“Canons are the conditions of institutions and the effect of institutions. Canons secure institutions as institutions secure canons...When I bring this up, I heard stories of how undergraduates have told their teachers that whole semester of Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer changed their lives. I do not doubt these stories, but we have to do a quality/quantity shift if we are going to canonize the new entries. The undergraduates will have their lives changed perhaps by a sense of the diversity of the new canon.” -- Gayatri Spivak
Growing up in suburban Boston in the 90's, my main access to hip-hop was music videos. My other encounters came in trips into Boston to take Hip-Hop at dance hubs like Dance Complex. My world travelled academic parents, in a model of 'concerted cultivation' supported my interest in vernacular dance forms that lit me up. Commerical hip-hop was only beginning to take hold in franchises or privately owned studios. In the 90's, Millennium, Los Angeles' center of commercial hip-hop training, was a baby. Now, in 2015 so many dancers grow up in contact with some kind of African American form, some mutation, derivation, or incarnation of "hip hop dance," thanks to the pop culture ubiquity of commercial hip-hop.
Attempting to teach a dance-for-other-majors-looking-for-credits course on Vernacular Jazz at Cal Arts this past spring, compounded by an interview with tap maestra Michelle Dorrance, I've been thinking about how and if academic institutions of dance can work harder to reveal the artistry and technical prowess of African diaspora forms, and if -- arguably -- the the role of legitimizing force compels a responsibility.
What would be different if dancers and dance makers had a more profound knowledge of popular black forms than the mass media markets that both commodify and spread hip hop?
I asked Dorrance for her take on the impact of the modern American canon (i.e., the ancestors of the Denishawn legacy, from Graham down) that has left tap, African, and hip-hop as nothing more than special interests in academia. Is this part of the larger problem of racial stereotyping in America? What kind of privilege and subjugation are at work here? Michelle Dorrance has extensive experience bringing tap to prestigious dance institutions in America. Institutions that, as both her and I see it, designate certain dances as entertainment (not fit for the canon, or fit for the Other canon) while others are classified as high art; this means that the most ‘popular’ dance forms in America since 1900, all African American vernacular forms, are understudied and this undervalued. There’s Cakewalk, Soft Shoe, 20’s Charleston, Black Bottom, 30’s Shag, 40’s Lindy Hop and Swing, (my personal pocket) 50’s Balboa, Jitterbug, 60’s Soul, 70’s Disco -- yes, disco started as a black form, 80’s Breakdancing, Locking, Popping, 90’s Miami Bass, New Orleans Bounce, Baltimore club, DC’s GoGo, etc. If we confuse vernacular dance with its appropriation for commercial use as only a form of entertainment, we are demeaning the monumental impact that Black dances have made over the last century. In dealing with what academia might also term ‘folk’ dance, we stumble into questions about dance as entertainment, meaning as distraction from life, versus dance as art, as a focusing beam, and the liminal space between.
In conversation, Dorrance draws easily on her historical knowledge. She has been embodying and presenting the history of tap since she was a child performing for a non-profit that brought tap into schools in the South. Dorrance, North Carolinian-turned-New Yorker, champions the dance form she sees as an African American tradition. She cites the masters she learned from and the masters her masters learned from, tracing her tap ancestry back to their vernacular roots in colonial Black dance. Dorrance seemed accustomed to defending her authenticity and legitimacy as white person working in a black form, standing up for her work and her deep commitment to percussive dance.
“Once you are entrenched in a multiracial community of people, linked to everyone in that community, you have a relationship, and a responsibility to the history and roots of your form. Even if your ancestors aren’t the same skin color, they are still the ancestors of your form. We all have to be responsible for that legacy. We are also trapped in that legacy because we are so reverent about it. In Europe people can experiment. There is a ton of technical innovation happening here in the United States. There is maybe more conceptual innovation happening in Europe."
Dorrance believes that in terms of refined technical approach, tap is on par with ballet. “Tap and ballet, as far as the cannon of these forms, are by far the most refined. Tap is incredibly refined and has no relation to these other forms.” In the same breath, she also highlights tap as a uniquely American (art) form. “Tap dance is both an original American street form, a folk dance, but became innovated by master stylists and master dances. A sophisticated technique was developed.” Dorrance makes a distinction between technical refinement and crystallization. Central to understanding tap as a relative of Jazz, is that it, too, relies on innovation and improvisation. “African dance is more embodied into dance programs (than tap), in part because people codified it. People can’t find a safe place to put tap dance. You can put African dance into ethnic dance and folk dance. And some people will respect it as an art form, although you don’t hear that very often. Hip hop at this point is considered street dance and not an art form. It is considered entertainment.”
I asked her, “If we don’t understand how complex the African diaspora traditions are, does that reinforce the notion that the ideas of non-white people as simplistic Others? Dorrance is diplomatic but honest: “People study Limon, and Cunningham, and Graham – that’s one person’s technique. Talk about indulgence. A lot of modern dance is created inside the academic world.” While unwilling to say if or how the canon reinforces hierarchical models reflecting our society-at-large, she takes a clear stand on the side of music, suggesting a broader, more pluralistic perspective: “I think it’s sad there’s not more interdisciplinary learning with music and movement. A lot of modern and contemporary post-modern choreographers create movement without music. A lot of that happened with Fluxus or Judson Church. They were deconstructing everything. I get it. But if we are studying the larger canon of movement, movement in general, its origins, it has a relationship to music.”
When I try to teach a break down of Jazz dance history, I often come up against Jack Cole. Cole is considered the “Father of Jazz Dance” or the “inventor” of jazz for the stage. You know what this looks like. Cole choreographed every iconic dance sequence for Hollywood’s leading ladies, when Astaire or Kelly wasn’t in the picture. It is a combination of Denishawn training, interest in North Indian dance, and the jazz nightlife vernacular he learned by osmosis. Ailey borrowed his port de bras, Fosse copied his hip isolations, Robbins was his student. Cole was so broadly influential, we can hardly discern his influence. I want to distinguish between Cole the “inventor” and Coles the “discoverer.” Fred Astaire learned to tap from John Bubbles, born John William Sublett, a vaudevillian who caught the eye of George Gershwin. Bubbles is the steward of rhythm tap that married vernacular jazz dance styles with the cleaner tap styles of Bill Robinson aka Bojangles. (For those unfamiliar with the tap form, a simplified way of understanding Bubble’s contribution is that he is credited with the heel drop, a critical part of the earth bound syncopation of Charleston and early jazz dance styles.) I want to supercede the conventional perception of jazz dance as pertaining only to the vocabulary popularized by musicals. This is by and large the general understanding of Jazz dance. But these works represent a narrow slice of jazz dance, and this slice has historically been a site of confusion among entertainment, artistry, invention, appropriation, and commodification. Robbins, Fosse, Gene Kelley, all these choreographers incorporated some elements of Jazz into their personal aesthetics intended for commercial stage and screen. The knowledge they drew on, now referred to as vernacular jazz to distinguish it from the commodified forms of dance, represents a vast form of movement deeply ingrained in America’s heritage.
Before the internet, there was TV, before TV, there was radio, and before radio, there was vaudeville. As ubiquitous a part of pop culture in America as Netflix is today, vaudeville was at its peak in the 1890s, when jazz dance first diffused into America’s urban centers. Vaudeville shows developed nationally popular memes, to use today’s terminology. Like the best of YouTube, vaudeville could be anything from absurd animals tricks, to feats of strength and virtuosity, to satirical performances. The Charleston was in full force in roaring twenties. Lindy Hop emerged in the late thirties, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1940’s -- comparable to today’s fixation and diffusion of commercial hip hop. However, the writing of seminal jazz anthologies, and the academic acceptance of jazz studies were institutionalized after be-bop, the moment when the music removed itself from a mutual existence with dance. Academically, this is an interesting chicken/egg question. Did jazz music become more academically acceptable by shedding its dancing side? How did separating movement and music affect jazz studies? Was extracting movement (and embodied femininity) part of legitimizing Jazz studies? Amiri Baraka’s narrative of jazz history talks lyrics and music but leaves out dance all together. More recently, Todd Goia’s history of jazz starts with Congo Square, where West African rhythms were embodied in a mix of dance culture.
There is a difference between Outside Art, and a dominant cultural form that is continually forced into a secondary position against the canon of Modern dance, because it is associated with popular culture. African American forms become associated with, almost synonymous with, popular culture because of the appropriating and commercializing hands of the Entertainment Industrial Complex taking from the sites of creation: the vaudeville cabaret, the juke joint, the drag ball, the street corner, all sites of resistance and satire against dominating structural forces of racism, sexism and homophobia.
Lily Kind 2015