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  • Syncopated Communities:Dancing with Ellison
  • Joshua M. Hall (bio)

I've put together new steps in the breakaway by slipping and almost falling. I was always looking for anyone dancing in the street or just walking and doing anything that suggests a step. If I could see it, I could do it.

—Shorty Snowden, Savoy dancer

The present essay has developed from an affirmation of two widely acknowledged tropes in Ellison's thought and an extension of both in the pervasive presence of dance in the author's fiction, non-fiction, and life.1 The first trope could probably be captured by the title of one of Ellison's essays, "The Novel as a Function of American Democracy," if one were to add to "Function" the modifier "Moral-Educational." The second is that of the (particularly bebop-era) jazz jam session as figurative condensation of this democracy. This latter idea is strengthened significantly by Ellison's education for and career as a trumpeter. The first and longest section of this essay, then, is an attempt to wed the two tropes—the novel as ameliorating methodology and jazz improvisation as regulative ideal—through a phenomenological exploration of the ubiquity of dance and its near-coextension with music in the author-trumpeter's life and masterpiece novel. These analyses open the possibility that, given music's intimate connection to dance for Ellison and the prominence of dance language and imagery in the novel, jazz dance could function as well as, if not better than, jazz music as Ellison's regulative ideal for the U.S. novel as "ethical instrument" of "agonistic co-operation" (Ellison, Collected 99, 188). [End Page 57]

Secondly, in the wake of this exploration, I will gesture briefly toward a reading of the novel as a whole. In essence, I will consider Invisible Man as a kind of "public jazz dance" wherein each chapter constitutes a different "song" (each with its own corresponding dance) and features its own different primary characters or "dance soloists." The performances of the soloists, in turn, can be understood as attempts at a kind of multi-leveled syncopation. Based on Lucius Outlaw, Jr.'s contention that the movements of individual characters in the novel can be read as symbolizing the movements of various communities (or typical figures in a community), one could justifiably claim that Invisible Man is centrally concerned with the movements of syncopated communities. By implication, the protagonist's central attribute will appear, not as invisibility, but as arrhythmia.

Ralph Ellison loved to dance, even as far back as toddlerhood: "Either his father or mother was responsible for 'the first song ever taught me as a two-year old' ('Dark Brown, Chocolate to the Bone'), as well as for his command of a wildly popular, risqué dance to go with it, the Eagle Rock" (Rampersad 6). This dance, according to prominent dance historian Marshall Stearns—to whose students Ellison once gave a formal address—is a typical example of U.S. American jazz (or vernacular) dance (xiv):

The Eagle Rock was named after the Eagle Rock Baptist Church in Kansas City, according to Wilburn Sweatman: "They were famous for dancing it during religious services in the years following the Civil War." The dance may well have been much older, but . . . it has the high arm gestures associated with evangelical dances and religious trance.

(Stearns 26-27)

By the time he was in grade school, Ellison apparently possessed talent in addition to his enthusiasm, because during "a second-grade class presentation," Zelia N. Page Breaux, superintendent of music for the city's black schools, "noticed Ralph's intensity as he sang and danced to a nursery song" (Rampersad 26). On the basis of this performance, Breaux "made him a major part of her curriculum," and later, "invited him to first join and ultimately lead his high school band" (26). Along with music, Breaux's curriculum also included a significant dance component, as indicated by Ellison's remark that "European fold dances were taught throughout the Negro school system" (Ellison, Collected 198). Crucial for the entirety of Ellison's life's work, Breaux also "taught him to think of himself as an artist" (Rampersad...