- Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir by Halifu Osumare
The memoir genre has long been important to dance studies. With fewer material remains than other art forms, dance often draws upon the memories of its practitioners to reconstruct dance worlds. Halifu Osumare's Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir, however, does more than make a contribution to this subgenre; it expands and redefines what a memoir can be. As not only a dancer, but also a scholar, Osumare connects her personal story to broader sociohistorical contexts. She examines how her experiences performing, teaching, choreographing, and administrating from the 1960s to the 1990s intersected with the development of black dance both in the United States and around the globe. Trained in postmodern anthropological methods, Osumare brings a self-reflexivity to the analysis of her own life that refreshingly distinguishes her book from the self-hagiographic tendencies of other memoirs.
Dancing in Blackness makes an important contribution to several discourses. First, it expands scholarly understanding of the development of dance on the West Coast. Despite the fact that many of twentieth century concert dance's most canonical figures either got their start or established their schools in California, dance scholarship remains stubbornly New York-centric. Osumare provides valuable insight into the dynamic and flourishing dance scene in San Francisco from the 1960s through the 1980s. She also expands our understanding of dance during the Black Arts Movement. Most scholars of the Black Arts Movement tend to ignore dance, although dance studies scholars such as Takiyah Nur Amin are working to change that. Osumare articulates the importance of dance to the political and cultural ideals of Black Power and how the Bay Area was central to that development. After all, the Black Panther Party was inaugurated in Oakland. Finally, Osumare contributes to a growing scholarly discourse of African diasporic dance, a global perspective on black dance that examines the successes and tensions of facilitating cultural unity across national borders.
The introduction to Dancing in Blackness addresses the title of the book—what blackness means in the context of dance. Osumare expertly summarizes the extant debates over the definition of "black dance" and how she will be utilizing the term in her book, namely, "to mean the individual and collective dances of any genre performed by black peoples anywhere in the world" (10). She calls her own [End Page 105] sense of blackness a "fluid constant" (16), a term that acknowledges both her sense of self-determination in shaping her social identity and the fact that race is inevitably a part of how others view her. Chapter 1, "Coming of Age through (Black) Dance in the San Francisco Bay Area," covers Osumare's earliest influences, including teacher Dolores Kirton (Nontsizi) Cayou at San Francisco State College, Zack Thompson, and Ruth Beckford. At this point in her life, Osumare went by her birth name, Janis Miller. Her dance experiences intimately intertwined with the "revolutionary culture" of the Bay Area in the late 1960s. From the beginning, therefore, Osumare approached dance as being "in service of social change" (27). In August 1968, Osumare left the Bay Area and spent an important month in New York, taking classes with Jean-Leon Destiné of Haiti and Nigerian drummer/teacher Babatunde Olantunji; the latter awakened Osumare to the "spiritual dimensions of dance" (36).
Chapter 2, "Dancing in Europe," is an important challenge to the presumed male protagonist of the finding-oneself-abroad narrative, in black intellectual history often delineated as a lineage of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Osumare instead invokes Josephine Baker, exposing the important ways in which her intersecting identities as black, woman, and dancer shaped her experiences. Osumare is exoticized but also freer in Europe than in the United States. She finds agency (albeit limited) in her nightclub dancing gigs, resisting the notion that such experiences reduce her solely to commodified, eroticized black object. In Copenhagen, Osumare partners with Jewish New York...