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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 526-534

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Making American Studies Dance

Jane C. Desmond
University of Iowa

Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. By Brenda Dixon Gottschild. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 270 pages. $45.00 (cloth).
Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890-1920. By Linda J. Tomko. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999. 283 pages. $18.95 (paper).

Two new books by dance scholars Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Linda J. Tomko show the importance of putting performance studies center stage in American studies. Each engages specifically with issues at the heart of current American studies research: race and class formations. Both books are by seasoned scholars who write clearly and accessibly, making their work easily approachable by scholars and students outside their specialty areas. I have no doubt that these books, like all work by these two scholars, will be eagerly read by those in dance studies. My concern here is to help assure that they are read by the wider audiences they both deserve. While these audiences include scholars who work on critical race studies, immigrant studies, leisure policy analyses, urban history, and so on, the wider American studies scholarly community offers a particularly capacious and welcoming home for these investigations. I would like to see these books engaged with by social historians, literary specialists, musicologists, and those concerned with visual culture. [End Page 526]

As a scholarly community, American studies specialists have just recently begun to be more open to performance analyses. The least two years have seen the formation of the Music of the Americas Caucus and the Performance Studies Caucus within ASA. These two moments of institutionalization mark the presence of a critical mass of scholars who work in and are passionate about the performative dimensions of American life--not only music, dance, and theater, but parades, daily rituals, sports, and the myriad of social practices through which aspects of our social identities are signaled, interpreted, and enacted.

What I think is less the case yet, and what I want to argue for here, is the active engagement of American studies scholars more broadly with the works of performance specialists: reading their works, assigning them in courses, citing them in articles, and engaging with them in print from the various disciplinary locales we inhabit, whether it be literature, anthropology, history, or something more broadly connoted as cultural studies. There may be several reasons why this is not yet happening, First is the fear factor. None of us is at ease encountering approaches, vocabularies, methodologies, canons, and so on beyond our own arenas of expertise, and relatively few of us as yet are trained in performance analysis. Second is the visibility of materials. While performance scholarship is flourishing in its own journals (like Dance Research Journal, or TDR: A Journal of Performance Studies), these are not read regularly by those outside these areas. And promotional mailings to the ASA membership list rarely feature performance-based books nor, on the whole, do book displays at our national conference.

These gaps are common as scholarly practices, questions, and methodologies shift, and I think we are now poised in a moment of flow, of adjustment. I want to tip that balance here by suggesting that a concerted effort to engage with performance scholarship can richly repay the extra effort it may take to find the work and to develop the base-line understanding of approaches that it employs. These two books are excellent examples of work that is firmly grounded in the study of performance by performance specialists, but which can be assigned to undergraduate or graduate courses or used in conversation with professional scholarly work in a variety of disciplines.

Although I am suggesting that a critical mass of performance scholars and performance work is now coming into view as a part of ASA, I don't want to imply that somehow this is an autochthonous development. Outstanding work by scholars active in the American [End Page 527] studies community has been available prior to the last couple of...


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