- The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool
Brenda Dixon Gottschild charts a "geography" that maps a unique, yet startlingly ever-present, region of influence in the history of American dance: the black dancing body. The author says on the front cover of the book, "[t]he black dancing body (a fiction based on reality, a fact based upon illusion) has infiltrated and informed the shapes and changes of the American dancing body." The Black Dancing Body is Dixon Gottschild's third installment in a series (after Waltzing in the Dark and Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance) considering and analyzing the influences and acculturation of Africanist dance movement—as the result of the African Diaspora—into the gestalt of American performance. It is a personalized cultural study in which she examines/questions/confronts the taboo references to the physical aesthetics of the ethnically African body.
Dixon Gottschild makes clear that this work is not meant to be read as a comprehensive study of black dance. It is, rather, a representative one, aiming to surface issues sorely absent from the heated debate about what is or is not "black dance" and when and where black dance and dancers enter the argument. She charts a segmented analysis of the black body, "which like the African continent, has a history of literal and figurative dissection" (xiv). The Black Dancing Body walks around its subject, looking at it from new angles, carefully knocking down clichés and stereotypes. Dixon Gottschild allows dance practitioners to take the forefront in the discussion; she makes a space for their voices to be heard even when the voices run contrary to the very premise of the book.
Dixon Gottschild's exploration of the geography of the black dancing body begins with her own story. She recounts being a young dancer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her short-waisted, long-legged, slim-hipped body "got me in trouble," she recalls, when more "feminine" bodies (i.e., shorter, rounder, more conventionally proportioned, white-skinned bodies) were in fashion (3). Recounting experiences of auditioning time and again for Broadway shows knowing full well that African Americans rarely, if ever, made the cut, this very personal exploration ranges from the question of what black dance is to the role and perceptions of various body parts. To remind us that she is not alone in her musings, the author interviews twenty-four leading dance practitioners (not all African American), including Fernando Bujones, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, Ronald K. Brown and Ralph Lemon, representing a variety of dance eras, idioms, and traditions. Through these personal accounts and interviews she takes us on a journey along the physical terrain of the black dancing body, making stops at such contested physical attributes as feet, skin, soul/spirit, buttocks. (These terms, among others, are actually chapter titles.) During this promenade she reveals that society sees her and other black dancers as a sum of their parts: in other words, not whole. She offers an in-depth look at the world of dance while illuminating the obvious notion (at least to many black artists) that the dance world is a microcosm of the complicated and racially charged history of American society itself.
This is not a linear, academic study but rather a living, breathing, literary batik . . . a modern-day kinte cloth. With its multiple voices and rhythms, it honors the Africanist aesthetic of embracing the whole, embracing the conflict—telling it like it is. By applying a blend of oral history methods and critical theory, interviews with black, white, and brown dance practitioners, as well as performance analysis and personal recollections of her own life in the world of dance, she charts the endeavors, ordeals, and triumphs of "black" dance and dancers. [End Page 774] She explores with new eyes the contours and importance of the black dancing body and exposes perceptions, images, and assumptions past and present.
Dixon Gottschild acknowledges early on that "using race...