I’m refining and developing these ideas. So I’m just going to keep writing and posting these same points. Over and over again.
One of the more interesting discussions I’ve read about derision dance (from Jacqui Malone’s book I think) discussed derision dance in African American dance as a way of responding to white power/black disempowerment ‘under the radar’. In other words, the cake walk (or whichever example you’re using) allowed dancers to deride or mock whites surrepticiously or indirectly. To ‘get the joke’ you had to recognise who was being mocked, and how the mocking was intended.
This sort of idea comes up in a number of different cultural practices across cultures. I’ve read a bit about satire and humour and derision-through-impersonating-for-humour’s-sake.
I’m reading this book at the moment:
(Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the blues Tradition by Adam Gussow.
Gussow is a a blues musician who’s interested in violence and the blues. One of his central arguments is that the blues (as in blues music – both sung and instrumental) gave black musicians access to a ‘blues subject’
who then found ways, more or less covert, of singing back to that ever-hovering threat. Although blues scholars have long claimed that blues singers remained self-protectively mute on the issue of white mob violence, lynching makes its presence felt in various ways throughout the blues tradition: not just as veiled references in blues lyrics and as jokes recounted by blues musicians…
Gussow discusses the fact that black responses to white violence (in southern America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) were limited by necessity. In the simplest terms, if you fought back, if you responded to white violence, then white retaliation would come ten-fold. Without this ‘right of response’ (legal or otherwise), music offered a way of dealing, publicly with violence. Albert Murray talks about singing the blues as a way of ‘stomping’ the blues – of sharing woe and therefore easing its burdensome weight. The idea with singing a song that implies lynching or violence (ie you might simply sing ‘I have the blues, my body is broken’) is that you share your pain and frustration without directly inviting white censure. Singing and music allow you to sneakily respond, but without risking violent retribution.
Gussow begins his book with a comment from the book What is Life? Reclaiming the Black Blues Self by Kalamu ya Salaam:
[W]e laugh loud and heartily when every rational expectation suggests that we should be crying in despair. [T]he combination of exaggeration and conscious recognition of the brutal facts of life is the basis for the humour of blues people (Gussow x)
So in these cases making jokes when it seems impossible to laugh is an important part of subverting white power and violence. Simply being able to laugh is a way of saying “I am not beaten down”. The joke part is an extension of the sneakiness of singing about violence indirectly, of responding indirectly when direct responses could get you killed. Humour is of course utterly subversive and powerful in this sort of setting.
The sort of violence Gussow talks about in Seems Like Murder Here is a fairly extreme example (though I highly recommend the book – it’s disturbing but also fascinating), but it makes the point that humour through music can work as humour in dance does. By hiding your true meaning or intention under a layer of melody or rhythm, you can say subversive things, do subversive things and reclaim some control over your life and public discourse. You mightn’t be able to speak out, but you can sing out.
I’m particularly keen on the idea of multiple layers of meaning. The cake walk can function just as silly clowning. But (as every clown knows), the surface humour hides something deeper and more subversive. While at first glance the black clown appears as the butt of the joke to white audiences (of the day), to white dancers and observers, the butt of the joke lies elsewhere. Tommy deFrantz writes in Dancing Many Drums that, when faced with white forbidding of black religious dance,
serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black manâ€™s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz, discussing black masculinity in dance 107).
I’ve also heard similar discussions from aboriginal Australian elders discussing religious dance. While some dances are strictly for women or men or older women or older men or not to be seen at all, under any circumstances by the uninitiated, the meaning of a sacred dance can be hidden in plain sight. The uninitiated, watching a sacred dance (or looking at a sacred image in a painting) doesn’t have access the important, sacred meaning, simply because they haven’t been initiated, and therefore don’t understand what they’re looking at. They look, but cannot see.
I think it’s important to say here, though, that having control over who looks at your body (dancing or otherwise) is a matter of power. I’ve been thinking about it in reference to film and how we give permission to have our own image photographed or filmed (and I repeatedly return to an article on the Warlpiri Media Collective’s siteabout managing access to sacred or even just private space in indigenous Australian communities). But discussions about, for example, women’s rights to control who looks at their bodies has just as long a history as white occupation of Australia. It is, after all, a similar discussion about occupation, colonialism and the power of the gaze.
I’ve read some interesting discussions about this in music in other places as well. There’s quite a bit of discussion about Louis Armstrong and his ‘mugging’ or ‘uncle tomming’ for white audiences. Krin Gabbard discusses Armstrong’s work with Duke Ellington, including the filming of Paris Blues (in which Armstrong starred, and for which Ellington contributed the score) and the recording of the ‘Summit’ sessions:
â€¦at those moments in the film when he [Armstrong] seems most eager to please with his vocal performances, his mugging is sufficiently exaggerated to suggest an ulterior motive. Lester Bowie has suggested that Armstrong is essentially â€œslipping a little poison into the coffeeâ€ of those who think they are watching a harmless darkieâ€¦.Throughout his career in films, Armstrong continued to subvert received notions of African American identity, signifying on the camera while creating a style of trumpet performance that was virile, erotic, dramatic, and playful. No other black entertainer of Armstrongâ€™s generation â€” with the possible exception of Ellington â€” brought so much intensity and charisma to his performances. But because Armstrong did not change his masculine presentation after the 1920s, many of his gestures became obsolete and lost their revolutionary edge. For many black and white Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he was an embarrassment. In the early days of the twenty-first century, when Armstrong is regularly cast as a heroicized figure in the increasingly heroicising narrative of jazz history, we should remember that he was regularly asked to play the buffoon when he appeared on films and television (Gabbard 298).
Gabbard continues the point here:
…Armstrong plays the trickster. Armstrongâ€™s tricksterisms were an essential part of his performance persona. On one level, Armstrongâ€™s grinning, mugging, and exaggerated body language made him a much more congenial presence, especially to racist audiences who might otherwise have found so confident a performer to be disturbing, to say the least. When Armstrong put his trumpet to his lips, however, he was all business. The servile gestures disappeared as he held his trumpet erect and flaunted his virtuosity, power, and imagination (Gabbard 298).
Again, there’s this idea of layers of meaning. On the one hand, Armstrong appears as the smiling, ‘safe’ black man, entertaining white audiences with clowning. But on the other, his sheer musical talent empowers him and defies his reduction to ‘harmless’ clown.
There’s quite a bit written about black masculinity and layers of meaning in musical and dance performances, but I’m especially interested in women in all this. Gussow has a fascinating paper about Mamie Smith’s song ‘Crazy Blues’ (which is in that book). And Angela Yuval Davis talks about lyrics and women’s blues performances and power.
Ultimately, though, the idea of layers of meaning is important to a discussion of African American dance. Any one dance can yield a whole host of meanings or interpretations. And at times it’s important to hide the most subversive or dangerous meanings way down inside, where you need a lived experience with violence and disempowerment to really understand or to ‘get’ the joke.
Here’s my current absolute favourite example of layers of meaning in dance. This is a scene from a musical stage play version of the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Most of us are more familiar with the film version (with its wondeful music) and with Oprah’s interest in the story/film.
On one level it’s very much ‘classical’ musical stage play fare – ‘singing’, dancing, ‘period’ costumes (late 19th, early 20th century), young black men with phenomenal dancing ability performing a ‘light hearted’ song about ‘love’. That’s the straight reading (well, almost straight). It looks quite a bit like some of the clips we watch for lindy hop or jazz dance dance from the 30s and 40s. Almost.
But it takes on a different meaning when you’ve seen this.
Immediately, another layer of meaning can be found in that first clip. Men dancing a ‘woman’s’ song. Add the fact that this is a contemporary stage play, not a piece from the 30s or 40s. The lyrics, the movements of the dancers all gain new levels of meaning. The reading is ‘queered up’, not only in terms of sexuality (gay? straight? tranny? wuh?), but in terms of power and gaze. The Color Purple is a story about gender and power and race and ethnicity and class. It’s themes and story are heartbreaking in parts. And yet here are three gorgeous young blokes performing a dance which invites a smile or a laugh. It’s ‘queer’ in that it’s played ‘straight’. The dancers are dancing ‘seriously’, but the entire performance seems unusual, something is happening here, below the surface. Actually, not below the surface. It’s right there, in your face. Making you want to dance. This sort of performance is often talked about in critical literature as provoking a sense of unease in the audience – should I laugh? Or is that wrong, considering the story of The Color Purple? This unease or anxiety centres on issues of sexuality, gender, class, ethnicity, etc etc etc. In some ways, this is what makes the performance so powerful. You can enjoy it simply as badass dancing. But you can also left wondering what it means. And context is everything. Watching from an expensive seat in a huge concert theatre is a little different from watching from the audience with different vested interests:
I like the second version because it’s not a quiet audience, sitting and listening quietly and politely. It’s a loud, rowdy audience interacting with the dancers. It’s ok to laugh, to cheer, to want to dance with them, to enjoy the show. The audience are part of the performance. The ‘mistake’ where one dancer drops his hat becomes a chance to demonstrate their ability to improvise, to work it for a crowd. Three men dancing the overtly sexualised, feminised steps from Beyonce’s clip changes the meaning of the movements. It changes the way their bodies are sexualised or regarded as sexualised bodies. It’s ‘feminine’ movement, but this is definitely a performance of masculinity and masculine sexuality. Just not a terribly straight or mainstream one. And when the women appear on stage, all this gets tipped over again.
Is it derision, though? I think it’s more complicated. But it makes a point that we can apply to cake walk. On one hand, it can be read as ‘straight’, fabulous dancing. But it can also be read as clowning or buffooning. Or it can be read as queer-as-fuck politics. Or sexed-up awesomeness. Or race politics. Or mocking Beyonce. Or celebrating Beyonce. It’s imitation and flattery and derision and commentary. It’s complicatedness invites us to engage and to look for layers of meaning. Which of course is the point: one dance becomes a discourse, a discussion, rather than a monologue.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Toronto: Random House, 1998.
DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re-Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 –
Gabbard, Krin. â€œParis Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It with Musicâ€. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert Oâ€™Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 297-311.
Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Hinkson, Melinda. “The Circus comes to Yuendumu, Again,” reproduced from Arena Magazine no. 25, October-November, 1996, pps 36-39.