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.

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