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Dancing Many Drums

Excavations In African American Dance

Thomas F. Defrantz

Publication Year: 2002

Few will dispute the profound influence that African American music and movement has had in American and world culture. Dancing Many Drums explores that influence through a groundbreaking collection of essays on African American dance history, theory, and practice. In so doing, it reevaluates "black" and "African American " as both racial and dance categories. Abundantly illustrated, the volume includes images of a wide variety of dance forms and performers, from ring shouts, vaudeville, and social dances to professional dance companies and Hollywood movie dancing.

Bringing together issues of race, gender, politics, history, and dance, Dancing Many Drums ranges widely, including discussions of dance instruction songs, the blues aesthetic, and Katherine Dunham’s controversial ballet about lynching, Southland. In addition, there are two photo essays: the first on African dance in New York by noted dance photographer Mansa Mussa, and another on the 1934 "African opera," Kykunkor, or the Witch Woman.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xi

This volume is a tribute to African American dance archivist Joe Nash. Its title comes from a 1976 article by Nash that underscored the variety of expressive idioms danced by Africans of the diaspora.1 That article—and the ‘‘many drums’’ of its title—suggested a continuous history of African American dance practice ...

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pp. xiii

This volume could not possibly exist without the superb editorial assistance and counsel of Lynn Garafola. Although she stepped down as editor of Studies in Dance History between the time this project was proposed and finished, she remained a sturdy, nurturing presence throughout. Her high standards and consummate ...

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African American Dance: A Complex History

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pp. 3-35

Scholars of African American dance history face a battery of unusual challenges. Reliable documentation of dance events predating the mid-twentieth century is slight; few research centers or major libraries contain specialized collections chronicling African American dance performance, and misreadings of racial ...

Part 1. Theory

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1. Christian Conversion and the Challenge of Dance

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pp. 39-58

Highly prized for the labor extorted from it, the African body was also the object of exploitation for sexual reasons related to its labor value. Sexual abuse of Africans began during the Atlantic voyage, the passage of slave ships from Africa to the Americas; so from the start of the slave trade, whites engaged in forced ...

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2. Dance and Identity Politics in American Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters, 1900–1935

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pp. 59-79

At the dawn of the twentieth century, professional African American dancers were employed primarily in vaudeville, an idiom that combined the theatrical traditions of variety, minstrelsy, and traveling road shows and served as a proving ground for young talent. With a few notable exceptions, these performers were ...

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3. Awkward Moves: Dance Lessons from the 1940s

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pp. 81-103

Social dance became critical to African Americans as they adapted to the numerous changes of the 1940s. In that decade, African Americans experienced major social transformations, including one of the largest migrations of the century from the rural and urban South to northern, western, and midwestern urban centers. ...

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4. (Up)Staging the Primitive: Pearl Primus and ‘‘the Negro Problem’’ in American Dance

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pp. 105-139

In writing about the dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus and the role of the Negro in American concert dance, I seek to go beyond the notion that art merely ‘‘mirrors’’ reality and to explore some of the ways in which it possibly functions to realize racial identities and political constituencies.1 What, I ask, could a dancing body ...

Part 2. Practice

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5. African Dance in New York City [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 143-153

Although the first permanent community of Africans living in New York date from the early seventeenth century,1 the history of African dance as a concert art begins some three hundred years later. In the 1920s and 1930s, Efrom Odok, Asadata Dafora, and Momudu Johnson founded groups that taught dances from Nigeria and Sierra Leone.2 ...

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6. From ‘‘Messin’ Around’’ to ‘‘FunkyWestern Civilization’’: The Rise and Fall of Dance Instruction Songs

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pp. 169-203

‘‘Shake,’’ by Sam Cooke, was recorded at the height of the dance instruction song craze of the 1960s. In this genre—which originated in African American dance and music traditions—choreographic instructions are given or ‘‘called’’ while the dance is in progress. This article will focus on the dance instruction song ...

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7. ‘‘Moves on Top of Blues’’: Dianne McIntyre’s Blues Aesthetic

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pp. 205-229

Almost everyone has a conception of the blues and its heartfelt lyrics of love lost, the challenges of money, or the difficulties of the work world. Blues tunes may elicit sighs of empathy for someone else’s troubles or nods of appreciation that someone has given ...

Part 3. History

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8. Kykunkor, or the Witch Woman: An African Opera in America, 1934 [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 233-252

Versatile, multitalented as an opera and concert singer, dancer, choreographer, composer, and teacher of African culture, the great but virtually forgotten Asadata Dafora made a huge contribution to the birth of African dance and musical drama in the United States. Kykunkor, or the Witch Woman, the work that first ...

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9. Between Two Eras: ‘‘Norton and Margot’’ in the Afro-American Entertainment World

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pp. 267-287

From 1933 until 1947, Margot Webb and Harold Norton performed on the Afro-American vaudeville circuits of night clubs and theaters in the Northeast and the Midwest. Known professionally as ‘‘Norton and Margot,’’ they were one of the few Afro-American ballroom teams in history.1 Their career was ...

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10. Katherine Dunham’s Southland: Protest in the Face of Repression

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pp. 289-316

In 1951, at the dawning of a decade that would be known for its suffocating conformity and political intolerance, Katherine Dunham created Southland, a dramatic ballet Americana about what was by then the century-long practice of lynching. In the program notes to the ballet, which premiered at the Opera House in ...

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11. The New York Negro Ballet in Great Britain

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pp. 317-339

In fall 1957, the New York Negro Ballet undertook an extensive tour of Great Britain, dancing in England, Scotland, and Wales. Their London season was canceled, as was a planned tour of the continent, but their performances throughout the English provinces represented a unique experience for their audiences to view ...


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pp. 343-346


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pp. 347-366

E-ISBN-13: 9780299173135
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299173142

Publication Year: 2002