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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

What is Black Dance?
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An interesting variation on this theme appeared as far back as 1940 when NEW YORK TIMES critic John Martin announced, in an enthusiastic review of Katherine Dunham's Broadway debut, that her arrival indicated "a bright future for the development of a substantial Negro dance art." What was the "Negro dance art" ? Well, Martin provided a catalogue of characteristics, but no definition: "It is debonair and delightful, not to say daring and erotic," and "there is nothing pretentious about it: it is not designed to delve into philosophy or psychology but to externalize the impulses of a high-spirited rhythmic and gracious race." While some of this might seem complimentary, it is actually the flip side of some pretty dangerous generalizations. Martin's view of "Negro dance" derived from the prevalent romantic notion of the Negro-as-noble-savage, a popular concept during the early part of the 20th century. As Dunham said when I asked her several years ago about Martin's assessment of her work, "He was trying to be helpful."

Back in 1938, Katherine Dunham said something else that still seems valid today: "The one big problem is still this stereotyped idea of what the Negro should do."

I think it is presumptuous for any one person -- black or white -- to define "black dance" for the entire field of African-American choreographers and dancers. Yet, since its existence was declared decades ago, far too many critics have taken the term and its murky definitions for granted.

Instead, what is needed is a dialogue among those artists and scholars creatively involved with dance and the broader components -- the socioeconomic, political, and cultural matrix. What is needed is a discussion similar to the prolonged and often heated debates that engaged African Americans in theater and literature as they wrestled with definitions, searched for appropriate structures, and identified the style and function of their art during the introspective 1960s.

In the 1960s and early '70s, there was a brief flurry of activity as black choreographers and dancers dealt with these fundamental questions in an attempt to seize control of the critical and funding mechanisms, that often held the key to their survival. A small group formed the Black Choreographers Association. Another founded THE FEET, a magazine designed to serve as a forum for the discussion of such questions as that which occupies us still -- "What is black dance?" And, as the exciting climax of this activity, there was a Black Dance Conference held at the University of Indiana's Bloomington campus. But eventually, the Association fizzled. THE FEET also folded, and the Black Dance Conference turned out to be nothing more than a dream deferred. But hope has not faded.

Several years later, SUNY took up the gauntlet with a Dance: Black America conference at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which promised to revive the forum for this much-needed discussion, but it has suffered a similar fate as the Bloomington conference. Periodically, conferences and convenings, which have kept this dialogue alive, have been hosted by such stalwarts as the American Dance Festival, with its annual gatherings of dancers, choreographers, and scholars at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, or Joan Myers Brown, founder and artistic director of the Philadelphia Dance Company, affectionately known as Philadanco.

In 1992, the conference Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century brought together a national group of outstanding artists, including Chuck Davis, artistic director of the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble; Ann Williams, director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre; Rod Rodgers, founder and artistic director of the Rod Rodgers Dance Company; Jeraldyne Blunden, artistic director of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company; Cleo Parker Robinson, founder and artistic director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance; and Bernice Boseman, artistic director of the Oui Geometer Dance Company, among others, to grapple with this and many issues affecting African-American dancers and choreographers.

The black dance controversy continues, and its central question, "What is black dance?," still needs to be answered. That task will be accomplished at gatherings like these, at which choreographers, dancers, critics, historians, and others offer their solid knowledge of the history and undying love of the art.

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