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  • Black Caribbean Pleasure Dances and the Ethnographic Imagination
  • Amanda Reid (bio)

Attempting to write about the legacy of anthropologist, choreographer, and dancer Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) in the Caribbean is a daunting task. She seems to embody so many of the tensions inherent in diaspora formation in a way that feels dazzlingly complex and larger than life. Inspired by her ethnographic fieldwork in Haiti, Martinique, Trinidad, and Jamaica in the 1930s, the Illinois-born dancer is known for her iconic vignettes on the concert stage, Broadway, and Hollywood films that represented the continuities and variances in Black diaspora dance cultures as a spectrum of spectacular virtuosity. Beyond her contributions to Black dance history, Dunham helped to craft the aesthetics of tropical modernity in the mid-twentieth-century popular American imaginary. She has also loomed large in the remembrances of her dance contemporaries in Africa and the Caribbean, in perhaps more complicated and ambivalent ways. Dunham was revered, but also at times resented, for being an American who intervened into local affairs, and for fashioning herself as the global Black cultural ambassador for Caribbean spaces where she was a mere visitor.1

Still, Dunham's grand staged narratives of Black New World cultures represent only one of several stories that can be mined from her archive. Attention to smaller, quieter moments helps craft a story of diasporic longings and connections on a more intimate scale, one that lets formerly submerged Caribbean perspectives rise to the surface.

One of my favorite moments that Dunham's ethnographic work captures belongs to a compilation of short silent films that she created at the beginning of her first trip to the Caribbean in 1935. Alongside scenes from Afro-Diasporic religious dancing—visuals she referenced in her writing and choreography—Dunham documented natural landscapes, as well as scenes from urban daily life in Jamaica and Martinique. The video below, referenced in the opening vignette of my Theatre Journal essay, features a couple demonstrating the transnational Black urban partner dances (that I identify as "shay-shays" in the essay) for the cameraperson (likely Dunham) in an indoor domestic [End Page E-5] setting. It is a rare look at private Black Jamaican life in the early twentieth century, remarkable precisely because of the quietness and subtlety of the spectacle. A couple shuffles back and forth on their small makeshift dancefloor. Their steps are simple compared to the flashy footwork often associated with Black urban social dance, and their kinetic energy is consistent and easy. Several times, performers break from the dance to laugh with each other or even to address the filmmaker, radiating warmth, rest, and a gentle sense of delight (0:28). At one point, the female dancer—as her male partner grabs her waist and playfully draw her perhaps a little too close—checks his cheekiness by doubling over with a laugh. She pulls her pelvis away from his—perhaps in jest, or perhaps in a gesture of self-protection—as he laughs directly at the camera (1:36). These unruly shifts in energy disturb a traditionally straightforward understanding of ethnographic films as objective historical documents, allowing us to imagine a more creative and collaborative exchange between filmmaker and subject. They point to Dunham's interlocutors' conscious self-presentation and small choices about what they wished to display or withhold from the world (fig. 1).

Another video in the same series reminds us of the wider social context of the shay-shays, often lost in translation from dance floor to stage. This film was shot in a public dance square in Kingston. Given the outdoor venue and casual nature of the participant's dress, we might guess that this is what cultural historian Lara Putnam describes in Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age as a "practice dance," or a weekly dance held in an informal space, open to working-class people.2 In my essay, I analyze the dancers' production of sensuous and spectacular


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Figure 1.

Screenshot from Urban Social Dance, Jamaica Fieldwork (Clip #21). Video, 1936, Library of Congress, available at https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003828/.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. E-5-E-8
Launched on MUSE
2022-04-09
Open Access
No
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