Attitudes

By Barnes, Clive | Dance Magazine, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Attitudes


Barnes, Clive, Dance Magazine


At times it's useful to consider, perhaps reconsider, basics. The other day sitting at my desk, idly staring at the Chelsea Hotel, I found myself wondering about a stupid question upon which few might have a definitive answer but all will have a definite opinion. What is dance? And how did it get that way? As we barge mercilessly into the 21st century, I seem to find the answer in this Alice-in-Wonderland world "curiouser and curiouser."

When I was growing up--a process I like to believe has not actually finished, even if it has perhaps imperceptibly slowed down--it appeared to be a simple matter. I actually knew what dance was, could hold it in the palm of my hand, feel it on the sole of my foot. This was during World War II in London, spiced up with air raids and rockets, and my hometown was dancing through the blitz. Dance then was a quantifiable constant. For starters, there was theatrical dance and non-theatrical dance.

Theatrical dance was mainly thought to be classical ballet--Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, that kind of stuff with pretty girls (yes, they called them girls in those days) and pointe shoes. Then there was "other" dance. In those days in Britain we didn't call it modern dance; it was expressionist dance and--this didn't help its popularity--apparently came from Germany. Of course, The Ballets Jooss company--although German and expressionist--was OK because, jack-booted out by Hitler, it was regarded as a British company and was also extraordinarily good, even without those toe shoes! Other companies, such as those of the Wigman-trained Ernst and Lotte Berk or the Laban-influenced Hettie Loman, appeared less acceptable.

Also we had ethnic dance: Indian dance, represented by Ram Gopal; a few Spaniards, or pretend Spaniards; and by the end of the war there was Jamaican Berto Pasuka's Ballets Negres--which, while no challenge to Katherine Dunham (then unknown outside the U.S.), was the first black dance company in Europe. There was also show dancing--ranging from Bluebell Girls, Windmill Girls (those striptease chorus girls who showed off most of their all), tap dancers, novelty dancers, and semiacrobatic "adagio" dancers. This was before Agnes de Mille and Oklahoma! arrived in 1947.

Additionally, of course, Britain had social dancing--waltzes, fox trots, even tangos. Plus, a new revelation was imported from the cinema: the jitterbug, a shocking freestyle kind of dance and a specialization of visiting (and bewilderingly racially segregated) American servicemen. …

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