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THEMATIC ESSAYS

What is Black Dance?
By Zita Allen, dance journalist; M.A. in Dance History, Department of Performance
Studies, New York University
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Helen Tamiris
Helen Tamiris, ca. 1937.
Has anyone noticed that since the term "black dance" snuck into our vocabulary several decades ago, it has remained undefined? Yet, in spite of the fact that this label has no clear definition, it has acquired a power almost as great as its meaning is obscure.

Major federal, state, city, corporate, and private funding sources have adopted guidelines with which to weigh "black dance" applications. Critics, wittingly and unwittingly, lump most African-American choreographers under this heading and make generalizations about the work of an entire segment of America's dance community.

In place of a thoughtful, thorough, and intelligent definition, we are given a glib grocery list of characteristics (or stereotypes). Black dance is "pop" (cheap), "entertaining" (lightweight), laden with "political overtones" (didactic), "angry" (provocative), and loaded with "literal gesture, trite narrative, and stereotyped characteristics" (simplistic).

It is important to note that from the moment this very controversial nametag was imposed on the African-American artistic community, those whom it attempts to describe have played a negligible role in determining the validity and scope of its use.

What is "black dance?" Is it Alvin Ailey's racially mixed company in his soul-stirring masterpiece "Revelations," but not American Ballet Theatre's performance of Ailey's more abstract ballet "The River"? Is it Dance Theatre of Harlem's percussive pelvic thrusts in Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," or its distinguished adaptation of the classic Romantic ballet "Giselle," or the company's crisp neoclassicism in George Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco"? Is it Charles Moore's brilliant recreation of Asadata Dafora's "Ostrich," Pearl Primus' classic version of the "Fanga," or any other stylized reproduction of authentic African dances? Is it works whose themes reflect the unique African American experience, like Donald McKayle's "Games," Talley Beatty's "The Road of the Phoebe Snow," or Eleo Pomare's "Blues for the Jungle," but not more abstract ballets by these same choreographers? Is it choreographer Blondell Cummings' own "Chicken Soup" but none of her work with white choreographer Meredith Monk? Does the label apply to works by Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and other experimentalists who emphasize form more than content and make no thematic reference to the broad-based African-American experience? Is it "Shango," Katherine Dunham's theatricalized version of African-Caribbean ritual, or the original Trinidadian cult dances that inspired it? Is it white choreographer Helen Tamiris' "Negro Spirituals"?

Is it a black choreographer's work performed by black dancers? A white choreographer's work done by black dancers? Or a black choreographer's work danced by whites? Must it always have a "black" theme? Is it ever abstract? Is it modern, jazz, tap, and/or ballet? Is it found only in America, or does the label "black dance" apply to works in the repertory of Senegal's National Dance Company or Cuba's Conjuncto Folklorico or any other company consciously trying to preserve its African heritage? Or is "black dance" just an empty label devised by white critics to cover that vast, richly diverse, and extremely complex area of dance they know all too little about?

Does "black dance" really exist? And if in fact it does, just who is qualified to define it? Choreographer Rod Rodgers has had quite a bit to say about the subject.

One of my works, "Tangents," contradicts critics' tendency to say that I create black dance. That piece was inspired by Watusi dancers at the World's Fair, [who were] working with sticks. Then, when I got into the studio there was a Chinese Tai Chi expert and he helped me incorporate Tai Chi elements. John Cage directed the music. Now, what you have when you look at "Tangents," is a dance inspired by an African dance form that also incorporates Asian elements, and is actually performed in a contemporary dance idiom. Now, is that black dance? No! That's contemporary American dance.
Eleo Pomare expressed this same reluctance to have his creativity pigeonholed when he told me during an interview, "I don't think I create black dance. I think I create works that are hybrid forms of our experience as blacks. I personally don't limit myself to dealing with just black themes, black music or anything of that kind. ... No one would tell Pearl Lang that she was creating Jewish dance or Jewish art. white critics rave about white choreographers without imposing ethnic breakdowns."

Photo: Courtesy of the Joe Nash Collection.

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