- Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship by Aimee Meredith Cox
In Shapeshifters Aimee Meredith Cox traces the complicated trajectory of black girls living in Detroit’s Fresh Start Shelter (a pseudonym) and those participating in the shelter’s many programs, using the theorization of “choreography” to map the ways in which these young women shift, maneuver, and manage their quotidian bodily and social experiences (28–29). She draws on her knowledge as a dancer to define choreography as both an aesthetic practice experienced by the women in the shelter for self-expression and as a theoretical framework that defines the subtle movements of negotiating contemporary black girlhood in Detroit. “Choreography” comes to stand for the ways the black female body acts upon and alters the spaces it inhabits, making room for itself at the intersections of various oppressions (29).
Consideration of the shelter alongside the lived realities of the dance mandate “stay in your body” organizes Cox’s ethnography. She notes that “choreography” has the potential to undo “normative reading practices” that deem black women’s bodies “undesirable, dangerous, captive, or out of place” (28, 29). Through this radical possibility choreography not only alters the spaces it encounters but the people who populate and occupy these places. This directive [End Page 165] encourages a deep consideration of how “staying in the body, therefore, may very well mean moving in and, most importantly, beyond it to locate new ways of imagining oneself and of remaking one’s surroundings” (29). Through five chapters organized into three sections (“Terrain,” “Scripts,” and “Bodies”), Cox explores movement through space (starting with the tail end of the Great Migration in the 1960s); personal choreographies of identity and safety as enacted by the women at Fresh Start; as well as the individualized and collective acts of choreography and movement that occur through dance in the final chapter of the monograph.
In her opening chapter Cox follows three generations of women in the Brown family (another pseudonym)—including one of her primary interlocutors, a woman named Janice—beginning with their move to Detroit in the 1960s to enter the service industry and ending with their involvement in the programs facilitated by Fresh Start. In chapter 2 (titled “Renovations”) we are introduced to a period of institutional transition at Fresh Start under the leadership of a former automotive executive, Camille, and the subsequent protests from both residents and staff. Chapter 3 narrates recollections of an early protest at the shelter, examining the ways black women and girls choose to describe themselves and their actions. Chapter 4 looks at the performance of sexuality and “machismo” through the introduction of an out lesbian woman named Dominique and those who emulate her, narrating sexuality and class. Finally, chapter 5 recounts Cox’s involvement with launching The Move Experiment and an offshoot project founded by Janice, BlackLight—two collaborations that looked to form ways for black girls to express themselves and their lives through dance. It is Cox’s evolving theory of choreography, beginning with familial history and ending in the dance studio, and the delicate balance of black feminist theory, gender studies, and meticulous ethnography that distinguishes her work.
Cox’s monograph draws on the ethnographic sensibilities of works such as ¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba (2011) by Jafari Allen, whose work she cites early in the text. Cox’s arguments are convincing, theoretically rich, and rigorous. Reading Shapeshifters alongside related performance studies scholarship of the performing, moving, observed, and choreographed black female body only furthers our understanding of black girlhood’s many routines. Reading Cox’s work next to Jayna Brown’s considerations of black women’s choreography and the shaping of modernity in her 2008 book Babylon Girls reveals the historical antecedents related to the modes of black women’s and black girls’ resistance through dance that Cox identifies. For instance, Brown writes in her study of black women’s dance culture: “The fragmentation of the body occurs as a...