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social dances dancers race

Dance has long provided a key means of expression for the movement of racialized bodies, and it has intersected with notions of race in a number of ways. In particular, dance has been a literal stage upon which ideas about racial superiority and inferiority have played out. It has also been a means for promoting social mobility.

Practiced by nearly every human society in all eras and locations throughout the world, dance enacts the ways in which people relate to each other; it defines the terms of representation for bodies and behavior; it expresses spirituality and sexuality in terms of the body in motion; and it provides a way to physically resist political structures. Dance in all idioms represents an idealized combination of physicality, aesthetic and spiritual possibility, and social occasion. Dance is widely—and wrongly—assumed to be a “universal language” that can be understood easily by any who witness its movements. In truth, dance exists only in relationship to recognizable human interaction, and it is structured according to local beliefs and ideologies. Because dance encompasses so many powerful possibilities, it has always been tinged with material implications for racist ideologies. Thus, racist practices and racialized representations of cultural formations abound in the historical record of dance performance.


In the United States, difficult race relations have allowed for an extensive permeation of racist ideologies through dance. Persistent stereotypes of ethnic action abound: Latino dances are “sensual” or “hot”; African Americans are “natural dancers” who specialize in “lascivious” and “grotesque” social dances; Native Americans are “spiritual” dancers who “passively” celebrate their ancestors and the land; and Asian dance forms are “delicate” and “mysterious” to their gathered audiences.

Each of these stereotypes deserves scrutiny. As a whole, Latino dances do indeed value accurate rhythmic meter. They stress fast-paced physical isolation of feet, torso, neck, hips, and arms, and they promote social interaction between partners or groups of people. Variations of group dances, including rumba and samba, are featured at festival events and carnival celebrations, while partnered social dances, including salsa and tango, bring couples into close physical proximity to explore movement possibilities as a single unit. For Latino dancers, these forms enhance social interaction, including group solidarity (in festival dances) and communication skills (in partnered dances).

During the European colonization of the Americas, Native American dances were considered to hold such power as tools of spiritual and social organization that white officials routinely banned them. For example, the Ghost Dance, performed by intercultural groups of Plains Indians from 1888 to 1890, emerged as part of a prophetic religion developed in the face of the hostile white takeover of North America. The dance, which lasted four days at a time, called for a costume that included absolutely nothing made by the white man. In 1890, infamous massacres at Wounded Knee involved the interruption of Ghost Dances by U.S. Army troops. Even before this, Native dancers had been consigned to become secular performers in popular entertainments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West stage shows of the late nineteenth century.

Asian dance forms practiced in the United States, which range from Indian Bharata Natyam through Javanese Kecak, often rely on symbolic gestures to narrate stories based on legend, mythology, and historical events. Because the term “Asian” encompasses hundreds of ethnicities, it lumps together diverse populations—including Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people—and their vibrant contemporary dance traditions. The broad variety of these cultures and their dance forms, combined with the important and coded gestural significations of each, perpetuates the impression of inscrutability for many Americans unversed in the particularities of any of these forms.


African-American social dances convey the most consistent ideologies of race in the United States. Black social dances have been banned by city councils and considered lewd and inappropriate for performance in public spaces. They purportedly signaled the breakdown of moral standards and society itself, thus effectively demonstrating the potential for social disorder. Significantly, African-American social dances have effectively defined each historical era of the twentieth century, as with the Charleston of the 1920s, the lindy hop of the 1930s, the twist of the 1960s, and breakdancing idioms in the 1980s.

The cakewalk offers a particular example of race in dance. Created by African Americans, this partnered social and performance dance derived from activities at corn-husking festivals in the early nineteenth century. The cake-walk emerged as a sly parody of the quadrille, a French-derived set dance popular among slaveholders in the South. African-American dancers made fun of the “genteel manners” of the quadrille, adapting its erect posture and precision patterns to include complex rhythmic walking steps, sequences of bowing low, waving canes, tipping hats, and a fast-paced, high-kicking grand promenade. In its competitive form, the cakewalk involved acrobatic stunts performed by duos who strove to maintain an upright stance even as they kicked higher and higher in tandem. Those determined to possess the most precision, grace, ease, and the highest kicks won a highly decorated cake prepared for the occasion.

Surprisingly, whites who witnessed the dance failed to notice its derisive origins, and they clamored to learn it. The form transferred easily into blackface minstrel shows and early Broadway offerings as it spread as a popular pastime. The highly successful African-American minstrel team of Williams and Walker (Egbert Austin Williams and George Walker) became the most famous practitioners of the dance. Walker and his wife, Aida Reed Overton, a noteworthy dancer and choreographer in her own right, brought the cakewalk to the height of its international popularity when they danced a Command Performance at Buckingham Palace in 1897. Thus, the cakewalk, which began as a racialized parody of white manners, offered social mobility to its African-American performers who became professional entertainers to the very people that their dance mocked.


Modern dance forms offered a more hospitable climate for black dancers in the United States. The racial division of Americans led to the formation of several separatist, all-black dance companies, which have offered performing opportunities for growing numbers of classically trained dancers. Hemsley Winfield’s New Negro Art Theater Dance Group brought concert dance to the New York Roxy Theater in 1932, effectively proving that black dancers would be accepted by largely white audiences. John Martin of the New York Times noted the dancers’ refusal to be “darkskinned reproductions of famous white prototypes,” and termed the concert “an effort well worth the making” (Martin 1932, p. X11). Winfield’s company performed with the Hall Johnson Choir in dances of his own making.

Modern dance that explores African-American life has tended to valorize religious practice, particularly in myriad versions of dances set to Negro Spirituals. Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations (1960) set a standard of exquisite choreographic imagination in telling the story of the African-American progression from slavery to freedom. The work includes scenes that depict profound social resilience in an abstract group prayer, an enactment of an Afro-Caribbean-derived riverside baptism, scenes of solitary penitence, and a gospel-inflected service in a rural southern sanctuary. This work, which suggests a vibrant and closed hegemonic universe of African-American perseverance, has been seen by more audiences than any other modern dance work. Among contemporary artists, the dance company of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, founded in 1982, stands apart in its willingness to confront uncomfortable racial perceptions in large-scale works. Jones, an African American, and his Italian-American partner Zane offered audiences a study in physical contrasts in several duets. As their company’s acclaim grew, Jones continued to work as a soloist, and his powerful performances sometimes included improvised movement layered with freely associated autobiographical text. In 1981, he danced an untitled solo built upon spoken oppositional statements such as “I love women; I hate women” and “I love white people; I hate white people.”

Jones and Zane were both diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986, and Zane succumbed to AIDS in 1988. After Zane’s death, Jones continued to make large-scaled works that addressed themes of racial identity, sexuality, and cultural memory, as in the epic Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990). This four-part, three-hour fantasia is loosely based on the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel and included an intergenerational cast, rap poetry, and scores of nude dancers in its final utopian vision. At the premiere of Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger (2003), Jones and actor Susan Sarandon read aloud as the multiracial company shifted in and out of the various characters detailed in Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial Nigger , underscoring the mutability of race in theatrical dance. O’Connor’s story of a bigoted white southern farmer and his grandson’s journey to the big city provided the narrative background for a charged exploration of race, gender, and theatrical representation.

Several contemporary dance companies resist racist presumptions surrounding dance technique, including Complexions Dance, founded by two former Ailey dancers, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Based in New York, Complexions features a multiracial ensemble of ballet-trained dancers who work in sleek accord performing Rhoden’s abstract choreography.

Dance on the Broadway stage has always embraced transformed African-American social dance forms as the preferred idiom of movement. Jazz dance, acknowledged as the foundational technique of contemporary Broadway-style dance, is built on the codification of eccentric African-American dance movements culled during the early part of the twentieth century. At intervals, segregated, “all black” companies of performers have been assembled to perform energetic or titillating fare on Broadway, from the Charleston dances of Runnin’ Wild (1923) to the disco-inspired bump choreography of The Wiz (1975). Those shows reinforced the truism that African-American social dance forms, best embodied by African-American dancers, could easily entertain audiences of cultural outsiders. Some musicals attempted to confront race: The 1957 hit West Side Story pitted an Italian street gang against a Puerto Rican one in a series of danced battles inflected by ballet; while in 1992 George C. Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam (1992) used tap dance and blackface to underscore a ironic narrative of racial jealousy among African Americans of different pigmentation.

By 2005, tap dance, like its footwork and rhythm-based kin flamenco and Bhartya Natyam, had become respected as a classical form in the United States. This shift in attitude must be related to expanding information regarding the artistic nuances of the form for all American audiences. The elevation in status, reflected in a shift of venues from variety stages and community centers to concert halls, mirrors a rise in middle-class patrons of color able to support various art forms.

Another change in racist ideologies surrounding dance derived from its increased media representations. In film, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to You Got Served (2005), African-American dance has offered audiences an outrageously odd array of physical sociability. Many films of the 1930s and 1940s featured dance to enliven otherwise dull proceedings, as in the flamboyant maneuvers of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1941 feature Hellzapoppin . Another popular narrative strain offers black social dance forms as a passageway to individual salvation, as in Flash-dance (1983), Footloose (1984), or Save the Last Dance (2001), in which white teenagers find their mature social voices through their mastery of African-American dances.

Television programs, including American Bandstand and Soul Train , also introduced black social dances into the living rooms of whites and others who would never have seen them otherwise. More recent television shows include culturally diverse casts of dancers, such as Dancing to the Hits (1980s), Debbie Allen’s several award show choreographies (1990s), and the syndicated competition show Dance 360 (2000s), in which dancers of every ethnicity try to imitate each other in African-American– derived social dance forms.

The discipline of dance studies, which came into focus only after the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, contributed to an expanded humanitarian sensibility of dance documentation in terms of race. The 1993 video series Dancing , created by Rhoda Grauer for PBS and accompanied by an oversized book written by Gerald Jonas, offered an essential, cross-cultural assessment of dance as a realm across geographies and cultural traditions. The video series includes many examples of rarely seen dance cultures, such as Yoruban egungun dances, that might have served as exotic spectacle for earlier generations. Documentary films about African-American dance cultures, including Paris is Burning (1991) and Rize (2005), have introduced wide audiences to specific scenes of racialized lives deeply invested in dance practice. These films highlight the difficulties of everyday life for young people of color, as well as the ways in which dance mediates some of those struggles.

As the scholarly study of dance has grown, so have the variety of its representations. A vibrant literature that complicates assessments of race in dance has emerged in journals, books, and Internet sites. Outstanding offerings from dance historians such as Lynne Fauley Emery, Richard Long, and John Perpener have detailed African-American dance practice; while the performance theorist Brenda Dixon Gottschild routinely writes about the role of race as a lens that clouds perceptions of dance among African-diaspora people. A cohort of other authors and artists continues to address the persistence of particular cultural practices in dance framed by racial stereotyping.

More recently, queer and feminist activists and scholars have worked to enlarge perceptions surrounding identity in dance, as in the work of feminist choreographer Chandralekha, from India, and the group ethic of the U.S.-based Urban Bush Women, led by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Still, even as dance moves beyond its obvious boundaries of performance and social practice to become a valued agent of aesthetic and social change, race becomes a guiding trope that defines its appreciation. “Classical” forms of dance, recognized as the highest forms of physical expression, are often regulated to whites, while dancers of color are often thought to be experts only at “lower-value,” social dance forms. It seems that race, alongside sexuality and gender, constructs difficult barriers for artists and audiences to surmount as they approach the realm of dance.

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