Final I Just Want to Get My Groove On: An African American Experience with Race, Racism, and the White Aesthetic in Dance

Article excerpt

Abstract

Dance, like other sports, operates through the frame of cultural identity. However, while there may be freedom in bodily movement, the body is constrained when it comes to who is able to dance. Oftentimes dancers do not fit into a certain racial aesthetic. Using an autoethnographic approach, examples in this paper stretch over three decades to examine the question of race, power, and White aesthetic. The personal narratives shared are through the lens of an African American, non-professional dancer whose dance experiences have been solely in largely White homogenous dance studios or companies (an earlier version of this paper was presented in 2011 at the National Council for Black Studies conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. The author thanks Samuel Patton for his assistance with this paper).

Keywords: Autoethnography, dance, racism, White aesthetic

Introduction

I appreciate dance. I have to dance. It is difficult for me to sit and watch other dancers in motion without imagining myself dancing on stage with them. While I am not a professional dancer, I dance with an appreciation for the art. At 5'9, 113 pounds, and as a tri-racial1 African American,2 I never thought I could become a professional dancer. I did not attend a performing arts K-12 school, nor did I major in dance when I was an undergraduate or graduate student. Rather, I danced ballet, tap, and jazz at private studios until I was twenty years old. Even though I did not major in dance, I still had secret desires to dance professionally. However, my dreams were derailed at twenty-one when I had a severe knee injury that resulted in three reconstructive surgeries. Combine the knee problems with a successful, but distracting victory over cancer, and there went any dreams I had in regard to professional dance. However, once healed, my love of the art pushed me to take dance again as an adult. I continue to dance ballet and jazz, but have added pointe, hip-hop, and modern to my repertoire, as well as dancing for a local dance company. Being a dancer in this company is a dream come true, and one that I thought would forever elude me.

As an active dancer, writing this autoethnography is quite difficult. I am not examining whether or not a dancer experiences more or less racism or oppression if one dances with a majority African American or Euro American dance company as that is an entirely different article. However, in this article, I examine the complicated and multi-dimensional roles that Black women and men have endured in dance generally using my personal experiences in White homogenous studios as an exemplar. Therefore, issues of integration and acceptance or nonacceptance within dance may be referenced either through my experiences or through others illustrative experiences. While some people like to imagine that in the twenty-first century, issues of racism are long in the past; e.g., post-racism,3 I argue that the U.S. continues to deal with the legacy of racism and artistic fields such as dance are no exception. The shape of one's body, the color of one's skin and/or the texture of one's hair can have a greater impact, sometimes, more than the gifts a dancer is able to bring to a studio or company. Being seen as "different" can cause one not to be cast, or taken out of roles one had in preference of a certain aesthetic-in some cases that preference is White. Using autoethnography, coupled with interview data and examples from the historical foundations and marginalization of African Americans in dance, the questions of race, identity, and marginalization are explored as they concern ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and hip-hop genres. The examples used in this paper illustrate a White supremacist, hegemonic aesthetic that explicates and illuminates issues of marginalization in dance. This paper will increase awareness about the interlocking systems of domination in the dance world at the microlevel. This microlevel lens, therefore, exposes important meanings of marginalization that may occur but possibly go unnoticed at the macrolevel. …