Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of Emily Oleson’s essay on vernacular and concert dance. To read Part 1, please click here.
By Emily Oleson
Whatever “concert dance” is, Martha Graham was a “concert” dancer. She did much to create the category; but even she is not untainted by the influence of “popular entertainment.” According to Elizabeth Kendall’s Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance (University of California Press), Martha Graham made her New York premiere with the Denishawn Company in 1921. She performed in blackface in a trio choreographed by Ted Shawn called “Juba.” Not surprisingly, this isn’t prominently advertised on the websites of the Martha Graham Dance Company and Dance Heritage Coalition. George Balanchine also created a blackface solo for himself in 1926 according to Sally Banes’ article “Balanchine and Black Dance” (1994). I was unable to find photographic or moving images for either of these pieces, but there are pictures of Fred Astaire’s 1936 tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in blackface – and there was a review of this sequence in The New York Times as recently as last year, which opens with a disclaimer about how complicated the work is to interpret.
These performances were not done out of hate for African Americans, in fact Banes argues it was out of love and respect, but I think we can agree that those were not the most culturally sensitive artistic choices Shawn, Balanchine, and Astaire could have made. They might have made them without an awareness of the overall negative impact blackface performance had on black Americans – that’s part of white privilege, still in operation today.
So our most respected concert dancers, like the popular entertainers of the time they rejected, engaged in a distasteful trend that was so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable at the time – but is seldom brought up now. Certainly these performances wouldn’t have had the shock value then that they have today. I am certainly not suggesting that they be censored from dance history for operating under their contemporary social standards rather than our current standards of artistic taste and social responsibility – but then why not extend this same generosity to William Henry Lane and consider him a “concert” dancer as well?
I don’t actually enjoy talking about minstrelsy at all. It makes me feel awkward and ashamed and sometimes physically nauseated. I spent a lot of time distancing myself from dance forms that I associated with racism in my early dance training. Irish step dance and modern seemed pretty safe for me as a white girl. As a very young child I wanted no association with Appalachian culture (the traditional culture of my birthplace) for its affiliations with the South and therefore, in my mind, confederacy, rednecks and racism. As a teenager I was reluctant to openly study hip-hop dance although I loved the music, like much of my generation, because I had a vague fear I might be “stealing” it. It took a lot of pain and discomfort from many areas of my dance training to realize that no matter what my focus was going to be, racism was an element of so many stories in American dance history that it could not be avoided – and that ignoring it would not make it go away. It might make it worse.
Race Is Complicated
Sometimes, race and racism seem clear: “Racism is bad.” Yes. “Race does not exist.” Perhaps. “Because I’m not forcing anyone to the back of the bus, I’m not a racist.” Weeeelllll . . . actually, when you look closely, the racial climate of the United States is far more complicated than this. Unfortunately, institutional systems remain in place that make it nearly effortless to perpetuate racist patterns, even if that’s not your personal intention.
Major strides have been made to be more inclusive of artists who are minorities in their class, race or sexual orientation, but a lot of prejudice (as in literally pre-judgment) still remains in dance. Young black men and women might be expected to excel more at hip-hop and other urban dance forms “because they’re black.” Obviously problematic, but it still happens. White youth might retreat from studying “Black Dance” forms, not from a lack of interest, but out of a confused “sensitivity,” a feeling of respect and awe. “I could never do that, I’m too white” – but they’ll be happy watch it on YouTube and Like it on Facebook.
The predominantly white female culture of university dance majors can be incredibly sensitive and nurturing to some, but even there I found a simultaneous attraction to and dismissal of forms, which dance scholars have written about as “Black” dance. Examples would include tap, Lindy Hop, vernacular jazz, funk styles like popping, locking and boogaloo, and other urban dances like hip-hop and house. I have never met a serious dancer who didn’t recognize Michael Jackson’s collection of signature moves, but I can’t think of one dance academic who has made a point to find out about the street dancers who trained him, unless they themselves are practitioners of some urban dance style as well. I have never met a serious dancer who didn’t recognize Michael Jackson’s collection of signature moves, but I can’t think of one dance academic who has made a point to find out about the street dancers who trained him, unless they themselves are practitioners of some urban dance style as well.As a dance major I remember going to a Broadway musical with my family on a holiday, and realizing I had learned almost nothing the history of tap or jazz in my college dance history course.
I wouldn’t be as worked up about the issue if it wasn’t a question of formal education. White dance majors like me can easily consume commercial versions of urban culture, for example, but are we approaching vernacular forms with social responsibility? Should we look at contemporary choreography differently than the way we’ve looked at the work of Balanchine, Graham, and Shawn? We look at these classics of concert dance as “Art dance” and as a canon, without deeply exploring the content that inspired it or the context in which it was created – the vernacular forms like jazz or Appalachian dancing that it references. This actually does a huge disservice to the field of dance history, because vernacular artists from many genres of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds have consistently and directly influenced ballet and modern dance all along. Excluding vernacular dances in higher education narrows the field, and makes our knowledge of the work they inspired shallower. Vernacular work also tends to be created by economically marginalized communities, and the language around art is sensitive. Talking about “art dance” or “concert dance” without including anything except ballet and modern implies that only ballet and modern are art. Our aesthetic values are a big part of the way we oppress or resist each other in society.
But, talking about elitism, especially racism, in dance is . . . awkward. And, it’s going to be awkward for a while, if not forever. I don’t think that’s a reason to stay away from conversations examining American vernacular dance art forms. While the Beat Generation might have shied away from messy in favor of cool, I think that awkward might actually become the new cool for a group of young people raised on music called “grunge” and “funk,” and surrounded by images of vampires with their food dribbling out the corner of their mouths. Protagonists on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance” often seemed doomed to hysterical loneliness, battement-lay-out-shoulder-rolling to exorcise the inner demons. I like to think of these young Emos as subliminally performing a quick shout out to the Romantic era: emotional tumult is back in. See popular contemporary online series like “Awkward,” Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl,” and the 158,000 results a quick YouTube search of “awkward” will turn up, and we may reasonably suggest that messy uncertainty has become culturally endearing.
In reality, defying our common conception of concert dance, many vernacular dances do end up on the concert stage, where they are subject to all the same rigors of the rehearsal process that ballet and modern dancers adopt. Well-rehearsed, carefully designed and expertly executed dance from any form is moving and impactful to the audience. Urban dancers, Lindy Hoppers, tap dancers, and Appalachian cloggers work with every bit of intention, thought, soul searching, consideration of time/space/the body, and just as much artistic integrity as any modern or ballet dancers I’ve worked with. The difference I see is that their work is not always for the concert stage, because for some, the art is not in the concert, but in the spirit of the art making that happens at community gatherings. This isn’t so outlandish; we all know that art doesn’t have to happen on the stage.
So moving forward, what is needed? What about a more sophisticated or specific use of labels that describe individual instances of dance without boxing in entire genres as “folk,” “experimental,” “new”? What happens when someone does something after you? Yep, that new thing is now “old.” What happens when someone does the Lindy Hop on stage? Yep, that vernacular jazz is now concert dance.
Emily Oleson holds an M.F.A. in Dance at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the co-director of Good Foot Dance Company. Her evening-length show Vaudevival: Old is the new New came out of her affiliation with various dance communities including the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.V., the DC Tapfest, Ann Kilkelly in Blacksburg, Va., and Urban Artistry in Washington, D.C. and many others.
Photo: Top, Dave Savage; below, zzhandler
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