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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

What is Black Dance?
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Janet Collins
Janet Collins.
But these are just two of the responses choreographers, dancers, and even administrators have given when asked what they thought of the relevance or appropriateness of this label. Though responses vary, they generally hinge on two key points -- an insistence on the freedom to define one's own culture, and a belief that the act of lumping all African-American performers and choreographers into one category and then institutionalizing this distinction (for example, through federal, city, and state funding sources) is tantamount to cultural apartheid.

If nothing else, this sentiment reflects the impact of the socioeconomic and political factors on the culture itself, because at the heart of the matter are issues of cultural imperialism versus the right to cultural self-determination, self-definition, or independence.

At the heart of the matter is the history of African descendants, a history with slavery at its core, a history without which this "black dance" question might never have existed.

Think of it! For decades minstrelsy could be said to have been both reality and metaphor for the fate of African-American dancers. Imagine the irony of it. In order to be accepted, black performers in the past had to imitate a distorted image and form created by white performer T.D. Rice when, back in the 1820s, he went on stage in greasepaint, tattered clothes, and comically oversized shoes and imitated a dance he happened to see an old handicapped slave do. A white performer's imitation of African Americans was the first image of African Americans to appear on the American stage.

In a sense, minstrelsy might even be seen as a metaphor for the "black dance" dilemma being discussed here, as African Americans continue to grapple with someone else's idea of what African-American culture is, of just what kind of dance African Americans are supposed to do.

I can't pretend to have all the answers. My goal here is simply to open an important discussion with some thoughtful observations and comments of my own, based on discussions and interviews with choreographers, dancers, and historians during my years of writing dance criticism and studying dance history.

I first came across the term "black dance" in 1972 in dance critic Marcia B. Siegel's collected essays, AT THE VANISHING POINT. Siegel followed a dance-book tradition and lumped virtually all African-American choreographers she mentioned into a 38-page chapter of the 320-page book. The chapter was entitled "Black Dance: A New Separatism."

For years, books purporting to survey America's vast dancescape dumped all black choreographers and dancers into a single tiny chapter, slapped on titles like "Negro Dance" or "The Black Dance," offered a few glib generalizations, slurred several obligatory names -- Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey -- and moved on. "black dance" was not defined, but projected as any dance done by blacks.

But Siegel is not the subject of this discussion. In fact, critics cited here are merely reflections of a kind of systematic problem. Siegel was not alone.

In a May 1979 DANCE MAGAZINE review of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, critic Teresa Bowes asked, "Is there such as thing as black dance?" before plunging into a muddled attempt to answer the question. "Black dance, Balinese dance, modern dance, flamenco dance and ballet are different from one another, but have movement and basic dance concepts in common," she wrote.

NEW YORK TIMES critic Jennifer Dunning alluded briefly to her own notion of "black dance" in a review of Dianne McIntyre's Sounds in Motion dance company by explaining that McIntyre was "one of the few black choreographers who work within the mainstream dance style while still incorporating the 'jazz and character style that has come to be thought of as black dance.'" Later, Dunning unwittingly pinpointed one of the key misconceptions here -- the assumption that ethnicity predetermines culture -- when she asked, "Does anything other than race identify the black choreographer?"

Though Deborah Jowitt of THE VILLAGE VOICE didn't have all the answers, she at least seemed aware of one of the major pitfalls involved in this dilemma when she wrote that "The term 'black dance' doesn't cover all dances made by black choreographers."

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