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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. Pugh portrays de Mille “as a patriotic liberator, bringing American rhythms and values to the art of Old Europe” (141). Her choreography in productions such as Rodeo, American Suite, Western Dance, [End Page 83] and Oklahoma rendered a distinct style reflected in an intention to Americanize dances that were traditionally associated with other countries. De Mille reinvented traditional ballet and African American jigs into displays for white American consumption, and paralleling de Mille’s work, the American square dance rose in popularity because it was distinctly white and American. Pugh claims that

Part of square dancing’s appeal came from its relative simplicity: even novices could learn a few steps and join right in. It spanned the political spectrum as well, with both leftist associations—this was the dancing of working-class Americans, whom Popular Front artists were intent on honoring—and conservative appeal: it was a backlash against jazz rhythms, city life, blacks, and immigrants.

(157-58)

With a slightly different emphasis, chapter five, “Paul Taylor’s Bugle Boy,” Pugh examines the life, work, and influence of dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor. Although he entered the world of professional dance later in life as compared to other dancers, he is nevertheless also viewed as an important contributor to a distinctly American dance aesthetic. Although less accommodating to societal pressures as other dancers Pugh reviews, Taylor’s sexuality, disagreements with other dancers, and personal anxieties are addressed as part of his overall distinct yet very American style.

Pugh concludes her book with her sixth chapter, “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk,” a review of dance from the late 1960s until Jackson’s death in 2009. (In the televised performance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Motown Records in 1983, Michael Jackson debuted the dance famously known as the moonwalk.) By intertwining Jackson’s familial and professional backgrounds, actual references to space exploration, blackface minstrelsy of the nineteenth century, James Brown, the television dance series Soul Train, and street dancing, this chapter of America Dancing illustrates dynamics of the life and contributions of one of the most famous performers of the twentieth century. This chapter not only sheds light on Jackson’s life and style of dance, but Pugh also reviews a street cultural dance style that is often ignored by dance scholars. Megan Pugh is stating clearly throughout the chapters that each generation of dance influences the next. This is not an argument rooted in complexity, but it is a dominant element of the overall contribution, and is eloquently relayed.

Pugh’s approach is easily recognizable; she focuses on particular dancers, styles, and performances while continually weaving into the text numerous other people, stories, and historical background information. The networks of people and performances, however, are not convincing. The author attempts to connect dancers and dances that were produced within the same periods, as if to explain the foundation of all styles and dancers; this element of her approach is overly saturated in detail, and lacks clear focus. Although Pugh explains that America’s dancing cannot be defined, she seems to have a view that causes her to focus on some dancers and dancing, rather than others. The manner in which she determines who among dancers was truly “American” in style is not rendered. Also, with her choice of and investment in a term as elastic as “America,” the book lacks reference and historicity of other dance cultures influential yet external to the U. S. For example, while there is mention of a kind of square dancing that may exist in other countries, there is no reference as to how this type of folk dancing is created and influenced by transnational exchanges.

It is evident throughout the book that the author is an ardent admirer of dance, which comes across in her dynamic storytelling. Megan Pugh contextualizes the many dance performances and respected performers viewed in some of the best well-known film classics in American history, and reintroduces these classics in a refreshing new manner. The cultural history is both informative and exciting, and its deep analysis and plethora of background information could not have been fully [End Page 84] appreciated before now. From the performances of former slaves to the world-famous singer and dancer Michael Jackson, America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk, for its work on dance, theater, film, and performers, offers a great wealth, and more than a century’s trove of information.

Katrina Thompson
Saint Louis University