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January 21, 2005

work thoughts

Posted by dogpossum on January 21, 2005 6:38 PM in the category

today i had a busy day inspired by Jane C. Desmond's article "Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies" in Cultural Critique (Winter 1993/94, pgs 33 - 63).

And IÂ’ve recently written an overly long post in this thread on swing talk about the charleston swingout.


The charleston - as you may or not know - was one of the key dances incorporated in the historical development. While the open/closed/open structure of the swingout (foundational step of the lindy hop) included the break away which so revolutionised partner dancing in the 30s (what, a couple dancing alone together?! improvising?!), I do suspect that the charleston contributed footwork and timing to the neophyte swing out. The break away was of course already living in the texas tommy and other pre-lindy partner dances. The charleston predated lindy, and gained mainstream popularity in the 20s though it did develop earlier than that and was initially performed in an Afro-American stage play whose name escapes me just now. The charleston itself developed from earlier Afro-American post-emancipation dances.

The charleston prevailed into the 30s and 40s, yet with a distinct style that differed from the early 20s charleston. The earlier version was more upright and with a different rhythm, while the later version is more syncopated and less upright. I’ve heard this later style referred to as ‘lindy hop charleston’, ‘30s charleston’ and ‘flying charleston’. This final name, though used by Jacqui Malone in her credible book Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance is used by contemporary swingers in reference to another distinct step. In this clip Frankie Manning dances first the lindy hop charleston (primarily in profile) and the ‘flying charleston’ (in front-view). You can see why Malone refers to the lindy hop charleston as ‘flying’ charleston, as Manning’s distinctive style makes his stretched-out upper body appear to be flying, while his lower body goes like the clappers – a rea lly nice example of ‘cool’. ‘Cool’ is a concept used in Afro-American dance to refer to the juxtaposition of a ‘cool’ or aloof, or chilled face with a ‘hot’ body which is engaged in fierce physical exercise. Or some other similar juxtaposition of moods.

Charleston swingout?
The charleston swingout has come to contemporary Australian swingers post-lindy hop (ironically enough) and I doubt it ever made it to Australia pre-revival. Though I could be wrong...
It is essentially, the same movement as a swingout, where the partners come into a closed position and then out, but in the charleston swingout, the footwork is distinctly charleston-inspired and less of a ‘slotted’ movement.

I've been led the charleston swingout once or twice, but I wanted to learn to lead it myself. And it seems that there's a deficit of weight change information in the explanations I've had. Or else I've not had it explained to me in terms that I can understand.

I am all about weight change, as per previous discussions on this blog and elsewhere.

ok, so back to the topic at hand...

I'm reading some really great stuff about dance at the moment. For a bibliography of stuff IÂ’ve read this past week or so, check out this file.

At any rate, IÂ’ve been really fascinated by all this stuff and have started to wonder about the way we dancers use archival Hollywood clips of swing dance as an authoritative source for dance. The California Historical Jazz Dance Foundation, of which the respected post-revival dancer and historian Peter Loggins is a part offers this fairly exhaustive list of films in which lindy hop and swing dance appear. HellzapoppinÂ’ is perhaps the most-used and influential of all these, and stars Frankie Manning.

In that thread on the charleston swingout, people suggest I look up After Seben, a clip which features Shorty George Snowden (I think it is) dancing the charleston swingout. Now IÂ’m have some concerns about this source, as an historical guide to dance recreation. Check out the extended version of this entry to see what these concerns are.

Posted by dogpossum on swingtalk discussion board: Jan. 21 2005,15:38
original posting.

ok, so i'm doing some hardcore research for the thesis at the moment on dance theory. skip down past all this to the 'my point' bit if you want to cut to the chase. but i wanted to present some of my evidence for my questions first. because i want to see if anyone knows anything or has good refs that challenge this evidence.

my research background:
mostly i'm interested in the transferral of dance forms and movements across cultures - so, in the case of swing dances:
- the afro-american appropriation of european partner dances
- the re-emergence of historical dances within the afro-american community in the 20th century (so a contemporary af-am culture appropriating the dances of a community from the past - like the re-emergence of the itch in different decades, etc)
- the white appropriation of lindy hop (and other swing forms) in the 30s - specifically in the west coast adoption of lindy, and later in the more mainstream adoption of lindy hop as 'jitterbug' in the later 30s and 40s.

vernacular dance and ethnicity
i've focussed on afro-american research (mostly in dance studies, but also in dance sociology and the newer area of dance cultural studies). but i've also read work on latino dance forms (including tango, salsa, etc) and africanist dances in places like haiti and the caribbean, where slavery brought african dances under white imperialism to indigenous populations.

one of the key things that i've noticed coming up in a range of works by different people, is the way the appropriation of dances by other communities involved changes in what we'd call the 'style' of the dance.

learning to move: dance movement as culturally determined and not necessarily 'innate'
in the dance lit i've been reading, they talk about the way different cultures and communities socialise children (and adults), in terms of movement and dance. so if you grow up in an afro-american community in LA, you learn to move in a different way than say a kid from a latino community in LA, a white kid in melbourne, a chinese kid in malaysia, etc etc. it's like language: we learn to speak in a paricular way in our local community, and all have different, localised accents.
so when people say things like "oh, black people can really move" or "white men can't jump" they're not noticing a genetic heritage so much as a socialised way of moving (which incidentally utilises whatever genetic potential is available).
this point about movement being learned and not innate is important because it suggests that dances evolve across time and culture, as do cultures and species. if you disagree with evolution as a theory, you'll never convince me.

much of the literature i'm reading discusses common traits in different localised ethnic dance communities.
so, we can discuss a white european dance aesthetic, which is made most evident in things like ballet:
- a straightened spine and 'upward' movement of the torso
- the alignment of hip and shoulder, with a straight spine
- straight legs and arms

there are a range of features common to an af-am dance aesthetic (which draws heavily on africanist influences):
- Isolation and movement of the pelvis - in rotation or thrusting
- Individual manipulation of other body parts such as torso, head, arms,
- Flat-footed movement style
- Flexed leg position
- a 'cool' face and 'hot' body (the juxtaposition of an 'aloof' gaze with a furiously fast and energetic body)
- down-ward inclined movements

there are also a bunch of other things that can be said about other dance cultures.
it's important to note that most dance aesthetics are not only ethnically or racially determined, but also heavily inflected by class. so while ballet represents a middle or upper class dance aesthetic, it contrasts markedly with the folk dances of lower classes white europeans, such as clogging, called partner dancers like reels, etc.

the thing i'm really interested in is the way a particular dance is 're-styled' to suit a new community when it is transferred from its original context.

that transferral works both ways: af-am to mainstream white culture; white european slave owners to african slaves; af-am 30s to 2000s predominantly white european australian; predom white 2000s american to 2000s predom white euro australian.

ok, so when white dancers appropriated black dance forms, they changed bits of it. mostly for cultural reasons, and usually to change the sexual connotations of movements. so there might be less 'percussive' thrusting, rotation or undulation of the pelvis; legs might be closer together; and partners might enter a looser or not-so-close embrace. arms are straightened, spines are straightened and lifted, etc.

the white appropriation also involved a de-emphasising of improvisation. mostly for practical purposes. the appropriation of black dance by white culture in the 30s and 40s (and today) was achieved primarily through dance schools and teachers. and it's easier to offer a more standardised product. and it's just plain hard to teach improvisation. so it was taken out. or greatly reduced. following the logic of the point about culturally-determined characteristics of dance movement, improvisation would be different across different cultures anyway. and white dance and music of the time was also a lot less tolerant of improvisation.
jazz is the best example of this: jazz dance has improvisation in it because jazz music does. and jazz music has indelibly afro-american roots (though it too borrowed from other cultures).

i've also done some reading on hollywood representations of afro-american dance. the basic gist of this: black dance was remade and represented for white audiences in hollywood film. so it's problematic to assume that these films give you a window into the complete world of 30s af-am dancing. or access to an 'authentic' lindy hop or tap or whatever. as one author puts it (LeeEllen Friedland fyi), black dance performances on film and stage in the 30s (and now) are only showing a tiny part of their repertoire.

having said that, really, we take what we can get. because we don't have much choice.

my point (finally)
ok, so with all this in mind, when i watch the 'after seben' clip with the charleston in it, i have some questions (please note: i only have a vid copy of this clip, and haven't watched it in a while - no vcr here - if you have a dig copy i can borrow i'd be overjoyed).

what's with that really upright posture, when everything you read about af-am dance of the time says that that upright posture wasn't indicative of the general dance culture?
the breakaway which we see there (and which gets us lindy hoppers really excited) was present in other dances, and is generally described as a lot wilder and crazier than what we see in 'after seben' (i have this great quote from a woman who describes how as a dancer in 20s shows she ended up in the orchestra pit or the wings or all over the place in the open position of... texas tommy i think it was - it was crazy shit).

so what's with that 'after seben' clip?

was it a carefully toned-down dance for white audiences?

i mean, i've read in a really great article by jane desmond that the original charleston was really toned down for white dancers, and that this toning down :

tended to make the dances more upright, taking the bend out of the legs and bringing the buttocks and chest into vertical alignment.

does anyone know anything more about the clip itself? the actual context of its production, for example?

an interesting case study of the appropriation and movement of dances and dance movements between cultures:
the 'ring shout' of the late 19th and early 20th century draws on african traditions of dances where participants moved in a ring. this structure was adapted for holy or 'sacred' christian dances in black churches. the format was also used in secular contexts - like jooks (sort of like bars, but less formal), house parties, ballrooms, etc - for social dance forms. the big apple that manning choreographed (as seen in keep punchin, and revived by contemporary dancers in various forms - compare CRR's version with sp's version as an example, then compare with the 'teachers' dance at hellzapoppin during mlx) was an adaption of the ring shout formation. today we still do big apples, but we also do jams, which are a further adaptation of the form.
despite the transferral of the rough structure, the way we dance these dances today in melbourne are quite different to the way they were danced in the 30s in harlem, in the 1900s in southern america, or in various areas of africa pre American slavery.

a note on my references:
i've been using a range of reputable sources for this research - articles and books by people who've been studying dance and movement for years and years, as well as anecdotal, autobiographical and archival material i've scrounged from various sources, including interviews with people like frankie manning, et al, film footage, etc.

i'm working with a range of resources. they include:
- stuff on dance theory, which tends to focus on performance dance and concert dance (stuff like ballet and modern dance)
- stuff on afro-american and other vernacular dances, by a range of authors, some of whom are white, some are af-am, some are radically political af-am, some are conservative white, some are latino, etc etc etc
- stuff on movement and dance movement
- cultural studies stuff
- sociology stuff, which tends to position dance as something to be studied
- and some limited stuff on dance theory today, in regards to improvisation and choreography
- a fukk load of dance history stuff, focussing on af-am dance. these use a range of sources, from interviews through archival material to film and so on. some of them are somewhat dodgy research (like the stearns and stearns book), but what can you do?
- i'm also using more populist references like stearns and stearns book 'jazz dance', the albert murray book 'stompin the blues', and katrina hazzard-gordon's 'jookin' (she does academic stuff too). some of these are way dodgy.
- i've got limited access to autobiographical books and archival material. more of which i'm not sure i can pursue at the mo, as i've got to stop researching and start writing this chapter next week.
- i also scour online sources for history. i tend to favour the references which are attached to people like peter loggins, who demonstrate a marked interest in the issue and in actual interviews.

in all this: the dance theory work is generally all written by people who are also dancers or human movement researchers. i also exercise a fair degree of scepticism: books which don't have solid references are suspect, as are 'facts' without corroborating evidence (i think of the stearns book here especially). i tend to favour research by af-am dancers and theorists when i'm looking at af-am work. but as an academic i don't favour politics over good solid research skills.

Posted by dogpossum on January 21, 2005 6:38 PM in the category