Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Theorizing Connectivities: African American Women in Concert Dance

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Theorizing Connectivities: African American Women in Concert Dance

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay explores genealogies of Black women's presence in American modern dance to theorize connectivity as a methodology to appreciate their creative work. The legacies of more familiar dance artists, including Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham, are discussed in relation to achievements and interventions by less-discussed, but no less important, African American women including Joan Myers Brown, Judy Dearing, Thelma Hill, Carole Johnson, and Edisa Weeks. The essay offers evidence of a radical creative tradition within these genealogies; one that has been less widely appreciated by mainstream histories of dance, but surely influential in the creation of American concert dance.

Keywords: American modern dance, dance theory, Judy Dearing, Thelma Hill, Carole Johnson, Edisa Weeks.

In the United States, African American women have continuously enlivened American modern dance as company directors, designers, choreographers, performers, critics, and scholars. Unfortunately, their contributions to American culture have remained shadowed and poorly documented. This essay will trace genealogies of Black women's presence in American dance to underscore the prodigious potentials that these artists have enabled. The legacies of more familiar dance artists, including Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham, will be discussed in relation to achievements and interventions by less-discussed, but no less important, African American women. In all, these women's work offers ways to theorize connectivity in dance. This essay offers evidence of a radical creative tradition within these genealogies; one that has been less widely appreciated, but surely influential in the creation of American concert dance.

Essentializing Concepts of African American Women

In the United States, African American women continually occupy a difficult status as "essential laborers" whose subjectivity has been scripted by dominant paradigms to have "no movement in a field of signification." According to performance theorist Daphne Brooks, the Black woman's body in the United States, "born out of diasporic plight and subject to pornotroping ... has countenanced a 'powerful stillness.'"1 For Brooks, and many other Black feminist critics, African American women are too easily reduced to essentialized identities that stress their abilities to teach and nurture while operating outside the forces of power that define modern life. They are said to arrive in the circulations of industry and intellect only in ancillary, supportive positions. They are almost always discussed in relation to men, who recurrently employ rhetorics of domination to narrowly define their capacities and potential. They are considered sassy and mysterious, intriguing at times, but generally interchangeable. Unfortunately, confusedly, and far too often, Black women are heralded as the emotional backbone to the world, the mothers of us all, ready to serve and care for any in need, as well as those who act passively in terms of social momentum, and without recourse to dynamic subjectivity, sustained group agency, or charismatic leadership abilities.

These narratives diminish our capacity to recognize how African American women work in complex ways as creative agents in the processes of culture. Indeed, our impoverished discourse allows us to deny the interventions of Black women in the arts, and especially dance. It is still rare for researchers in dance to consider the gestures of women of color at all, and African American women in particular, so that we fail to recognize a continuous richness; a genealogy of committed creativity, radical intellect, and strategic resistance that are hallmarks of African American femininity. It should go without saying, but it does not: Black women in the United States create complex and sustainable gestures of culture, especially as a connectivity, even as they are routinely denied a centrality of presence in discourses of dance. …

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