(This was originally written for a lecture class with Elizabeth Alexander, one of the speakers on our symposium panel. As I drew directly from my experiences with YDT, I thought it relevant to share here.)
One of the things I have begun to think about is the idea of black culture traveling without black bodies. Scholar Gina Dent (whom I must credit for first introducing me to this as a concept) explains this by tracing the movement of ragtime music through James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man from the Deep South, to Europe, to the Northern United States – an argument I cannot fully reconstruct here. In other writing, I have spent some time dealing with the sense of rupture, even mistrust, one feels (myself and Jonathan Holloway included) when first laying eyes on the (lone) white dancer in Revelations – dealing with both the legacies of cultural appropriation it may call up and the tendencies towards racial essentialism it may expose. But though this concept and its complications have become more familiar to me, today’s class actually allowed me to see dance as a medium that contains some pushback to this phenomenon.
Thomas DeFrantz writes about the almost footnoted influence of black movement idioms on early modern dance, a space that both he and Professor Alexander indicated was mostly about a new white female subjectivity. (And as I learn more I see this kind of dynamic cropping up constantly – there is a similar relation to be found if one looks at white women learning from their work in movements for black suffrage in the late 1800s and then applying their skills to (white) female suffrage). Dance forms, it seems, like musical forms (jazz being a prime example) are by no means insusceptible to this kind of migration(/alienation) from black to white bodies.
And yet, something Professor Alexander said in class struck me: she spoke of dance as a medium reliant on human presence. Perhaps oral histories can now be recorded or transcribed, maybe the fundamentals of music may be written down, but dance, even with the advent of video, is still transmitted in person. When you learn dance, said Professor Alexander, teachers put their hands on your bodies.
My experience in YDT has allowed me to specifically attest to this. Renee often starts rehearsals with floor barre – a balletic exercise done – meticulously – on the floor, which she calls “organizing the body.” In between instructions she will stop, tell you to release your hips, find the space in your ankle. She will come over, feel your feet, guide your leg, tell you to “come with her energy.” How she can see from across the room what seem to me to be nearly entirely psychic shifts is absolutely beyond me, but if you can figure out how to do what she is telling you, it is clear she knows exactly what she is talking about. In fact, even without the physical touch, rehearsals with these two have taught me the importance of physical presence. One day, I forgot my contacts, and danced horribly. Matthew was choreographing in real time, and though I could see where his limbs were going, without the full 20-20 3D experience of his movement – a fullness of facial expression, movement quality, emotion, affect – I could not embody it.
So from the perspective of learning there does seem to be a certain inalienability about dance, a necessity of direct connection from person to person that may guard against appropriation or, at the very least, forge a kind of community around the work. But even for the non-dancers, this seems to be true. Though DeFrantz, in Dancing Revelations, describes in detail the televised version of Alvin Ailey’s classic ballet, Revelations, I feel fairly confident in saying that dance – at the very least, this kind of dance – is most often experienced live. Unlike with jazz records or hip hop mp3s, which, while certainly distinct from live musical performance, may nonetheless permeate people’s homes and spaces in their own way, few people really watch – or do! – dance away from the bodies who dance it. Thus, as can be seen when Jonathan Holloway writes about going to see Revelations as a standard part of black middle class life, there is a different dynamic with dance, both of production and consumption. When experiencing dance, it is actually necessary to share the physical space – both for the dancers and the audience – and this, while perhaps changing, and while by no means an answer to the many questions of appropriation and essentialism involved in race, bodies, and the living world of art and culture, may be a conduit to creating tangible communities, whatever their racial lines – places where alienation is harder to breed, and possibilities may take its place.
DeFrantz, Thomas. “Revelations 1962.” In Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture, 3-25. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Holloway, Jonathan S. “The Black Body as Archive of Memory.” In Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940, 67-101. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.