Monday, May 6, 2013

To Be or Not To Be: Performing The [Non] Muthafuckin Factor In Blackface

This paper discusses how the influences of social media and Hip Hop music lyrics persuade the poor and middle-class Black American culture to perform wealth. I argue that performing the non-muthafuckin factor in Blackface is blacking up in the 21st century. How I interpret today’s Blackface performance is as follows: Blacking up in the 21st century requires that when in the face of the other man one always represents the measure of their success by their outward appearance of material worth before and above representing their inward appearance of self worth. Because White Privilege is considered more valuable than money can buy, the wealthiest Black person cannot attain upward mobility at a level comparable to white’s – thus requiring us to perform for our validation from each other and from the other. A significant number of Blacks have identified success with an outward appearance of material worth and associate this success with legitimacy. This representation of success is commonly referred to as baller status - one who lives an extravagant, money driven lifestyle. Once one has attained legitimacy they are deemed relevant and considered a muthafuckin factor. On the contrary one who has yet to attain reputable success or does not maintain an outward appearance of success is irrelevant and therefore reduced to a non-muthafuckin factor. To mask one’s lack of wealth, modest earnings or poverty one may be prone to posturing his/herself as a muthafuckin factor at the risk of being perceived as a non-muthafuckin factor. But in effect this mask is the face of the image one prefers to be recognized as even if it is an ill representation of their actual image. This example of performing wealth is what I’m problematizing as a re-presentation of one aspect of minstrelsy (Blacking up) in the twenty-first century. Blackface in this context is the portrayal of the non-muthafucking factor masked as the muthafucking factor. I view Blackface performativity as an ongoing response to being and becoming a muthafuckin factor.

I argue that numerous representatives of the Black American culture have bought into the notion that possessions equate to the legitimacy of one’s success. These representatives of Black culture are consumed by the need for monetary performance of their success or else they believe they appear to be lacking validation for being a muthafuckin factor. Such performance invokes the minstrelsy behavior of blacking up or as I refer to its modern depiction, performing the role of the muthafucking factor in Blackface. This article seeks to offer an alternative approach to avoid becoming a non-muthafuckin factor without performatively being a muthafuckin factor for the other.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Examination of Brenda Dixon-Gottschild's The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool by La Teesa Joy Walker

Purpose Of The Text

Gottchild’s text illuminates the invisibilized presence of African Americans in crafting the essences of American concert dance and culture and how racism factors into this doing. Her work offers a particularly insightful interpretation of the Black dancing body, “as a geography of the body itself” contextualized via, “personal experience, critical analysis of visual and print documentation, and through the eyes of the 24 contemporary dance practitioners interviewed for this book” (xiii). According to Gottschild, “This book is the latest effort in my border-crossing pursuit to shed light on the role of African Americans in shaping American consciousness/culture and to investigate the role of racism in this equation” (8). The main purpose of this text was to juxtapose Gottschild’s personal dance stories with the testimonies of expert dance practitioners in order to effectively substantiate Gottschild’s theories and experiences.

Summary Of The Major Thesis

Gottschild examines the physical attributes of the Black dancing body and how they are fetishized and criticized and argues that the Black dancing body is more than the sum of its parts. The Africanist aesthetic in American dance is evident, yet doesn’t ever assume an integral part and this text is determined to resolve this negligence. Racism remains relevant in the dance world, like the world in general. And the cause for racial indifference within the world of dance is the lack of racial dialogue, the lack of representation of race and the lack of diversity. Fear of discussing this subject matter keeps us ignorant and full of hostility and resentment, thereby devaluing the effects/affects of race in dance. Gottschild’s thesis suggests that we must refrain from the subtleties with which we use to address the topic of race in dance and her text utilizes a candid approach to confronting the ugly truths and harsh realities that are attached to it.


Gottschild’s work blends interviews, performance analysis and personal testimonies to compose a descriptive case study that utilizes qualitative, historical and cultural research methods. This text is a historiography of Black dance charting the events, trials, and triumphs of Black dance and dancers and exposing the perspectives, biases, and imaginings, as well as misconceptions that have shaped this legacy.

Chapters Breakdown

The first chapter entitled Latitude I & Black White Dance Dancers addresses race relations and racism in dance and describes what I’ve decided is central to my definition of the Black dance aesthetic - “Black bodies tend to be put together strong-you know, the connections are good and strong. So when black dancers move, my image is that they take advantage of those strong connections in their bodies so they can be reckless in a ay that white dancers can’t be” (31).

The second chapter entitled The Physical Terrain & Position: Bujones/Zollar Interviews & Location: Who’s There addresses the difference in physicality and aesthetic qualities between the practice of Black and white artists and the stereotypes associated with these factors.

The third chapter entitled Latitude II & Feet addresses preference for a particular body type and the way it moves and reflects on the significance of foot articulations.

The fourth chapter entitled Butt describes the fetish with this part of the Black bodies’ anatomical structure and its significance to the Black dancing body.

The fifth chapter entitled Skin/Hair & Location: To Be or Not… focuses on the stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudices against Black features.

The sixth chapter entitled Latitude III & Soul/Spirit examines the core of the Africanist dance aesthetic and reveals the depth of its interpretation.

The seventh chapter entitled Blood Memories, Spirit Dances & Position: From Coon to Cool & Location: Horizon examines Black choreography, its prominent choreographers and the depth and meaning of their work.


While Gottschild acknowledges the advancements Black dance has made in light of its enduring she also acknowledges that this battle has yet to be won. “Things have and haven’t changed” (291). A post-racial era is no truer than a colorblind America and race issues must remain under examination in America as well as in the dance community. The whole US culture is guilty in some way or another for condemning differences instead of praising and celebrating them. Ultimately Gottschild’s work drives at dismantling the misguided preconceived notions, which have negatively classified Black dance and advises that doing so is crucial to the revitalization of its legacy and reinforcement of its validity.

Value Assessment

The dance world is clearly not “beyond politics” and Gottschild addresses the racial stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices that both performers and viewers experience. This text is effective in spanning fields in multidisciplinary dialogue and engaging with current conversations about the artistry and contributions of African American artists marked as “Black dance.” Gottschild reminds readers that so long as the “dominant culture” is appropriating the aesthetic of the “inferior culture” misappropriations are null because this “is right, it is the normative standard, and all others should measure up to it and buy into it. It is [this context] that the term black dance takes on a particularly demeaning connotation” (22).

Perhaps future discussions about “Black dance” as its own dance aesthetic worthy of study and practice due to its invaluable contribution to American dance will end its demeaning connotations. The shape of American dance cannot be actualized without considering Black dance at its core. Conveniently culling out the contributions of the Africanist aesthetic in American dance negates the Americanization of modern dance and ballet and therefore invisibilizes those innovations in American concert dance as well. Ultimately Gottschild’s work concisely informs the reader that the segregation of Black dance has not only determined its discredit and marginalization but also deprived it of its influential representation in American concert dance.

Related Texts

Defining Black dance is certainly an ongoing task of practitioners, scholars and enthusiasts alike and a discussion that describes the Black dancing body itself and the articulations of its parts, furthers the awareness of this phenomenon. In the first chapter of Susan Manning’s text Modern Dance, Negro Dance Race in Motion she exposes the “metaphorical minstrelsy” of modern dance choreographer Helen Tamiris in the same way Gottschild draws attention to Blanchine’s “Americanization” of Ballet. These references were meant to reveal the Africanist dance aesthetic in American dance that has and in many ways continues to be invisibilized by misappropriation and discredit. In African-American dance: Researching a complex history, Jackson suggests that, “a vast amount of research still needs to be done in uncovering the rich African-American and African dance heritage” and Gottschild’s series-Waltzing in the Dark; Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance and The Black Dancing Body-is doing this work. The Black Dancing Body situates its place in the canon of an ongoing discourse that seeks to not only appropriately define Black dance but also negate the stigmas ascribed to Black dance and illuminate its vital contributions to American concert dance.

Questions The Book Raises

Can Black dancers dance white dance and can white dancers dance Black dance? Can Black dancing bodies be trained to dance the way white dancing bodies dance and vice versa? Is there always a statement being made about racism embedded in multicultural casting? Will tokenism satisfy desegregation in American concert dance? “Why was it that the white world loved the culture but disdained its creators-loved black dance but oppressed/repressed the black dancer, the black dancing body” (5)? “How and what differentiates these separate bodies” (6)?

I agree with Chuck Davis that, “white bodies can do (and teach) African dance [if] they have been trained in the African cultural context. In every instance, the cultural riches are diluted by segregation from the cultural source, resulting in an artistic vacuum and an aesthetic loss” (140). I admit that there may not always be a statement being made about racism embedded in multicultural casting, but I don’t doubt that audiences’ awareness of multicultural casting as a possible attempt to dispel racism is simply ignored. Speaking from the Black experience, tokenism will never satisfy desegregation in American concert dance, it will simply allow white America to perpetuate the myth that racism is past tense. Gottschild supposes that, “the ongoing power of racism and its perpetual grip on world consciousness” is why “the white world loved the culture but disdained its creators” (5). I only hope that these inquiries will generate subsequent investigations and in doing so produce a substantial accumulation of text aimed at effectively characterizing the aesthetics of Black dance and its fundamental station in American concert dance.

Dixon-Gottschild, Brenda. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Making a Claim For African American Dances in Higher Education

NOTE: This paper serves as the script I used for my presentation at the NAAAS conference in Baton Rouge. The original version was a 25 page thesis for my MA from NYU.

The American dance education system continues to function with an archaic model. One that specifically caters to both 19th century and racially marginalized hierarchies. Stemming from the historically recognized “high art” (European) vs. “low art” (Black/African) dichotomy evident in western concert dance, this structure is imported into and persists in the curriculum model for dance education. Although the following components of African American dance techniques such as Jazz, Hip Hop and African derived styles are being offered, they are typically not a central part of the curriculum but rather exist as electives. While learning classical ballet and modern dance techniques are essential to the development of any trained dancer, other cultural approaches are generally overlooked and or considered non-essential as a foundation of the well-trained 21st century dancer and dance studies major. 

Black Popular Culture and Dance Studies Scholar Dr. Halifu Osumare poignantly stated, “Almost every discipline in the academy has had to adhere to a revisionist history of their discipline and dance has yet to do so. Why is that?” W.E.B Du Bois tells us that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” I argue that this problem remains in the 21st century. And while many disciplines in the academy have recognized this and are taking the necessary steps to interrogate the issues of racial and cultural biases, dance has yet to join in the reforming in any substantive way.

Consequently, dance students in higher education are not developing the skills or knowledge base to incorporate a well-rounded dance education that includes an Africanist aesthetic approach to dance. The current inclusion of black dance styles into higher education dance curricula are superficial and that does not explore the genres' complexity and sophistication in proportion to its influence within American and world cultures.[1] Interrogating the ideology of western concert dance and education, which misappropriates and segregates the practice and performance of Black dance is the subject of this research.  In so doing I examine its realities and explore its ramifications, while offering a more inclusive alternative dance curriculum.

My purpose is to promote authorized appropriation and proper integration of the Black dance aesthetic in the methods for dance studies and performance. What I refer to as “authorized appropriation” draws on aesthetic traditions derived from the West African, Afro-Caribbean and Black American cultures.

Achieving authorized appropriation is not only essential to the aim for reparations required to end the conscious and unconscious decentralizing and misappropriating of the Black dance aesthetic in its practice and performance, but also to end the discredit of and disrespect for the potency and significance of Black dance aesthetics inherent in American dance history and culture. The purveyor’s of dance education and performance should be required to be authorities of this Black dance aesthetic and maintain the ability to provide authoritative and inclusive knowledge. In this way dance artists, scholars and educators can provide a mutual respect for all contributors to the field, past, present and future. 

Why are African-American dance techniques under represented in higher education? How has it been decided that European dance techniques are most essential to the development of dance curricula? Why aren’t we being expected to learn African-American dance techniques at a level comparable to existing ballet and modern dance techniques? If dance students are to be amply prepared for access to the profession as performers and or choreographers, why are so many dance programs limiting the focus of their intensive training to Western concert dance practices? Since the job market and industry for dancers has greatly expanded and continues to do so with each new rising modern/contemporary company shouldn’t dance students be fully prepared to compete for positions in the wide range of work that encompasses today’s dance world? The answer to these questions brought me to this research topic. This paper endeavors to offer methods, materials and modes of inclusion in dance curricula that reflect a Black dance aesthetic.

My argument is, African American dance curricula in higher education has yet to reach a level comparable to existing ballet and modern dance techniques. Of the three existing codified techniques for African American dance: Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Umfandalai (Asante, 1993), only Dunham and Umfandalai are sparsely implemented in dance curriculums. The purpose of this study is to provide a greater understanding for developing and implementing an African American dance curriculum in higher education. This study advocates heightening cultural/racial awareness, broadening dance curricula perspectives, and a complete dance curriculum overhaul. The major focus of my argument is for the inclusion of African American dance perspectives in higher education.

My research adheres to a qualitative descriptive case study; techniques included are, interviews, surveys and a literature review. The focus of this study is delimited to research inquires which consider only African American dance curricula in higher education. The research for this study is limited to participants and resources available on both the East and West Coasts. The data I have collected is concentrated on faculty and student perspectives as well as scholarly texts that address the driving questions of this study. In my experience as an African American student of dance, Western concert dance is commonly stressed more than any other style or technique and other approaches assume a minority role. As an African American dance educator I would be remiss not to pursue such a study for the purpose of furthering my own education and in preparing myself, my cohorts, my students, and the dance community at large, to meet the challenges of overhauling the curriculum for dance in higher education. 

In addition to the progress of education, the job market and industry for dancers has greatly expanded and continues to do so with each new rising modern/contemporary company. Beyond Eurocentric ballet and modern dance companies are a wide range of Afrocentric ballet and modern dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dallas Black Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Philadanco, and Urban Bush Women just to name a few. Perhaps, ballet and modern/contemporary techniques cannot efficiently inform students about the techniques and methods for African American dances and students’ limited diversity may hinder their opportunities to succeed in less traditional dance companies such as the ones I’ve mentioned and more.

While dance programs appear to be more diverse in recent years, African American artists, texts, and dance techniques remain excluded from the American cultural arts curricula. As long as the influences and contributions of the Afrocentric aesthetic on the European aesthetic are not recognized, the American cultural arts curricula as a whole is diminished (Asante, 1993; Bennefield, 1999; Hazzard-Gordon, 1991; Hubbard & Sofras, 1998). While the minority innovators of revolutionary scholarship and art have a presence in American culture, our culture has yet to reach a point where issues of race are non-existent.

When students and faculties question the value of education based on the exclusion of their cultural heritage, a resistance to learning and teaching becomes instinctively inherent. Responding to this resistance will require an informed and objective plan for the stimulus of dance curricula expansion. According to author and dance educator Hubbard (1988) and many educational theorists (Dixon, 1991; Kerr-Berry, 2004; Smith, 1993; Thompson, 1997; Ward & Overby, 1993; West, 1994), providing minority students with a form of cultural validation is often a neglected aspect of the course design. Carter G. Woodson argues, “Students must see something of themselves in what they study” (Hubbard & Sofras, 1998, p.77).

Several other educational theorists (Dixon, 1991; Hubbard, 1988; Vandarakis-Fenning, 1994) agree that the realm of dance curricula must broaden to be more inclusive and subsequently more substantial. The challenge and responsibility dance educators are being charged with is the implementation of a well-rounded dance curricula that promotes dance, “as a meaningful and viable discipline and provides scholars and students with a means of study that does not compromise the heritage of any people” (Asante, 1993, p.51). Ward & Overby (1993) present a similar argument stating, "Ethnic dance brings various cultures together where participants begin to recognize and appreciate the contributions of various groups to society" (pp.72-73). 

The American culture has been infused with African American influences for its lifetime, which in turn, has transformed the evolution of American dance culture. Kerr-Berry (1994) claims that, “there are endless examples of how African Americans have contributed to the Western hemisphere” (p.26). She also argues that the Western European perspective of dance must be challenged to develop beyond its current spectrum to include other approaches. Her sentiments are coupled with various cohorts namely Vandarakis-Fenning (1994) who would agree that, “the significance of teaching various approaches to dance serves as an essential method for providing American students with cultural literacy” (p.44). If we as dance educators disregard the charge to expand the curriculum to provide a more balanced perspective, ultimately we are continuing to perpetuate a biased, and delusional picture of American dance culture, thereby doing a great disservice to all students (Dixon, 1991). 

If we continue to seek refuge in the comfort zone of one-dimensional, marginal thinking, then a superlative world will always be unattainable (West, 1994). Much is left to be done is an understatement that requests a call to action for implementation strategies which demand curriculum revisions that extend beyond the classroom. Jackson (1996) argues the following: "More African American and African dance professionals need to be part of higher education; more research needs to be done on figures lost and more questioning needs to be done about modes of representation of race in American dance" (p.110). Developing strategies and modes of inclusion only scratch the surface of the many necessary curriculum revisions required to effectively represent our diverse American dance culture. Acknowledgement and authorized appropriation are the next steps to accurately implementing a curriculum resembling a more balanced perspective.

Fifty-two years later some may argue that Affirmative Action has resolved these issues and that we are in a post-racism era and others will disagree, arguing that it only sought to bandage the wounds since inclusion has now become about tokenism, racism’s greatest disguise. Strategically positioned throughout the classrooms of various education systems seeking to fill their quota, sits the “spook” by the door. Thus, the fact remains that, “the supply of minority teachers does not correspond with the current or future supply of African American children who need cultural role models" (Smith, 1993, p.66). 

Admittedly, some progress is better than none and without the many efforts of educators who have and continue to advocate for equality in conjunction with inclusion, our evolution thus far would be non-existent. Recent evidence shows that this ongoing struggle is not in vain: "A new report from the U.S. Department of Education states that in 2002, the latest year for which complete data is available, nearly 2 million Black students made up 11.5 percent of the 17 million students of all races enrolled in higher education programs in the United States. In 2003 there were 33,097 Black full-time faculties at degree-granting institutions of higher education nationwide" JBHE (2005). 

While the presence of African American artists, scholars, writers and educators are prevalent in American higher education, they are not being equally represented and neither are their influences and contributions. "Traditionally Blacks have been shortchanged both financially and in the area of public recognition for their contributions to mainstream American culture" (Dixon, 1990, p.120). There is a continuing struggle to bring the contributions and influences as well as the legacy of African Americans into the full view of the predominately European American education system. Scholars in support of this struggle such as Dixon, "aim to promote continuous dialogue, needed definitions, and heightened awareness in this area" (p.117).

Historically Europeans deemed African dance a vulgar, impure and essentially unethical form of dancing, yet their fascination with the unfamiliar resulted in contrary views and adverse affects. Epskamp & de Geus (1993) make a similar claim, "African dance was uncivilized, and far from exercising any influence at all on North-Atlantic forms of dance. However, there are innumerable examples of the opposite phenomenon. The White man’s culture acquired itself a place in African dance” (p.59). Even Balanchine believed, "Black dancing was an important source of revitalization for ballet and routinely incorporated steps and movements that were derived from African American theatrical and vernacular dancing" (Jeffrey, 2000, p.35, 39). Then why discredit the significance, value and cultural richness of something you wish to take credit for? This phenomenon has prompted researchers to investigate the issues surrounding appropriation and ultimately discover methods for purging such exploitation.

To consider appropriation merely an accident rather than another form of racism, would be a considerably naïve concept in my opinion. My experience as an African American student renders me defensive in an education system that would rather I be present but silent. My experience as an educator tells me that years of progress have afforded me a position in life that no more than twenty years ago I couldn’t even have imagined. Still, the issues surrounding race relations are not obsolete and the time is yet to come when this topic will be null and void. Overcoming this grievance should not be met with avoidance or silence but confronted with uncomfortable discussions that become the driving force for immanent approaches to “rebalancing the equation of race relations and the universe” (Hazzard-Gordon, 1991, p.38).

As American citizens and more specifically as educators how can we overlook the racial issues that remain prevalent in our society? Perpener III (2000) writes, "in spite of the progress toward inclusiveness that dance as a performing art and as a field of intellectual pursuit has made, I believe that racially prospective thinking still exerts its presence with surprising force in different aspects of our discipline” (p.63). 

I believe racial awareness requires the realization that the human race involves more than just Blacks and Whites. In order to move beyond the surface of this issue we must acknowledge the beliefs, attitudes, and symbols legitimized by successive generations that have caused a trickle down effect. By restructuring curricula and teaching methods and addressing dialogues of racism, our education system can encourage acceptance, understanding, and celebration of racial and cultural differences. Dance educator Julie A. Kerr-Berry addresses the concept of race:

The very concept of race was invented by Whites in [sic] post-Enlightenment Europe for purposes of power and imported to the Americas so that Blacks could be identified, denigrated, and bought and sold like livestock. Intertwined with this phenomenon, Whites have envied, imitated, and [sic] exotified the Black body. Despite the inequities, Blacks and Whites kept talking through an intense bodily discourse that has been going on between them for over four hundred years. Ironically, this clash of dance cultures, which occurred when African and European peoples came to the “New World,” has produced amazing and diverse forms of dance in this country. The fusion of these culturally distinct dance/movement traditions is where the story of American dance begins. (Kerr-Berry, 2004, p.45)

I cannot say that I totally agree that appropriation, or even “clash of dance cultures” for that matter, is the sole cause for racial indifference within our education system. However, it is the lack of racial dialogue, the lack of representation of race and the lack of diversity in student and faculty populations. Fear of discussing this subject matter keeps us ignorant and full of hostility and resentment, thereby devaluing the effects of race in education. 

I believe we must refrain from the subtleties with which we use to address the topic of race in the classroom. Yes, this age old topic is difficult to discuss but that is because we fail to utilize a candid approach when confronting the ugly truths and harsh realities that are attached to it. Audrey Thompson provides an exemplary candid description of the effects of race in education:

Liberal education helps us flourish within a society committed to individual freedom. If society in question is actually organized to prevent or suppress the flourishing of some groups so that others may flourish, liberal education lacks the framework it requires to support its mission. Because race does matter in American society-although race, even more than class, is something we resist seeing as an organizing principle of social relations-the effort at colorblindness actually serves to deny the effects of racism, rather than to eradicate racism. In seeking to avoid racism by avoiding race, colorblind liberal education actually undercuts its own scholarly mission, for by refusing to address questions of race directly, it sidesteps one of the most pressing social questions confronting democracy in the United States. Such an education thereby risks promulgating either miseducation or non-education. (Thompson, 1997, pp.8, 14 & 26)

Denial is the first feat we must conquer in order to begin addressing curriculum revision needs. The common misconception is that if you are not a minority you are not affected by diversification. However, ignorance holds the same power that knowledge does and if our future means anything to us then ensuring that our children are exposed to a complete historical/cultural perspective is crucial. 

African American dance education research spanning the last two decades reveals the abhorrence towards appropriation, lack of recognition and exclusion that many scholars of Black dance have reflected in their studies (Dixon, 1990; Hubbard & Sofras, 1998; Jackson, 1996; Perpener III, 2000). This abhorrence stems from the repercussions of many years of oppression, dehumanization, and disrespect as well as the constant reminder that there is no cure for racism. My study seeks to reignite the waning murmur of this topic, which now more than ever desperately seeks attention.

[1] Dr. Halifu Osumare (in conversation).

ABSTRACT: Interrogating Black Minstrelsy In 21st Century Hip Hop (20 pages)

According to my investigation of the manifestation of Hip Hop or more particularly rap music, in the 21st century, the genre as a whole is being held accountable for portraying modern day Black minstrelsy. While my research reveals that some Black male Hip Hop artists are the targets of ridicule for performing as contemporary coons, Hip Hop culture in general is suffering from the accusations of “buffoonery.” But I ask is Black minstrelsy being misrepresented in these accusations against Hip Hop in the 21st century? 

I argue that if today’s image of Hip Hop is going to be labeled as a minstrel show, the history of the genre needs reevaluation and a deeper investigation of its performative roots is crucial. The performance choices and actions of a minstrel artist was often purely practical in the process of accessing agency in the entertainment industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sometimes those choices consisted of a method for negating the caricature depictions of Blacks and liberating the culture by creating performative counter-narratives. It could also serve as a medium for presenting parody, satire and fiction via a double-consciousness approach. I argue that while minstrel-like elements in Hip Hop may be evident, minstrel-like performances by Blacks in Hip Hop is an extravagant supposition.

Perhaps the Black minstrel-like manner of some contemporary Hip Hop styles is a new subgenre of Hip Hop such as Gangsta Rap, Crunk music and or Conscious Rap. I argue that this particular performance style is actually creating a personal agency for these artists that doesn’t deserve to be demonized or reduced to the representation of “clown rappers.” There are simultaneous markets for East Coast Hip Hop, West Coast Hip Hop, Hyphy and Southern Rap just to name a few. Is it possible there is also a market for Black minstrel-like Hip Hop?

Historically, Black minstrelsy legitimized Black performers and granted them agency in the theatre, yet degraded their image at the same time. Subsequently today’s notion of Black minstrelsy in contemporary Hip Hop affords a more expeditious rise to financial gain for Black performers, while the issues of their personal and collective integrity remains in question. 

My central argument is that the problem with generalizing contemporary Hip Hop and labeling it Black minstrelsy represents this contemporary performance as degrading the depictions of the Black community, while many of these artists’ expressions are simply an attempt to explore their creativity, arouse innovation and access agency. This conundrum is partially why Hip Hop is so controversial and is often being discriminated against. What requires further investigation is the perception and interpretation of Black minstrelsy, particularly a more accurate understanding of the motivations of artists involved in that historic performance genre. 

It’s long overdue that we all become accountable for how our own perceptions and projections shape our own misconceptions about Hip Hop culture and the Black American culture. A helpful approach to future research of Hip Hop would be to eliminate overly critical assessments of Black minstrel-like Hip Hop performances, and acknowledge that there is a place for all Hip Hop styles, even if everyone cannot appreciate them all.

Even though I think we need to re-educate ourselves about the reality of Black minstrelsy historically, I do admit that emergent Hip Hop artists, whose “self-defining” performance styles might be considered deleterious to African Americans’ collective image, should consider how the misconceptions of their performativity potentially compromises their integrity and galvanizes the demonization of Hip Hop and the Black American culture. This study seeks to offer a fresh lens for evaluating the effects/affects of Black minstrelsy, and in the process offer a pragmatic prescription for nullifying the demonization of contemporary Hip Hop.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Physical Beats: The Phenomenological Study of Abstract Choreography

My positionalities as an African American dancer, political arts activist, scholar and movement inventor substantiate my performativity. The critical stance of my performativity is a resistance to being marked. I advocate for making and valuing differences and subverting the oppression of the marked. I am against the “natural assumption” of Black dance as a practice done by and for Black people. In this case being marked is being a stereotype. In that regard my works aim to promote non-stereotypical assumptions about the Black dance aesthetic. My work seeks to go against the mark of Black dance since I am a Black choreographer employing the practice of non-human dancing I am essentially negating the “natural assumption” of Black dance. My resistance to being marked is not an attempt to being perceived as unmarked --“normal”- white, male, etc.-- but to undermine the oppression of this concept. While being “normal” warrants acceptance it also hinders uniqueness and for this reason I’d rather my artistic expressions not blend in. Blending in takes away from my purpose for achieving agency in my field and this is why I believe inventing an authentic movement practice --one that does not re-present any existing movement practices-- is required for attaining my goal.
My approach to accessing agency in my field manifests itself in my practice as research. If the works I produce aim to represent and or re-present what is currently popularized, then authenticity is impossible. Currently I am investigating the efficacy of Merce Cunningham and Steve Paxton’s choreographic process chance as a non-human dancer articulates it and exploring the various aesthetic interpretations of phenomenology for this process. The mode of production I am employing to do so is the appropriation of choreographic devices, which does not involve danced movement. This is my approach to establishing an authentic movement practice.
This paper begins with a description of my sound dance project using chance choreography with Oobleck (matter transformation), media and sound. Then I will discuss the functions of the American dance education system and the Westernized dance production system and how their practices have influenced my practice as research. Next I discuss my mode of production in terms of nation state art and how my subjectivity/positionality informed my own hegemonic practices in this project. Finally I outline my plans for substantiating the aesthetic merit of my mode of production.
Project Description
My approach to experimenting with tactile bodies employs a collaborative open structured choreographic process with Oobleck (matter transformation), media and sound. My objective is to innovate a movement practice I refer to as physical beats, a sound dance. Initially I set out to develop sound patterns that emulated and mimicked movement patterns by employing the choreographic devices used for developing dances. I imagined the choreographic devices I applied such as timing, ABA and canon, would be recognized by the Oobleck’s kinesthetic response to the sound patterns I designed. However, that was an extremely presumptuous expectation to have of a non-human dancer subject, especially since choreographic devices and sound patterns can’t always be recognized by the human dancers stylistic interpretations of either. Regrettably my expectations were too high and immediately I was compelled to steer the project in a different direction.
Since the Oobleck reacts best to sustained vibratory sounds at a frequency above 30hz, I saw no point in continuing to design sound patterns independent of the Oobleck’s interpretative kinesthetic and auditory responses. I might not have ever realized that the non-human dancer deserves access to agency similarly to the human dancer, had I not experienced the Oobleck’s reaction to my choreographic authority. I do not maintain that the non-human dancer subject represents or re-presents the dancer and or the choreographer; still it is necessary that I anthropomorphize the Oobleck to acknowledge its performance independent of my ideologies. By anthropomorphizing the Oobleck I am able to make the supposition that the role of the non-human dancer is just as essential to the phenomenological study of abstract choreography as the human dancer. Perhaps the Oobleck’s reaction to sound waves could be perceived as mimetic behavior and interpreted as dancing. This is already evident by the numerous youtube clips entitled “Dancing Oobleck,” depicting non-Newtonian fluid (matter transformation) reacting to the sound waves emanating from a sub woofer speaker.
I expected the Oobleck to react to my subjugation the way it did in the youtube clips I’d studied. When reacting to sustained high frequency sound waves, the Oobleck rises up from its puddle about an inch or so and begins to slowly morph into and out of various distorted shapes that collect and separate before descending back to its puddle. Also I hoped that it might do more than what I’d been witnessing it do in the video clips, such as morph at the same pace of the music or morph in the same repetitive manner as the music’s repetitive pattern. However, in my experiences with the Oobleck, it did nothing more than spread out to the edges of the speaker and splatter up and out, and I have yet to witness it do much else.
After several unsuccessful attempts at appropriating the Oobleck’s “sound dance,” I recognized that my proposed recontexualization of the youtube clips I was borrowing from did not lend itself to possibilities beyond my imposed aesthetic preferences. Thus leading me to my new methodological approach: 1) play sustained sound waves at length for the Oobleck to react to. 2) Video its reactions. 3) Compose recorded sounds that mimic the rhythmic patterns of the Oobleck’s reactions. 4) Add the sound to the video. I intend to investigate the effects of this multilayered mode of production and use the outcomes to interpret the phenomenological aesthetics of physical beats.
Westernized Dance and Education
The American dance education system continues to function with an archaic model. One that specifically caters to both 19th century and racially marginalized hierarchies. Stemming from the historically recognized “high art” (European) vs. “low art” (Black/African) dichotomy evident in Westernized dance productions, this hegemonic structure is imported into and persists in the curriculum model for dance education. The apparent hegemony of this system is further implicated by its methodical integration practices via tokenism - the policy and practice of making only a perfunctory effort to desegregate. While progress within this system has been made, segregation and discrimination have yet to be fully dismantled. The current inclusion of Black dance styles in Westernized dance productions is superficial and that does not explore the genres' complexity and sophistication in proportion to its influence within American and world cultures.
Subsequently Westernized dance productions does not require the study and or practice of Black dance techniques and vernaculars because its primarily preferred dance aesthetic is limited to the focus of European dance practices. Consequently, non-Black dancing bodies (white and visibilized) are not developing the skills necessary to emulate or mimic the aesthetic quality of the Black dancing body (Other and invisibilized) but offensively attempting to do so anyways. Yet due to the predominately cultivated and practiced European (dominant) dance aesthetic, Black dancing bodies maintain the skill and ability to emulate or mimic the aesthetic quality of non-Black dancing bodies.
Although components of African American dance techniques such as Jazz, Hip Hop and African derived styles are being offered, they are typically not a central part of the curriculum but rather exist as electives. Learning classical ballet and modern dance techniques are essential to the development of any trained dancer, yet other cultural and innovative approaches are generally overlooked and or considered non-essential to a foundation of the well-trained 21st century dancer and dance studies major.
Interrogating the ideology of Westernized dance and education, which misappropriates and segregates the practice and performance of Black dance is the stimulus for my desire to achieve agency in this medium and to offer a more inclusive alternative dance curriculum. Thus my approach to accessing agency is vested in my present sound dance project physical beats.
Prior to this endeavor, I did not consider myself an abstract dance choreographer; I have always been a narrative choreographer. And while I do consider myself a movement inventor, I believed my choreographic innovations were exclusively for the human dancer/non-dancer. The hegemonic cultivation of my subjectivity as a choreographer/dance educator unconsciously caused me not to consider the possibility of choreographic collaboration with a non-human dancer, in the same way that Westernized dance productions and education do not consider viable approaches to proper appropriation and integration of the Black dance aesthetic.
The Role Of Hegemony
Originally I was mostly interested in my independent choreographic agency and unintentionally subverting the Oobleck’s choreographic agency. I was never concerned with anthropomorphizing the Oobleck until my manipulative process failed. My approach to this project was completely autonomous. I am the human, I am the choreographer, I operate the music, I make the Oobleck, and this afforded me sovereignty. What I had yet to realize was that I couldn’t make the Oobleck dance the way I wanted it to. In this regard the Oobleck has autonomy of its kinesthetic and sensory responses and most importantly its choreographic interpretation of both. It is this reality that makes the Oobleck simultaneously anthropomorphic and mimetic. My failure to acknowledge the other elements (Oobleck, electronic equipment and sound) as my partners working with me and for me, not against me, compromised the desired functionality of my project. In this instance I realized the hegemonic positionality/subjectivity I’d unconsciously assumed.
Upon the realization of my hegemonic subjectivity and distaste for its oppression, I was suddenly propelled to think of my project as nation state art in the way that the non-human dancer and Black dancer are minorities in the Westernized dance production medium. The marginalization and exclusion we are subjected to by this medium allows us to join forces and combat these injustices, utilizing our collective aesthetic qualities to transgress and transcend the universals we are bounded by, thereby affording us mutually exclusive agency.
This project does not and cannot function as nation state art because of the non-human dancer and human dancer relationship clash. Yet there is some peripheral relevance to the affects of nation state art apparent in the commonalities we (the Oobleck and I) do share, such as the disempowerment we have been subjected to and the misappropriation, discredit and disrespect for our mutually exclusive artistic expressions. As Dr. Hunter pointed out, “the Oobleck did dance and something really interesting was happening” (Dr. Lynette Hunter, personal communication, December 5, 2012). From my ideological vantage point, I was unable to recognize this aesthetic interpretation. Ideology is the very stronghold that affects phenomenology and often times fails to recognize the existence of aesthetics in any medium.
I am certain Dr. Hunter would interject here and proclaim, well it’s a bit more complicated than that. And I would have to agree, because no matter how you arrive at your phenomenological attitude about this project, the reality is that I have anthropomorphized the Oobleck because it can be considered humanlike. Nevertheless, it will always be non-human. And with the exception of its autonomous kinesthetic and auditory responses, it maintains no corporeal agency. Furthermore, its choreographic interpretation of both is chance. While chance is a legitimate choreographic device --a process in which elements are specifically chosen and defined but randomly structured to create a dance or movement phrase-- the choreographer who is conscious of it can only utilize it. Since the Oobleck is a non-human subject, it is unconscious of its use of chance and consequently maintains no awareness of affecting transgression or transcendence.
Much like ‘Carnival,’ my mode of production inadvertently “feeds ideology and allows the hegemonic human dancer [my emphasis] to momentarily pretend that he/she has got the same issues with representation that the non-human dancer [my emphasis] has, and can enjoy transgressing and transcending in the same way.”[1] The only difference between my positionality and the positionality of the hegemonic human dancer is that as an African American human dancer I can only benefit from hegemony over the non-human dancer. Therefore, like matter transformation, I have the ability to morph in an out of hegemony over the Oobleck while transgressing and transcending with the Oobleck. Therein lies the complication.
Ironically my hegemony has only adversely affected me, since the remaining elements existent in my project have not been frustrated with our working relationship the way I have been. However, once I anthropomorphized the Oobleck, I was then able to argue that the Oobleck has been resistant to my hegemony and perhaps has been just as frustrated with our working relationship as I. Relinquishing my desire to manipulate the Oobleck’s reaction to my choreographic autonomy and opting to share control of the process to learn from its reactions further proved the importance of granting the disenfranchised access to agency.
The Plan
I am questioning the aesthetic interpretations, values and preferences in dance practice, performance and development. Most specifically I am exploring the ways in which appropriation can stimulate innovation. I am primarily interested in how all of these factors linked together inform and affect my performativity and how my engagement with these exchanges might grant me access to agency in the hegemonic system of Westernized dance productions.
In the area of dance studies, practice and performance, efficacy is crucial to accessing agency. Attention to creating visceral effects when in the developmental stages of the work will aid in the dance practitioner’s successful mode of production. For instance, my choice to work with Oobleck was a direct reflection of my aesthetic awareness of its visceral effect. The apparent challenges with this mode of production are often in defending its aesthetic merit. How long can one’s attention be arrested by the image of solid particles suspended in liquid quickly morphing between states? The results of my experimentations thus far tell me approximately 2-3 minutes.
If I am seriously attempting to establish an authentic movement practice utilizing this process as my medium, I suspect that I will have to aim higher. The primary concept of visualizing beat composition via matter transformation is an ambitious endeavor; still it yields a superimposed approach.
Some examples I am currently exploring include the following: phase 2 – I will dance a duet with the Oobleck. In this phase I will grant the Oobleck choreographic agency by setting choreograph on myself that mimics its matter transformation. Then I will seek the assistance of a musician, more skilled in the area of music composition than I, to collaboratively and organically set music to the choreography. Next I will video the Oobleck’s performance and superimpose the music in the way that I described earlier in phase 1. Finally I will produce this duet in a performance space with a stage and a backdrop. I will dance on stage in front of the backdrop with the video of the Oobleck dancing behind me projected on the backdrop. What is important here is the rhetorical interaction that will be generated between a human and an object, by the human. That is, what you dance and why you dance it is the medium for the rhetoric of interaction that is potentially a new way of thinking about human-world interactions.
Phase 3 - Upon achieving success with phases 1 and 2, I’d like to then solicit the services of a game developer to build a device that can be attached to the body inconspicuously and used remotely via movement articulation. To this end, I will create the work in real time using improvisation and chance. Acting as a human remote control, my movements will signal a response from the music, which will in tandem signal a response from the Oobleck. This trio performance will on some level imitate Charles Sanders Peirce’s classification of triadic signs. Again I will produce my method of performance on a stage with a backdrop. I will dance on stage in front of the backdrop with the video of the Oobleck dancing (also in real time) behind me projected on the backdrop. From a solo to a duet to a trio, my multilayered mode of production illustrates what happens when the choreographer/dancer allows their fantasies full play.
Phase 4 – I will attempt to establish The Oobleck Dance Ensemble in collaboration with LJ Boogie & Company. I hope to work with a group of dancers who are convinced of the aesthetic merit of my work and wish to join me in further developing my performativity and their own. I am interested in how the human dancer’s mimetic representation of the Oobleck affects the aesthetics of my performativity. Ultimately I am interested in whether or not this total endeavor will grant me access to agency in the realm of Westernized dance productions and if my performativity will be manifested as an authentic movement practice.
What I have already learned from the Oobleck has allowed me to draw the comparison between the functionalities of non-Black dancing bodies and Black dancing bodies with non-human dancers and human dancers. In the same way my dance training and education has not expected me to study the movement practices of Black dance techniques and vernaculars, it has also not expected me to study the phenomena of non-human dancer object orientations. Historically the ideology of Westernized dance productions not only oppressed “uncivilized” dance aesthetics, but also it also rejected abstract dance or any movement practice that wasn’t ballet.
Over time, dance innovators sought to disrupt the normative of Westernized dance productions by rebelling against its hegemonic structure. Subsequently abstract dance emerged and widened the scope of choreographic concepts along with “multicultural” dance, which afforded the dance world a grander appreciation for varied aesthetic interpretations of dance and dance making. Abstract dance choreographers and many non-white dance choreographers revolutionized this art form and area of study by challenging the assumption that dancers and choreographers must adhere to the dominant dance aesthetic to access and or maintain agency in this medium. My sound dance project, physical beats, is intending to advance the art of dance by challenging the dominant dance aesthetic practices of Westernized dance productions.

[1] Hunter, Lynette. (2012). PFS 265a Beginning Guide. Unpublished raw data.