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Reviewed by:
  • Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era, and: Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y
  • Paul Scolieri (bio)
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 pp.; illustrations. $45 cloth, $21.95 paper.
Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y. By Naomi M. Jackson. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2000; 288 pp.; illustrations. $40.00 cloth.

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Throughout the 20th century New York City was the center of several revolutions in dance. The two fascinating books considered here examine howminority cultures within the city shaped the aesthetics and politics of those developments and how dance served as a powerful medium through which minority cultures constructed their identity in the modern metropolis.

Waltzing in the Dark will make you lose your balance, for even though Brenda Dixon Gottschild's central ideas are solidly grounded in archival research, interviews, and cultural analysis, her strategic riffs, dizzying juxtapositions, and self-reflective turns are designed to expose the inherent slipperiness of race politics during the swing era. Casting the spotlight on the black dancers and musicians who filled Harlem's nightclubs, theatres, and dancehalls, Gottschild illuminates the ways in which swing performers emboldened burgeoning African American communities and shaped modern aesthetics in the face of racial oppression.

Gottschild focuses on the career of Harold Norton and Margot Webb, a black vaudeville dance team who specialized in the "smooth and refined" waltz rather than the "cool and hip" Lindy Hop or rhythm tap more commonly associated with the swing era. Based primarily on her interviews with Webb, Gottschild painstakingly reconstructs the team's experiences on the vaudeville circuit in America and Europe throughout the 1930s. Unfortunately, she offers only a few glimpses into the diverse and distinctive dances in their repertory (one of which included Webb performing a ballet routine to jazz music!) and thus misses the opportunity to illuminate the potential significance of the duo's seemingly radical appropriation of European dance forms. Gottschild's concluding pages put forth a bold and inspired conceptualization of black dance as a form of resistance, a survival strategy and ultimately a way to disrupt racial oppression. Although Gottschild writes a powerful analysis of the ways in which racial discrimination permeated [End Page 178] Norton and Webb's personal and professional lives, it remains unclear as to how their dances figure into her generative paradigm of black dance.

Like Gottschild, Naomi Jackson is interested in exploring the ways in which dance served as a site for negotiating minority identity. Her locus of investigation is the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center in New York City's Upper East Side. Drawing upon the Y's archives, she reveals how Jewish and modern dance cultures "converged" at the Y under the careful eye of William Kolodney, the institution's educational director from 1934 to 1969. Jackson argues that modern dance was one of the most accommodating artistic forms for realizing Kolodney's progressive vision of using the arts to assert a Jewish identity: "The Y's support of certain basic values of modern dancers—to provide spiritual enrichment that seemingly cut across people's differences—allowed for an easy convergence between the dance world and the institution" (150). In addition to an ideological space, the Y offered fully equipped facilities, including the Kauffman Auditorium, which attracted key modern dance figures such as Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Doris Humphrey, John Martin, and Charles Weidman to teach, perform, and lecture at the Y. Jackson's explanation of this group's varied associations with the Y (which are meticulously recorded in the book's appendix) offers a previously untold account of the development of American modern dance.

One of the book's outstanding contributions is its exploration of dances by Jewish choreographers—such as Benjamin Zemach, Lillian Shapero, Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, and Pearl Lang—whose dances were at the fulcrum of this convergence. Jackson's rigorous interpretations of...


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pp. 178-179
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