DUKE (US) — The movements that underlie many social dances arise from early African American social history and continue with today’s dance fads.
Referring to three traditional African American social dances—the ‘buck,’ ‘wing,’ and ‘jig’—Duke University performance studies scholar Thomas DeFrantz explains how dances on slave plantations developed into more contemporary dances like the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Kid n’ Play’.
DeFrantz argues that the ‘mashed potato’ or the ‘Dougie’ are not only for entertainment but also provide a window into the social history of African Americans.
All of these dances originated in small pockets of the African American community and went mainstream, inspiring others, says DeFrantz, a member of both the African and African American studies department and dance program.
“When I talk about performance, I mean the performance of identity with African aesthetics,” says DeFrantz, a dancer, writer, and historian. “It’s about how we embody or manifest the shape of the blues, the outrageousness of someone like Kanye West, the spiritual sensibilities of gospel.”
Rhythm and cadence
His research, published in The Journal of Pan African Studies and Theater, focuses on how African Americans use their bodies to perform various identities: gender, regional location, sexual identities, race and class, among others.
DeFrantz is particularly interested in how this embodiment of performance can tilt from the sway of everyday movement toward the theatrical. He says there is a set of markers that set the African aesthetic apart from that of European or Eastern movement.
“In African aesthetics we talk about the percussive attack. It has to have a snap or a pop to it,” says DeFrantz, snapping his fingers. “We need to understand the pulse. So a strut, or a swagger, will have a beat to it. The rhythm is crucial—so we can ride it, hang behind it, get in front of it, or go around it.”
Another marker of the African aesthetic is in the cadence of speech which many public speakers rely on to help transmit messages. Think of the oratorical style of Martin Luther King Jr. This cadence, DeFrantz says, is rooted in the African-American cultural tradition of call-and-response.
“There has be to be an affirmation” when speaking to one another, says DeFrantz. “It’s not polite to sit in stone-faced silence. We need to respond, to call out, to clap, to somehow animate the energy. It’s a communal exchange.”
Author of Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture, DeFrantz says aspects of these aesthetics appear in cultures around the world.
“You can see these practices in countries such as Norway, South Africa, Brazil, and of course China,” DeFrantz says.
“Dance is experiencing a renaissance and receiving a lot of public attention right now,” says DeFrantz. He believes this is a response and reaction to an increasingly technological world that limits our ability to use our bodies.
“We’re finding innovative and imaginative ways to express ourselves. Dance is a place to connect your imagination, desire, physical capacity—and your intellect. It’s not simply a body pursuit.”
Yet, DeFrantz says there are few scholars focused on the aesthetic principles of movement. He runs two research groups comprised of artists exploring similar notions of aesthetics and performance. His dance company, Slippage, is concerned with constructing alternative histories.
“The idea is to look at things that get forgotten over time,” says DeFrantz, whose project on the life of Thelonious Monk was developed with Slippage. “Monk’s Mood” is a solo tap dance using digital technology and theatrical storytelling.
The other group, Black Performance Theory, meets every two years to share theoretical ideas. DeFrantz hopes to convene the next meeting in Durham. DeFrantz is also affiliated with the American Dance Festival, teaching in its joint MFA program with Hollins University.
He also teaches a dance practice course, “Performance and Technology,” in which students design technological interfaces for performance. For example, a juggler proposed a device that will monitor his vital signs and produce sounds as he juggles.
Another student hopes to use technology to capture her shadow and will create a performance by dancing with versions of her shadow. The course has attracted a broad array of students including engineers, computer science, pre-med, and dance majors.
“The class is definitely run as a lab,” DeFrantz says. “I’m a fan of letting things take time and percolate. I don’t want to add pressure to the learning experience.”
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