A Terminology of Difference: Making the Case for Black Dance in the 21st Century and Beyond

By Amin, Takiyah Nur | Journal of Pan African Studies, September 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Terminology of Difference: Making the Case for Black Dance in the 21st Century and Beyond


Amin, Takiyah Nur, Journal of Pan African Studies


Debates over the meaning, relevance and value of using Black Dance as both a descriptive term and artistic category have persisted within the dance field since the onset of its wide spread use in the 1960's. As recently as July of 2010, the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space of New York Public Radio, in partnership with the City Parks Foundation, hosted " Dance Talks: Dancing Identity," a moderated dialogue with dancers and choreographers addressing the meaning and significance of Black Dance in this digital era, marked by globalization and inclusion ("The Green Space Events Calendar: Conversation"). In the February 2008 issue of Dance Magazine, contributing editor, former professional dancer and dance educator, Theresa Ruth Howard, openly challenged and ultimately dismissed the significance of Black Dance as a useful term of any kind. According to Howard, "Black dance is a term that sets the doers apart as separate and unequal in artistic validity" and "the work created by African Americans is too diverse to be compartmentalized and uniformly labeled" (137). Howard's commentary and the subsequent letters in response to it demonstrate that, as a concept, Black Dance continues to spark dialogue within the dance community, engendering deep feelings of both discontent and marked ambivalence. (1) This article proceeds, with these ambiguities and contentions in mind, to explore the ways in which the term Black Dance has been employed, defined and contested by scholar-artists in the dance community in order to develop and articulate a critical argument for the continued discussion of Black Dance as an artistic category and for the sustained use of the term as we move through the 21st century and beyond.

"Race" can be understood as a politically motivated system of labeling used to assign people of color to a position outside of hegemonic, mainstream (i.e. White) Western Civilization (DeFrantz 3-4.) As such, the term Black Dance can perhaps be understood as a label used to describe the movement-based, cultural production of persons of African descent throughout the diaspora who are identified as Black within the context of this racial system. To be clear, this article uses the term "African American" to refer to such persons who are living in the U.S. and the term "Black people" to refer more broadly to all persons of African descent who are identified racially as Black in both U.S. and broader global contexts. This article will use the definitions supplied above interchangeably with the aforementioned terms in order to support the ongoing use of Black Dance as an artistic category and meaningful descriptor.

Historically, scholar-artists have assigned different definitions to the term Black Dance. Notably, Emory University Professor Emeritus and dance/cultural studies scholar Richard A. Long provided a provocative definition in his groundbreaking text, The Black Tradition in American Dance:

   The mere physical presence of Black dancers in a modern
   dance work or in a classical ballet clearly should not
   invoke the use of the term "Black Dance." Clearly dance
   that arises in a culture or a cultural milieu which-for
   whatever reason- is called Black may be called Black
   dance (in the same way in which music so circumstanced
   is called Black music). Such cultures include those of
   sub-Saharan Africa, and the Africanized components of
   Western hemisphere cultures such as the Afro-American,
   the Afro-Brazilian, and the Afro-Cuban. In other words,
   Black dance, Black stance and Black gesture are
   non-verbal patterns of body gestures and expressions
   which are distinctively Black African or originate from
   their descendants elsewhere [emphasis added] (7-8.)

In this definition, Long asserts that there is a unified cultural aesthetic that links the Black nonverbal expression of people of African descent throughout the diaspora. It is significant to note that Long's explanation is broad enough to include not only concert dance and theatrical performance, but also social dance and other movements more generally that originate within Black African culture. …

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