America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk by Megan Pugh (review)
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Reviewed by
Megan Pugh. America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. New Haven: Yale UP, 2015. 416 pp. $32.50.

In America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk, Megan Pugh poses a simple yet highly debated question: “What makes a dance American?” (3). Pugh does [End Page 82] not attempt to answer the question, but through over 400 pages, illustrates instead the manner in which American dance is “too varied, too vexed, to pin down.” For Pugh, American dance is continually “shifting” through time and space. Utilizing a variety of sources from films, theater performances, music videos, interviews, autobiographies, biographies, and newspaper articles, the author contextualizes a century’s worth of popular dances and dancers.

After a short and somewhat theoretical Introduction, America Dancing comprises six chapters, each one focused on a particular time period and centered on a particular dancer and dance. Chapter one defines the cakewalk, a dance that began on plantations “as a joke” (11), as the first genuinely American dance. This chapter explores the dance that began in the South as enslaved blacks mocked and mimicked whites’ formal dancing style; it was later performed on the vaudeville stage in post-bellum America. This chapter, titled “The Cakewalk, America’s First National Dance,” is distinct from the book’s other sections in that it does not focus on a particular dancer, but instead reviews the popularity of the cakewalk in an effort to illustrate definitively that this dance, which “fused African American and European-American movements,” was the first dance of truly American character (11).

Chapter two, “Bill Robinson’s Dream,” reviews the career, contribution, and influences of tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The focus of the chapter is encapsulated in this sentence: “At a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land, Robinson seemed like a citizen of another, dreamed America: a place where a black man could earn the respect of his peers and his audiences, on both sides of the color line” (75). Pugh writes of the uneasy “dream” of Robinson’s ascendancy to the status of “quintessentially American dancer,” an artist recognized in both white and black communities, as well as she discusses two of his gifts to both style and cinema—his famous staircase tap-dance routine, and his film appearances with Shirley Temple. The staircase routine was often imitated but rarely duplicated with the same artistic genius, as black and white professional dancers performed various iterations of it onstage and in early films. Robinson, for Pugh, was a pioneering dancer who gained fame in the era of segregation; however, his appearance in films with Temple during this period represents the other side of Robinson’s life, one marked by a suspicion of racial perfidy. But while Pugh recognizes that Robinson was often viewed as an Uncle Tom, she summarily dismisses those claims. This elision is one of the major disappointments of this chapter, as Pugh fails to review thoroughly the precarious role he plays in African American history and community.

Chapter three, “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Pick Themselves Up,” examines the Astaire-Rogers dance partnership and the manner in which they represented a distinctly American dance style. Astaire, born Friedrich Austerlitz to German immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska, and Rogers, born in Independence, Missouri and raised in Texas, epitomized through their dance styles and the storylines in their films a homegrown, uniquely American spirit. Throughout the 1930s, this dance duo was able to give hope and relate to the working-class America in their over nine films. Similar to and influenced by Robinson, these dancers creatively used various spaces and venues to display their dancing style that combined tap, ragtime, ballet, jazz, ballroom, and other styles that appealed to a Depression-era audience. And Pugh concludes the chapter with a simple, yet deft statement on these dancers’ contributions to cultural history: “In America,” Pugh writes, “Fred and Ginger tell us, tap meets ballet, black meets white, rebellion meets grace” (137).

The next chapter, “Agnes de Mille’s Square Dance,” focuses on two main areas: the history and popularity of square dancing and the career and productions of dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille...