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date: 04 December 2020

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter juxtaposes brief case studies of African American vernacular dancers from the first half of the twentieth century in order to reexamine the relationship between the ideology of intellectual property law and the traditions of jazz and tap dance, which rely heavily on improvisation. The examples of the blackface performer Johnny Hudgins, who claimed a copyright in his pantomime routine in the 1920s, and of Fred and Sledge, the class-act dance duo featured in the hit 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate, whose choreography was copyrighted by the white modern dancer Hanya Holm, prompt a rethinking of the assumed opposition between the originality and fixity requirements of copyright law and the improvisatory ethos of jazz and tap dance. Ultimately, the chapter argues that whether claiming or disavowing uniqueness, embracing or resisting documentation, African American vernacular dancers were both advantaged and hampered by copyright law.

Keywords: improvisation, copyright, documentation, fixity, African American vernacular dance, Johnny Hudgins, Kiss Me, Kate, Fred and Sledge

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