Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

From Kitchen Mechanics to "Jubilant Spirits of Freedom": Black, Working-Class Women Dancing the Lindy Hop

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

From Kitchen Mechanics to "Jubilant Spirits of Freedom": Black, Working-Class Women Dancing the Lindy Hop

Article excerpt

"Through sound and movement--through their bodies--musicians, dancers, and athletes enact the formative ideas of the age. Cultural production is political. And intellectual."

--Gena Caponi-Tabery in Jump for Joy: Jazz, Basketball, and Black Culture in 1930s America

In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Langston Hughes famously wrote, "jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul--the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile" (43). In this passage, Hughes points out an important function of jazz for the Black working-class during the first half of the 20th century: resistance to the White-dominated world of labor. Similarly, J.A. Rogers in "Jazz at Home" claims that "[j]azz isn't music merely[;] it is a spirit that can express itself in almost anything. The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow--from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air" (492). Both of these writers emphasize the use of jazz not only as a means of revolt but also as a source of freedom through that revolt. Hughes points out the need for revolt against work, which he links with the White world; after long hours of hard labor, many Black working-class people at this time agreed and took solace in jazz dance. These young, Black men and women included not only "kitchen mechanics," a slang term for maids and cooks, but also waiters, porters, doormen, secretaries, hairdressers, stevedores, carpenters, and janitors. Many of these Black, working-class youth in the late 1920s through 1940s spent their leisure time at the Savoy Ballroom, visiting nightclubs to listen to jazz, drinking, and/or engaging in sensual pleasures. These activities were not simply fun; they were a means of escape: a way to freedom from their lives as menial wage workers. At the most basic level, jazz culture (1) allowed the workers to reclaim their bodies as a source of personal enjoyment rather than a mechanism of labor. Furthermore, it provided some of these Black youth a chance for achievement as well as a means to resist the dominant culture, both the White and Black bourgeois culture that emphasized the importance of work and respectability.

Previous scholarship on this time period has focused primarily on jazz music, overlooking the importance of dance research. In his introduction to Representing Jazz, Krin Gabbard claims that until this collection, those critics writing about jazz ignored the "extramusical aspects of jazz" such as dance, styles of language, and social relations [3]. Likewise, Brenda Dixon Gottschild asserts that in looking at performance history, "the pivotal role of dance has been trivialized while other performing arts (music, in particular) have been the focus of print documentation and scholarly attention" (10). At the same time, Jacqui Malone points out the importance of dance, particularly African American dance, as a means of liberation and rebellion. She claims that dance "helps drive the blues away and provides rich opportunities to symbolically challenge societal hierarchies by offering powers and freedoms that are impossible in ordinary life" [1]. In response to the neglect of dance in jazz studies and performance studies, this essay examines the ways in which Black working-class women participated in jazz culture and the Lindy Hop. Drawing on the cultural history of the Lindy Hop, I argue that Black, working-class women not only found solace and escape in dancing but also a means to resist expectations for their race, class, and gender. In examining fictional accounts in literature and film, I show that these representations of the Lindy Hop and jazz culture mirror real-life experiences.

At the very least, jazz, including music and dance, was a way to escape the daily grind that Black, working-class youth experienced. …

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