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  • “Stealing Steps”: African American Dance and American Culture
  • Mary Neth (bio)
Steppin’ On the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. By Jacqui Malone. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. 296 pages. $44.95 (cloth). $17.95 (paper).
Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance Dance and Other Contexts. By Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. 208 pages. $55 (cloth).

Dance is becoming an exciting interdisciplinary meeting ground for cultural inquiry. Social and cultural historians have found dance to be an important location for examining the impact of commercial leisure, the creation of heterosocial space, and exploring the meaning of class, gender, ethnic and racial identities. Historians of dance and theater are investigating the broader historical contexts for the art of dance as well as examining popular culture forms. Feminist theory, gay studies and queer theory, and studies of race and colonialism have focused on the “body” as a locus of inquiry, and scholars, particularly in performance studies, have found dance to be an important arena for examining the cultural meanings of the body. 1 These two books by Jacqui Malone and Brenda Dixon Gottschild illustrate the value dance has for understanding the creolized nature of culture in the United States and the importance of Africanist and African American aesthetics in “American” culture. Because each author approaches this subject in very different ways, these two books suggest the possibilities that dance promises for cultural studies. [End Page 158]

Gottschild’s concern is to articulate the elements of African and European aesthetics in art and then analyze how the Africanist aesthetic shapes, and is crucial to, American dance performance. Her approach focuses on “high” European art forms, asserting the cultural significance of the Africanist aesthetic in reshaping European classical dance and Americanizing it with the development of modern dance and modern ballet. She also probes the process through which this Africanist presence was erased, including the historical racism of performance traditions, such as minstrelsy, and the perpetuation of such stereotypes and discrimination in other dance arenas. She concludes with an assessment of contemporary dance performance and the ways in which it acknowledges a multicultural and creolized heritage and encourages the empowerment of all artists or continues to obscure and subordinate the Africanist (or other colonized groups’) importance.

Jacqui Malone’s work is rooted in the vernacular traditions of African American dance; although she describes the aesthetics of African American dance, she is more interested in its social locations, the ways this vernacular dance vocabulary is continued and is adapted in choreographed performance, and how social institutions in African American communities, such as marching and military bands and mutual aid societies, helped perpetuate vernacular dance through popular performances. She traces the social and performance locations of African American dance historically, from slavery through minstrelsy, vaudeville, broadway, and big band performance, and then examines their perpetuation to the present in the Motown vocal choreography of Cholly Atkins, the performances of black college marching bands, and sorority and fraternity stepping events. While Gottschild focuses on questions of art and aesthetics and the largely “high” culture performance arenas of dance choreography, Malone examines the relationship between the vernacular and the choreographed and emphasizes performance spaces of “popular” dance. She is interested in how African American communities transmit and recreate African American aesthetics.

Gottschild argues that Africanist aesthetics are imbedded in European American artistic endeavors. She illustrates how “American” and “modern” challenges to classical European dance were often challenging because of the Africanist elements they contained. She argues this particularly well when examining modern and postmodern dance and George Balanchine’s Americanization of ballet. For example, she notes the impact of Africanist sculpture on Martha Graham’s poses or the fact that postmodern dance risks being off-center, is nonnarrative and nonlinear, [End Page 159] and emphasizes the process of the movement, all of which are more closely associated with Africanist aesthetics than the European aesthetics of ballet. Her dissection of Balanchine’s use of American vernacular dance, inherently imbued with African and African American movements, to reshape ballet is particularly insightful. She effectively describes the choreography of such works as “The Four Temperaments” and uses photographs to illustrates how Balanchine’s choreography...

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pp. 158-165
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