characterize writing. The improvisational practices of these dances complete themselves without an insistence on translation into language or visual mark.

Jackson’s call for “sensing” as a mode of analysis suggests an intangible analytic for improvisation, one that stresses the impermanent, time-based nature of social dance production. Sensing becomes manifest in waves, like thought and motion, and resists a fixing of gesture. Improvisation that proceeds from a reliance on sensing, then, might become enlivened by the engagement of unexpected and unusual motion; by physical embellishment or unruliness that works to unsettle formalized repetitions of gesture. In other words, the dancer’s innovation in response to a rhythmic/musical ground provides essential markers toward the production of emotion that might be sensed within the dance. Fulfilling the age-old adage in a different way, the “something” produced by the dance builds from the largely invisible “nothing” of physical perception.

Teleologies of Improvisation in African American Social Dance

INSIDE the dance, I enjoy the discovery of what we can do together. With you watching, a willing witness, confidante, and partner in motion, I feel supported to break the beat, to resist the complex, but steady, grounding pulse that already offers so many ways to imagine synchronicities of energy. The complex rhythm that forms the ground for our dance echoes in my nervous system, pulsing outward from my incessantly rhythmicized life force, and confirming the potency of this encounter of music and movement. My pulse, our pulse, the musical pulse converge and align, but then separate so that our dance can emerge in-between. I grimace at the effort to move outside of these cadences, I risk movements and fail along the way, and laugh and smile at any achievement that you or I share as we dance.

Social dance functions as a barometer of connectivity, or a way for people to recognize a social self. The dance produces relationship; and in it, we struggle to achieve. Moving (p. 333) among others, we hope for connection to be born or to be laid bare as we stomp, shift, glide, and dip through passages of spontaneous motion. This connection is not guaranteed, and the risk of social dance arrives intertwined with its improvisational imperative. We risk failure, or a miscommunication that might alter our future capacities outside of the dance. This risk adds to the sense of urgency surrounding its execution. Social dance matters, and its improvisations are embedded within the relationships that it may or may not inspire.

African American social dance proceeds from the need to communicate outside of language; a passage of dance may be language-like, but it is not at all literal. Corporeal Orature, a designator for the process of communicating through choices of movement, provides methodology grounded in history for the practice of social dance. Here, body-talking establishes intertextual connection among steps and gestures performed inside the dance, with referents often drawn from circumstances outside its execution. A movement may make reference to someone else’s version of its form, as in a step done in cousin Jan’s distinctive slow-motion style; it may reference dances no longer in wide distribution, as in the insertion of a 1980s “Roger Rabbit” in the midst of a 2010s “Wobble”; it may mimetically suggest direct metaphor, as in bringing hands to the heart to indicate feelings of affection, or brushing a hand across a forehead, to indicate exertion or “sweating” a partner or situation. These insertions of embodied referents arrive in non-linear, evocative assembly; they confirm the expansive possibility of statement enabled by the dance. Dancers access these referents in improvised response to the occasion of the dance. The most successful corporeal orature employs elegant, unexpected assemblage of metaphor and physical achievement.

A historical dimension of black social dance, alluded to above, renders it at once archival and futuristic. Dancers rediscover pungent pleasure and expressive capacity in older, discarded movements, made fresh again now with unanticipated musical accompaniment. The music of social dance grounds its improvisational practices and stimulates movement possibilities with sonic calls that provoke physical response. A propulsive backbeat suggests fast footwork from 1930s dances; a slow, downward-sliding bass line can inspire “lean back” gestures from repertories of 1960s or 1990s dances. Improvisation in this realm, then, reaches back in order to cast forward, confirming affiliation among movements from a lively past of dancing while reimagining possibilities of gesture. This reiteration of motion aligns the practice of social dance with an Africanist aesthetic imperative that values cycles of repetition (Snead 1981). Social dance can fulfill the embodied reclaiming, or remembering, of musical genres/rhythmic bases that define eras and styles of black popular music.

Learning to Social Dance

I WANT to dance with you. I want to move alongside you, and toward and away from you, as we navigate the rhythms and sonic structures that surround us. I want to guess at what (p. 334) you might do, and I want to be correct most of the time. I want to surprise you with my ability to do something you didn’t know I might. I want to ride the rhythm a little longer than we may have done last time, or to work against the beat in a stutter step and turn toward the group. I want my dance to confirm me in this moment. To validate our communion as people in relationship, in the space of the dance, in the process of discovery. When we dance we wonder at what is possible, we appreciate how impulse turns into gesture and gesture reveals desire and intellect. Our dance is multidimensional, and I want it to be good, I want to be provocative and profound. I never know whether this will happen, but I do hope for it. Will you dance with me?

The process of learning to social dance is actually a process of learning to improvise. Or, more correctly perhaps, a process of learning to trust one’s improvisation. Because social dance has no set outcome, or ironclad form, its practice may be defined in large part by the willingness of its participants. The willingness to engage in social dance is a willingness to accept risk and an unruly inability to know what will happen. Social dance challenges the faculties of physical engagement and relational correspondence. To dance well in this idiom is to trust that one’s choices have value, and that they will communicate something recognizable and fleetingly noteworthy.

A longstanding Hollywood trope casts awkward young men in the role of needing to learn to social dance in order to connect with their object of desire; in this idiom, social dance is defined as a rite of passage. Formulaically, this scenario usually involves a best friend or mentor leading the protagonist through a montage of missteps and embarrassments before the big dance event/prom where tensions and disappointments may be resolved through the demonstration of dance. In these scenarios, the main character exceeds his training in the heat of the performative moment, and in an improvisational flourish, achieves gestures that he didn’t know he might. Footloose offers a classic portrayal of this genre. Note that in both the first 1984 iteration and the 2011 remake, the small-city, white dancers engage in white-derived “rock and roll” dances, as well as African American-created social dance movements. The black social dance movements—steps drawn from 1960s “black power”–era social dances including “the football” and “the Four Tops”—allow the main characters of the films to shine forth in improvisatory demonstrations of their abilities and personalities. The black social dance improvisations confirm the arrival of a recognizable subject in motion, ready to engage others in a physical, desirous relationship.

To dance well differs little from speaking well: social dance demonstrates embodied rhetoric. Improvisational movers can align ideas in coherent sequence to signal agility, ability, wit, or sensual pleasure. Elegance of execution and composition matters here, and a recognizable “turn of phrase” separates the best social artists from their companions. But because dance movement does not carry literal meaning, witnesses and partners engage the essential act of decoding that confers communicative value. To reiterate, social dance arrives as a mode of encounter, realized by two or more participants.

Some social dancers have little to say, and their dance arrives in simple, repetitive motion. These might be the dances that most people perform: dances that engage little improvisation, and make few extra-dance references; dances that answer a simple (p. 335) rhythmic and social need to be in motion with others. These dances also matter, as sensation and confirmation of possibilities for a group dynamic. But, as in the Hollywood prototype, the moments of black social dance that linger longest in memory tend to derive from those compressed circumstances that produce an unanticipated articulation of character or self, even if only in the instant of their improvised realization. These might be small acts, but they can surely shift the architecture of relationship.

Professional Social Dance

THIS is what I already know. If I push back with my weight through my hips, and grind my feet into the ground with a heaviness of step, I can amaze you with the acuteness of an angle produced by my bent knees and elbows; I can stun you into silence with the accuracy and force of my attacking hips in motion, or the smoothness of my glide across the floor as I release my weight ever upwards from the ground. I scurry across the floor, shifting my feet without seeming effort. I curve my arm up my body, circling my hips, touching my torso lightly, gazing inward, pulling my focus inside, and as I close my eyes, I suppose I do find something out. I didn’t know about this weight here, or that possible shift of energy to there. Did you see me do that? But even in these few seconds of knowing my motion, and sensing it differently, I need your witnessing to stabilize my discovery.

Professional social dances offer an illusion of improvisation. The conceptual contradiction between professional and social dance has to do with the level of improvisation present in performance. Professional dancers practice and rehearse consistently alone or with others, in order to engage an expanded repertory of movement available for performance. Social dancers, though, practice less consistently, and discover possibilities within the realm of social dancing itself. Talented and highly skilled social dancers move beyond the category that would seem to define them as they become the leading participants of any circumstance of dance. Their leadership typically indicates two truths: one, that their practice intends to minimize risk and maximize a finished quality of execution; and two, that their performance might be repeated, or replicated, nearly intact in other circumstances and on other occasions.

Professional social dance is the dance of television and film, the dance of the stage, and the dance of demonstration. In this form of dance, dancers embellish and exaggerate the physical contours, or steps, of the form to affirm the possibilities of organized performance. Expert social dancers in any genre inspire and delight their audiences, who inevitably enjoy witnessing the supremely confident execution of movement that emerges without the hesitations and ruptured mistakes of everyday improvisation. The thrill of social dance performed with minimal risk move its contents toward the space of the refined, the repeatable, the commodifiable.

When black social dance can be repeated and professionalized, it loses its ability to convey the unexpected discovery. Rather, it seeks to amaze by its spectacular presence. In this, black social dance has been entirely successful, from its earlier international (p. 336) achievement in the nineteenth-century cakewalk, to the twenty-first-century inventions of j-setting and turf dancing distributed by YouTube videos. The professional social dancers who practice these forms, and arrive in films made by Thomas A. Edison or in HD on internet sites, seldom make a living by dancing. Like other dance artists, they encounter a field full of competition and small opportunity compared to their number. But for these best of the best, social dancing is more than avocation, and their presence in social settings transforms the event from a place of mutual exploration to a place of the show. The professional social dancers—those in the “cat’s corner” at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s, or on the upper level of the Studio 54 in the 1970s—demonstrate a soaring potential for social exchange in their embodied excellence, their practiced expertise. Surely they also improvise to some degree, but the terms of improvisation arrive in studied difference of effect.

For devoted social dancers, competitions allow a high-level engagement with the raised stakes of performance necessary for movement invention. Indeed, African American dance competitions occupy a valued and essential site of social performance, stretching from dances in seventeenth-century corn-husking competitions to twentieth-century Chicago Stepping competitions. In these events, expert social dancers try their skills against other, equally committed movers, to be judged by other experts and gathered witnesses surrounding the performance. Here, improvisation arises as dancers push their movement beyond the routines they’ve practiced so carefully. Improvisation supplies the burnished energy of desire that marks physical effort as extraordinary. Collectively, we feel this “push to exceed” and move beyond the known gestures, and the improvisatory flourish inevitably wins the challenge.

Improvising Sexuality and Failure

THE YOUNG man focuses his energy through his pelvis, through the muscles that bind the torso and abdomen to the hips and thighs. His face contorts in the visage of worry. With one arm held high, he reaches forward with his other arm, hand opened and tensed at once, as if to slap something. He plays different rhythms across his body: hands moving in a slow patting gesture against the air, while he animates his hips in staggered but quick jabbing circles, moving faster and faster as he bends his legs more and more. The young women who surround him seem concerned as well; they seem to want to understand what he means to express through his dance. They clap for him, and hold the beat steady so that he can solo in front of it. Suddenly, the film cuts to another dancer. The short film clip lasts less than five seconds, and viewers witnessing the film learn little of its implications, or what the short improvisation might mean for the dancer or his witnesses.

Social dance incites considerations of sexuality, and both its practitioners and detractors tend to conflate ability in the dance with sexual availability. This makes sense, if we consider social dance as a barometer of intimate responsiveness and ability to improvise physically; these might be preferred qualities in intimate encounter. (p. 337) But often, detractors construe black social dances—these dances that consistently emphasize an agility in all parts of the body with knees bent, torso engaged, and pelvis released—as agents of immorality and instigators of lust. The young man described above, dancing in the documentary Rize, demonstrates movements aligned with “the stripper dance,” a form named for its borrowing from commodified, and largely improvised, sexually charged performance dance. Social dancers conceive the stripper dance as a solo form, practiced in turns amid a witnessing and supportive group—often at the center of a dance circle. The stripper dance exists along the border of social dance to be explored in encounter with another, and dances of labor, to be shared with an entire group.

The dance circle acts as intermediary between an intimate sociality of two and the unwieldiness of a dancer viewed by a mass audience. The dance circle mitigates interpretive distances that arise as social dance broadens its reach, and provides an “in-between” space of encounter for prepared dance and improvisation, personal discovery and group consensus. The dance circle protects and permits, and its boundaries reveal the limitations of palpable discovery in dance motion. Outside the circle—sitting in the auditorium watching social dancers onstage, or at home viewing dancers online—I can only guess at the value of danced exchange. Without the cues of context that mark any successful and evocative communication, my guesses at the importance of danced innovations before me will largely fail.

The circle of the dance, referenced by Fanon, accommodates the needs of a community to recognize itself in motion. More important, the circle allows improvisers to find their own form without reference to the movements of the larger group. Outside the circle—when the group is in its larger, improvising whole—small gestures and discoveries rise and fall, emerge and dissipate alongside the rhythmic pulse of the dance. These small victories in movement matter, but they remain small and contained by the near-privacy of their occurrence. Without the circle, improvising social dancers often exceed the emerging trends of the larger group. Within the circle, physical moments of “flash” or “shine” reveal an inner emotional life of the dancers. In the circle, these surprising movements are encouraged, observed, supported, valued, and remembered. But what do they mean? What of the improvised gestures that resist even the norms of the group black social dance, the electric slide or cha-cha slide? If these group dances promote access to a black social self in communion with others, what does improvisation outside of these formal structures do?

Improvisation, then, poses special problems of interpretation in black social dance, largely constrained by pressures of everyday racism. Improvising black social dancers, more than others, may be seen to operate as provocateurs, non-normative dancers whose moves seek to subvert social norms. In many ways, this capacity stands, as social dance allows for the performance of outrageous gesture—sexualized, desirous, intimidating—within its context of embodied thought. But black social dance also risks failure in its improvisations, and that circumstance, where movements land without value or impact, continually reminds us all of the fragility of gesture, and the abiding need to try again.

(p. 338) Because it is probably in those missteps that improvisation reassures us. What we need to know: the recovery is always possible, that invention generates heat and confirms capacity, that figuring the thing out together reminds us of a possible shared knowledge. Our improvisation enlivens us because it confirms that we are flexible, willing to not know, but engaged in the question of what might be.


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