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Select one form of dance that you may study from the perspective of a scholar/researcher or practitioner/researcher. Drawing from one or two examples of this form, discuss how this practice engages with or responds to ideas of dance as a local and/or global social, political, and economic form of art. How have these relationships changed or been maintained over time?

Chapter Title: Have They a Right? Nineteenth-Century Indian Dance Practices and
Federal Policy

Book Title: The People Have Never Stopped Dancing

Book Subtitle: Native American Modern Dance Histories

Book Author(s): JACQUELINE SHEA MURPHY

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsk8j.4

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RESTRICTIONS, REGULATIONS, RESILIENCES

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Have They a Right? Nineteenth -Century
Indian Dance Practices and Federal Policy

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Have they a right to stop us if we disturb nobody?

u A telegram to the U.S. Department of the
Interior in 1893, protesting attempts to
forbid Indian dancing on the Santee Agency

Native peoples in North America have long engaged with dance’s capacities to
articulate in profound philosophical, spiritual, and political ways. Negotiations
are intrinsic to dance, with its required attention to shifts in weight, rhythm,
relation to other bodies, and available space, and to the shifting circumstances
experienced, theorized, and recorded in embodied form. In thousands of differ-
ent forms, locations, and ways, Indigenous dancing has tapped these capacities:
Native peoples used, and continue to use, dance as a powerful tool in continu-
ously shifting negotiations of agency, self – determination, and resilience.

This chapter explores this resilience in the face of late nineteenth – century
Indian assimilation policies that targeted Indian bodies, and dancing Indian bod-
ies in particular. It traces U.S. and Canadian restrictions on Indigenous dance in
the 1880s and 1890s and discusses how this dance threatened attempts of both
the United States and Canada to assimilate Native peoples. Because it posed
this threat to assimilation, dance became central to the defi nition of “Indians”
as irreconcilably different from non – Indians — a crucial move, for once differ-
ence was established it could be eradicated, further justifying European colo-
nists’ attempts to take over tribal lands. This chapter thus sets up connections
between antidance policies and the acquisition of Indian land the rest of this
book will explore. It suggests that Native peoples have since engaged not only
with dance, but also with the rhetoric surrounding American Indian dance, as
a means of asserting Native self – determination. It further explores the threat
that non – Christian religious and spiritual systems, experienced and expressed

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT?30 �

through the body, posed to the compulsory Christianity of federal disciplining
systems, and to U.S. and Canadian geographic and ideological hegemony.

THREATENING DANCING

At the end of the nineteenth century, the governments of the United States and
Canada attempted to control, through institutional discipline and punishment
of Indian bodies, Indigenous peoples who resisted state authority by continu-
ing to exist.1 As a central tenet of their Indian policies, U.S. and Canadian of-
fi cials were seeking to economize and — in a shift from outright warfare, which
was seen as too expensive — instead “kill the Indian in” Native people by dis-
ciplining Native bodies through Western institutions.2 These included literacy
and boarding school education; Christianity, marriage, patriarchy, and control
of sexuality; medicine and rejection of Native healing practices; wage – labor
capitalist productivity and adherence to the doctrines of private property;3 and
imprisonment. Virtually all the institutional disciplining of Native bodies was
corporeally enacted, and included, for example, the physical force sometimes
used to take children from their homes and send them to boarding schools,
the corporal punishment of students who spoke their own languages, and the
imposition of Western hairstyles and clothing on Native children. They also
included the banning of physically enacted healing ceremonies and practices
seen as “satanic” and/or irrationally based in “false beliefs,”4 the imposition of
Christian belief – based religious practices rather than practice – based ceremonial
religious practices, and the outlawing of resource sharing among groups rather
than individuals or nuclear families. Enforcement of these edicts often involved
the physical imprisonment of those caught violating them.5

The federal governments’ stated intent in all of these institutions was to
“civilize” — and thereby save — a dying people by incorporating Native people
(who would then no longer be Indian) into the state. Once differences between
Native Americans and European Americans were eradicated, then no special
land rights need be accorded Native peoples, and Native land could be absorbed
into the United States or Canada and bought, sold, and regulated according to
their laws. Thus, one consequence of this corporeal policing and assimilation
would be the end of Indian claims to land. White acquisition of Indian lands
was in this way an active, if not always overtly acknowledged, aspect of Indian
policy. For example, one effect of implementing these assimilation tactics on
Indian children — removing them from their homelands, forbidding them to
speak their autochthonous languages, and then encouraging them to work
elsewhere — was the depopulating of Indian land for white settlement. One ef-
fect of the U.S. 1887 Dawes Allotment Act’s imposition of individual private
property ownership on Native peoples was that, as numerous analysts and his-

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT? 31�

torians have noted, by the time allotment was repealed in 1934, some two – thirds
of Indian lands in the United States — eighty – six million acres of what was often
the richest land — had been taken from Indians and sold to white settlers.6 In
Canada, late nineteenth – century Indian policy also followed a two – pronged ap-
proach of eradication or assimilation, policies presumed even more overtly than
in the United States to lead to European dominion over the land.7

Yet this policy of eradicating difference also posed a challenge. If difference
was to be eradicated, it fi rst had to be established. In his compelling analysis
of Canadian federal antipotlatch correspondence that circulated during this
period, Christopher Bracken describes how the antipotlatch debates in late
nineteenth – century Canada established that Indians were, in fact, entirely dif-
ferent.8 The debates served to invent an understanding of Indians that Euro-
pean Canadian settlers could identify themselves and consolidate their own
sense of whiteness against. First, the policies worked to establish Indians as
so irreconcilably different that they could not just be left alone. In a dizzying
twist, Bracken demonstrates, the policies then served to justify the use of force
to eradicate the differences the policies had just established.

Dance was at the core of this invented, irreconcilably different, Indian iden-
tity, in the potlatch debates and elsewhere, for Aboriginal dance practices
threatened governmental assimilation agendas in multiple ways. Indigenous
dance practices embodied ideologies counter to those the governments were
corporeally enforcing. Dance practices and gatherings threatened assimilation
policies based on classroom education and literacy, as they affi rmed the impor-
tance of history told not in writing or even in words, but rather bodily. Praying
through bodily movement and ritual practice rather than through sitting, read-
ing, and believing threatened colonizers’ notions of how spirituality is mani-
fested. Ceremonies that included elaborate feasts and gift – giving threatened
ideologies of private property and individual ownership, defi nitions of what
constitutes work and what productive activity might include, and the value of
productivity itself. They were seen as wasteful of practitioners’ physical energy
and time, and thus as excessive expenditures of bodily labor.9 In short, the fed-
eral governments of North America sensed and feared the importance of Indian
dance as a social, political, and ideological agent, and the threats it posed.

The governments thus focused on and fervently attacked the dance practices
of Native people, as this chapter explores. U.S. offi cials outlawed “war” and
“scalp” dances and later restricted numerous other dance practices they saw
as uncivilized, barbaric, immoral, or wasteful. Canadian offi cials attempted to
eradicate the potlatch and the dances associated with Tamanamous rituals of
west coast First Nations peoples, and later banned Sun Dance and other reli-
gious ceremonies of the prairies. These attacks constructed Indian dancing as a
cornerstone of what made Indians Indian (and therefore of what needed to be

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT?32 �

eradicated for assimilation to happen). Dance thus served to defi ne Indianness
on both sides of the border, with continuing reverberations today, where in
children’s books, fi lms, and popular imaginings, dancing continues to defi ne
what Indians do and are. Today, in the mass – mediated imagination, perhaps
the most central popular – cultural image of an Indian remains that of a dancer,
or at least one who embodies white ideas of Indian dance (most often hopping
around in a war bonnet). From the University of Illinois’s offensive dancing
sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek, to numerous children’s books and movies, chil-
dren and adults, when they access images of Indians in their imaginations, con-
tinue to access images of Indian dancers.10

ESTABLISHING INDIANNESS

The fervent need to establish Indian difference from white colonizers, and the
central role of dance in this establishment, can be read in the reports made
by offi cially appointed Indian agents on reservations in the U.S. West in the
early 1880s. At the same time, the reports sent to the Commissioners of Indian
Affairs in the years preceding the fi rst offi cial dance restrictions make it clear
that agents’ ideas about Indian dances — and not the dances themselves — served
as site of irreconcilable Indian otherness. Many of the agents themselves noted
they had not even seen the dances they were so stridently objecting to, dismiss-
ing as ineffectual, and insisting be banned. After decrying the “revolting bar-
barism,” “savage barbarism,” “terrible barbarism” of “purely religious” Pawnee
dances and describing how at these events males performed to the “thud of
the tom – tom” on which “a rude kind of time is kept,” the 1881 agent explains
that actually he hasn’t seen any of this. He writes, “To encounter this strongest
phase of Pawnee development successfully, requires the combined action of all
the civilizing forces which can be brought to bear upon them. Believing this,
we have never ourselves attended one of their heathenish orgies or encour-
aged the attendance of employés [sic]” (CIA Report, 90–91). Likewise, in 1882
the Moqui (a.k.a. Hopi) agent writes, “I have never yet attended any of their
dances, and cannot speak from personal knowledge; but, judging from reliable
au thority, the great evils in the way of their ultimate civilization lie in these
dances. The dark superstitious and unhallowed rites of a heathenism as gross as
that of India or Central Africa still infects them with its insidious poison, which,
unless replaced by Christian civilization, must sap their very life blood” (CIA
Report, 5).

Most likely, these agents’ understanding of the “savage” and “heathenish”
dancing they hadn’t seen but still (thought they) knew — like their recourse to
familiar racist and colonialist rhetoric of the period in which exotic descrip-
tions of the “tom tom” and “dark superstitious” rites of India or Africa fi gure

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT? 33�

prominently — all came from centuries of colonialist representation of Indians
and other Others, and had little to do with the Indian dances taking place around
them (or, for that matter, any rites of “India or Central Africa”). Instead, their
imaginations were undoubtedly infi ltrated by the representations of Indian
dance made by European colonizers that had been circulating for centuries, in
early European etchings, paintings, and descriptions. Puritan minister Increase
Mather’s 1684 tract, An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn
out of the Quiver of the Scriptures, for example, decried the “Heathenish cus-
toms” of dance, and urged Christians in the New World to desist and con-
demn the practice, by pointing to Aboriginal dancing. “It is known from their
own Confessions that amonst the Indians in the America, oftentimes at their
Dances the Devil appears in bodily shape, and takes away one of them alive.”11

Mather’s decry was itself already multiply mediated — any Indian “Confessions”
he might have read in the 1680s themselves negotiated layers of translations
between speaking and writing, Aboriginal and European languages, authors,
editors, and publishers, and Indigenous religious practices and Christian re-
ligious presumptions signaled by the very term “confessions.” Mather’s tract,
like other depictions of the time, provided a lens through which agents could
view Indian dancing, from a safe distance of over two hundred years. It came
to signal Indian dancing, like Indians themselves, as already known in the ar-
rogant way the colonizer has of knowing through representation,12 and in so
doing to consolidate mass – mediated European representation of Indians as au-
thoritative and constitutive — a practice that, as this project explores through-
out, continues today.

The agents’ reports also suggest, in the agents’ strident refusals to watch the
dancing they offi cially report on and seek to replace with “Christian civiliza-
tion,” their (however inadvertent) awareness of the vital role witnessing plays,
especially in ceremonial dancing, and of the central and perhaps compromising
position they would put themselves in were they to participate by watching:
would it make them part of the ceremony — dangerously close to Indianness
themselves — and not outside of it? Dance does require the active viewing of
physically present audience participants, much more so than painting or weav-
ing or writing, whose viewers and collectors and readers are almost invariably
removed in time and location from the circumstances of these artworks’ crea-
tion. The Moqui (Hopi) agent’s identifi cation of dance as where “the great evils”
lie in “the way of [Hopi’s] ultimate civilization” signals the centrality of dance
in his imagining, and in the subsequent dance regulations and restrictions, a
centrality that echoes throughout the CIA reports of this period. Yet his and
other agents’ active refusal to see these dances, and their simultaneous attempts
to write their evaluations of them into the historical record (these CIA reports
are published as a multivolume set and available at many university libraries),

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT?34 �

also signal another attempt at corporeal control, here, an attempt to control and
replace bodily participation with written representation as mark and location of
history.

These agents’ reports and many others like them thus worked to establish
Indian dances and dancing as constitutive of Indian “otherness,” and to re-
place the authority of dancing practices that require the physical participation/
witnessing and active investment of not only Aboriginal bodies but also of the
bodies of agents and other authorities, with authoritative written representa-
tion of it. As the quotes above suggest, the dance practices the agents didn’t see
were not to be understood in culturally relative terms: as alternative ways of
being human, as different ways of practicing a religion, of healing, of engaging
in social and recreational activities, of telling and recording personal, familial,
tribal history. The dances marked Indians as radically alter.

Once white imaginings about Indian dance helped codify Indianness as ir-
reconcilably separate from whiteness, thereby constituting Indianness in rela-
tion to dancing, the federal governments passed antidance regulations as pri-
mary aspects of Indian policy. If the government’s stated goal was to “kill the
Indian in” Native people, and the Indian was constituted through participation
in Indian dances, then by outlawing these dances, and all the worldviews, ide-
ologies, and histories they incorporate, the government could achieve its goal.
At the same time, having established participation in these dances as constitu-
tive of Indianness, the government and its agents could more clearly police who
and what was Indian; having constructed Indianness via dancing, any shifts in
the dancing could later be used to dismiss the Indianness of practitioners.

COMPULSORY CHRISTIANITY AND FEDERAL POLICY ON INDIAN DANCE

As this history and the rhetoric of these agents’ reports suggest, with their
horror at imagined superstitious rites and calls for the need of “Christian civili-
zation,” Christianity lay at the core of federal constructions of Indianness. This
compulsory Christianity formed the explicit base of not only religious education
and practices imposed on Native peoples by missionaries and religious leaders,
but in fact on virtually all federal institutional disciplining of late nineteenth –
century Indian bodies in North America. The Indian schools were Christian.
Agents and missionaries policed sexuality by imposing Christian marriage cer-
emonies on sexual partners. Ceremonially based Indigenous healing practices
were rejected by Christian missionaries, who instead tried to enforce adherence
to Western medical practices they viewed as rational and scientifi c. In short,
the central tool in state construction of Indianness and corporeal control of
Native peoples in federally sanctioned disciplinary institutions was Protestant
Christianity, and presumptions about Christianity’s superiority and eventual

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT? 35�

triumph over savagism structured Canadian and U.S. federal Indian policies as
they shifted from warfare to other forms of corporeal control.

These Christian ideologies were enforced on the bodies of Indian school chil-
dren, patients, and dancers. Yet paradoxically, with their focus on individual,
internal faith rather than communal ritual practice, the rhetoric Christian re-
formers promoted involved a devaluation of embodiment. It involved a shift
from spiritual experience arising from group participation in ritual ceremonial
as well as everyday practices to a focus on religious belief, or feelings and un-
derstandings experienced internally and individually.13 While this belief might
lead to physical expression of internal religious states, it did not lead to or enact
external change on the environment, or communities, or create effects outside
of itself.

Christian understandings about internal, individual spiritual experience
had been refl ected in Christian attitudes about dancing for centuries, with
religious leaders expressing support only, and then only begrudgingly, for non-
sexual dance as expression of internal feelings. For the most part, Protestant
Christianity has opposed dancing, decrying Indian dancing with especial fer-
vor, at least since Puritan settlers from England began colonizing Massachusetts
in the 1620s. There were exceptions: some early seventeenth – century Christian
emissaries to the New World described colorful Indian dances, performed by
Christianized Indians in the church yard, as a way of enticing the English to
wrest control of the Americas.14 Far more famous and infl uential were the at-
titudes about dance refl ected in Increase Mather’s 1684 tract, cited above. In
this treatise, he acknowledged that some single – sex dancing may be without
sin, especially that which allows men to “shew their strength and activity,”
or that “Dancing or Leaping” that erupts as a “natural expression of joy” (An
Arrow, 31). Most dancing, though, he condemned as a violation of the com-
mandment against adultery, due to the “unchast Touches and Gesticulations
used by Dancers” (32) and the sinful feelings these arouse. “The very motion of
the Body, which is used in Dancing, giveth Testimony enough of evil,” he writes
(42). “The Scripture does expresly, and by name condemn Dancing as a vicious
practice” (35). In short, he concludes, dancing was invented amongst the hea-
then (37); papists justify it (39); and even when it does appear in the Bible — he
mentions Miriam and King David (Exodus 15:20 and 2 Samuel 6:16) — those
dance examples “in these dayes Judaize more than Christians ought to do”
(51). As a further example of dancing’s evil, he describes, as noted earlier, how
“amonst the Indians in the Americas, oftentimes at their Dances the Devil ap-
pears in bodily shape.” The threat Indian dancing poses is that, unlike dancing
that erupts as “natural expression of joy” but effects nothing, Indian dancing is
rumored to call up something other than itself — which Mather understands as
conjuring the devil.

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT?36 �

These deep – rooted Christian – based understandings continue to infl uence
both understandings of Native American dance when practiced on and off
the stage and also understandings of modern dance developed using Native
American infl uence at a time when Native American dancing was restricted by
the government. The subtle infl uence of Christian ideology during the birth
and development of this modern dance from the turn of the twentieth century is
something the ensuing chapters delve into more fully. In the late nineteenth
century, however, Christian ideology was not subtly encoded in rhetoric,
but instead blatantly legislated. In the United States, despite a supposed
separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution, the U.S. government directly funded evangelical Protestantism as
Indian policy until the 1880s. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant inaugurated a
“peace policy” that placed Indian reservations, and the Indian offi ce, under the
control of Christian mission boards rather than federal military forces. Church
boards, in other words, were to control the federal Indian offi ce and federal
Indian reservations. “The ‘peace policy’ might just as properly have been la-
beled the ‘religious policy,’” writes historian Francis Paul Prucha. President
Grant also created a Board of Indian Commissioners (BIC) whose members “were
to be Christians” as Robert H. Keller Jr., writes in his astute analysis of this his-
tory.15 In 1872, Indian agencies were apportioned among various church groups,
whose missionary boards then controlled the appointment of agents and other
employees (Holler, Black Elk’s Religion, 112). Keller demonstrates how President
Grant’s “peace policy,” placing federal offi ces in the hands of Christian lead-
ers, “was not a radical departure from some imagined tradition of separation of
Church and State” (American Protestantism, 2). Rather, it was in line with 250
years of practices and traditions, as well as beliefs of the day that saw federal,
state, and local governments as “divinely created institutions obligated to as-
sist Christianity in the moral and religious redemption of human beings” (2).
Churches, Keller notes, had received federal moral and monetary support for
Christianizing Indians from at least 1789 (5).16 The policy of assigning agen-
cies to church groups continued until 1881, when growing Catholic infl uence
in Indian affairs made Protestant church leaders anxious, while Catholics grew
dissatisfi ed with a system that still favored Protestant infl uence and so argued
that the apportionment violated Indian religious freedom. But even these new,
and still rare, calls for religious freedom remained mired in the rhetoric of com-
pulsory Christianity, as the following Catholic statement demonstrates:

The Indians have a right, under the Constitution, as much as any
other person in the Republic, to the full enjoyment of liberty of
conscience; accordingly they have the right to choose whatever
Christian belief they wish, without interference from the gov-

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HAVE TH EY A RIG HT? 37�

ernment. (quoted in both Holler, Black Elk’s Religion, 115, and
Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis, 58) (emphasis added)

This statement, with its almost comical assumptions and biased deployments
of …

CH.12 BLACK CULTURE WITHOUT BLACK

PEOPLE / HIP-HOP DANCE BEYOND

APPROPRIATION DISCOURSE

Imani Kai Johnson

Cultural appropriation is currently a prominent topic of dis-
cussion, and at any given moment there are readily available examples of it
in mainstream pop culture. From such infamous examples as Rachel Dolezal
and her performed blackness to predictable practices like dressing up in eth-
nic costuming at Halloween or at frat parties, accusations of appropriation
are actually being heard and discussions are gaining traction.1 When I first
started drafting this essay, Iggy Azalea’s appropriation of hip hop— from her
“blackcent” to her ignorance of its history— led to demands for greater ac-
countability to the culture and the broader community.2 While these dis-
cussions have not been exhausted, joining these debates seems exhausting
because they are so oversimplified that people end up repeating themselves
to those with no stake in listening. Therein lies the strugg le. In my own work
on breaking (also known as b- boying or breakdancing), the appropriation

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192 imani kai Johnson

discussion is complicated by the realities of the culture itself: though born
of African diasporic practices, it is a worldwide phenomenon dominated by
nondiasporic prac ti tion ers whose whole lives have been shaped by hip- hop
culture. Appropriation is not enough.

To appropriate speaks to both the fact of something being taken and to
its being taken up in a certain kind of way: with the power to do so un-
critically and unethically. Simply put, appropriation is colonialism at the
scale of the dancing body or the sacred ritual object, its life and dynamism
reduced to a thing for consumption or a costume for play. Though not
exactly “theft”— and I am wary of thinking of culture through the lens of
cap i tal ist owner ship— the presumption that one has the right to stake a
claim to something and use it, buy and sell it, misrepresent it, and rewrite
its history is colonial logic at work. With that said, appropriation only ad-
dresses one type of cross- cultural per for mance, one that perpetuates systems
of power that marginalizes and excludes.

We are in a time when many millennials already know that appropria-
tion is “problematic” or that they might get “dragged” on social media for
it. Videos and articles from mtv and Teen Vogue distinguishing between ap-
propriation and appreciation, while annual articles decrying black- , brown- ,
red- , and yellowface costumes attest to the changing terrain.3 The clearest
message in these forums is that it is wrong, and millennials appear to hear
the message. What follows that ac cep tance though?

This question comes out of informal discussions during a lecture wherein
my students already know what not to do, yet still question what it means
when appropriation is not enough. I am interested in nurturing a discourse
that attends to cross- cultural per for mances that are related to but diff er ent
from appropriation, and possibly finding language that moves with, along-
side, and yet away from appropriation (yes! like a dance). There is a differ-
ence between staking a claim to a culture (i.e., appropriation) and the cul-
ture’s staking a claim to you, possessing you, moving you in unfamiliar and
possibly uncomfortable ways that become essential to a person’s existence.
Hip- hop dance lends itself to expanding that discourse precisely because the
spectrum of cross- racial per for mances is embodied evidence of something
else. Thus this essay is not about appropriation, but about thinking of ap-
propriation as part of a spectrum rather than a binary.

Within and across dance forms, movement communicates and transmits
knowledge that allows people of diff er ent nationalities, ethnicities, and races
to speak to one another less encumbered by the limits of verbal language.
This matters in hip hop because, as I have argued in other work, breaking

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black culture without black PeoPle 193

is fundamentally informed by Africanist aesthetics even as the faces of
breaking are largely of those who are not recognized or might not identify
as being of the African diaspora.4 With par tic u lar attention on the dance
circle, known as the cypher, key ele ments of Africanist aesthetics are organ-
izing sensibilities.5 In cyphers, one embodies lessons in call and response,
polyrhythms, improvisation, trickster practices, and spiritual communion
not merely as features of the culture but as fundamental dimensions to the
practice itself. In learning how to cypher, one embodies Africanist aesthetics
so much so that they may also acquire a legible understanding of aspects of
other African diasporic ritual practices as well. Prac ti tion ers though identify
themselves as hip hop (sometimes as hip hopppas, breakers, and the like).
They recognize that with these identities come some degree of playing in
and with African diasporic cultural ele ments, and thus blackness. Appro-
priation suggests that there is no cultural education in such per for mances.
My ongoing research on breaking culture tells a diff er ent story, one that rec-
ognizes the capacity for dance to articulate a broader range of experiences
than appropriation alone addresses.

While there are still places where black breakers figure prominently (cit-
ies like Philadelphia and Paris, countries like South Africa and Uganda), anx-
i eties about claiming breaking’s Africanist aesthetics comingles a dearth of
black breakers with a fear of participating in a lineage of minstrelsy despite
a commitment to hip hop— which still carries counter hegemonic politics
despite its mainstream life. Shifting our attention to hip- hop dance means
recognizing how cultural literacy and practice- based expertise are meaning-
ful components of how bodies physically move in and through the world. If,
as is the case in many communities, the manner by which you move your
body demonstrates who your people are, then how does hip hop move people
both literally and positionally in relation to blackness?

There are other terms that have been used (e.g., cultural exchange, cul-
tural borrowing), yet they don’t feel satisfying. “Borrowing” feels transitory,
and “exchange” suggests a level playing field or equal sociopo liti cal standing,
which is not always the case. Perhaps, though, a precise glossary of terms is
not a satisfactory resolution anyway. What I am leaning toward is activating
the nuance and specificity of experience through language that resists blur-
ring the meaning of appropriation.

This essay is an exploration of dance and its discursive possibilities in
understanding the convergence of race, per for mance, hip hop, and Afri-
canist aesthetics practiced worldwide. I attempt to build on similar work from
other scholars and bring their approaches to bear on my central questions.

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194 imani kai Johnson

What are the social politics of nondiasporic peoples embodying and circu-
lating aesthetic sensibilities of the African diaspora? What is at stake when
this happens in the absence of black bodies? This piece builds on work that
attempts to move through, with, and past appropriation to look to hip hop’s
own cultural imperatives in order to facilitate a language that speaks to the
nuanced complexity of cultural exposure, exchange, and belonging.

When Appropriation Is Not Enough

When breaking hit mainstream Amer i ca in the early 1980s, it was fre-
quently labeled a “black dance,” not because it was solely practiced by
African Americans but because of the way that blackness signified in pop
culture. Multiple mainstream articles introducing its audiences to hip hop
consistently represented prac ti tion ers as young, male, and black, while oc-
casionally mentioning Puerto Ricans or Hispanics as secondary or paren-
thetical members of a “black youth.” For example, in a 1983 Time magazine
article titled, “Chilling Out on Rap Flash,” Latino and white participants
are prominent in the colorful pictures spreading across the opening pages.
Yet the author only refers to their blackness. This was not an oversight;
the author is not referring to national identity. Blackness signified the fear
and titillation captured in the article’s references to gangs, vio lence, crime,
and a new style of cool.6 Blackness was marked by the fact that it was a
street dance dominated by African diasporic youth coming out of urban,
working- class neighborhoods. That it was literally practiced on the street,
outside of the institutions wherein dance is “supposed” to take place, is also
symbolic of its otherness.7 Breaking traveled with an aura of blackness that
signaled coolness, youth culture, and counternarratives of socioeconomic
marginalization that together contextualizes much of the black cultural
production evident in pop culture.

In the mid-1980s, hip- hop films helped propagate narrow notions of black-
ness while also buttressing a developing discourse of breaking’s multicultur-
alism in par tic u lar. Its selling point became its diversity, which still carries a
sense of social possibility. As a consequence, blackness gets discursively resitu-
ated as both a source of innovative foundation and a racializing limitation,
or the straw man to the promise of multiculturalism wherein race is po liti-
cally meaningless costuming, “a kind of difference that doesn’t make a differ-
ence of any kind.”8 While Wild Style (1983) gave us a peak into a still unknown
culture, the commercial success of Flashdance (also 1983) and its two- minute
scene featuring the Rock Steady Crew inspired youth nationwide and soon

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black culture without black PeoPle 195

around the world. The multiracial and multiethnic group of young teen-
age boys dancing on cardboard in an alley surrounded by adults of diff er ent
races clapping along set a pre ce dence. Other films followed suit, depicting
stories of a multicultural group of sometimes poor, ghetto kids doing good
through hip hop, like Beat Street (1984), Breakin’ (1984), and Breakin’ 2: Electric
Boogaloo (1984). Minor films like Body Rock (1984), Flash Forward (1985), and
Delivery Boys (1985) also showcased moments of breaking among either mul-
ticultural or largely white groups. Black and white racial relations played a
key role in some of these works, especially in the popu lar Breakin’ franchise,
whose central character Kelly— a white, upper- class modern dancer— sees
a streetdance circle and decides to learn in hopes of distinguishing herself
from other modern dancers to further her career. With very little actual
breaking in it (popping and locking are showcased primarily), Breakin’ uses
the bodies of streetdancers of color to shore up the film’s authenticity and
mask Kelly’s lack of skills. (Versions of this formula resurface in the Step Up
franchise [2006–17].)

Popu lar storylines reek of appropriation and perpetuate narratives of
newly welcomed white interlocutors who happily attempt to translate
a culture that they have often just learned about for the consumption of
mainstream audiences both within the films and literally at the box office.
In these narratives, white people are typically the intermediaries between
the subculture and the mainstream, thereby making it clear that signifiers of
blackness (e.g., poor neighborhoods, black and brown prac ti tion ers, urban
styles of dress and gesture, etc.) were performative not substantive. Simply
put, in pop culture repre sen ta tions of black culture centered on nonblack
people is our erasure; it is appropriation. Beyond these fictional narratives,
though, are lived experiences of exchange that complicate these stories.

For example, I presented an earlier draft of this article at Emory Univer-
sity in 2016, and following the q&a I was approached by a young Chinese
American b- boy from Chicago, now going to college in the South.9 He asked
me how, within this po liti cal moment of Black Lives Matter activism, he and
his largely white and Asian American crew should hold themselves po liti-
cally accountable while loving and practicing an art born in black and brown
urban, working- class communities? Additionally, going to college in Atlanta
made him hyperaware of his own lack of connection to any black commu-
nity, while espousing a history that he knew came from them. This tension
compelled him to stay humble, especially in the face of his own urge to judge
the growing competitive collegiate hip- hop “choreo” scene.10 That is, to him.
choreo did little to acknowledge hip- hop streetdance histories or connect

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196 imani kai Johnson

to its current community- based manifestations, yet the choreo scene is also
heavi ly Asian American in practice, forcing him to confront a version of hip-
hop culture that was both an affront to his sense of cultural responsibility,
and a mirror of his own anx i eties about cultural appropriation.

I have worked with several students involved in choreo. A young, white,
queer undergrad created a video proj ect that paid homage to the form and
expressed his love and commitment to his team and its found ers. In a class I
taught on global hip- hop dance documentaries, two women active in cam-
pus choreo (one black, one white) activated those experiences to engage the
course materials. An indigenous woman form New Zealand was also in the
class and explained that videos of an Australian hip- hop choreo team ex-
posed her to hip- hop dance before coming to the States. I began to recognize
that for women, queer, and international students choreo teams offered a
place to enter and join communities of practice that supported their jour-
neys through college life. They too understood that appropriation is bad,
but nonetheless one asked, “But there’s good appropriation too, right?,” with
a desire to understand how to account for his appreciation of and commit-
ment to their campus teams. Appropriation does not exhaust our under-
standing of per for mances that traverse sociocultural and racial bound aries.
Again, for these college prac ti tion ers, Africanist aesthetics are embodied,
not costumes.

While my students helped clarify my questions, Dark Marc really embod-
ied my strugg le with appropriation. Dark Marc was a funky dancer whose
musicality and soulfulness were as unexpected as his name. When I first
saw him one Saturday after noon at a dark New York City club in 2006, the
then twenty- four- year old, 5′9,″ blond- haired Scandinavian man shimmied
and bounced his way into the circle to James Brown’s “Give It Up, Turn It
Loose.” He ignored the emcee’s double- take when the name “Dark Marc”
was announced, and his talent got spectators on his side. He nonetheless
suspected that when people said that he danced well for a “white boy,” it
was a backhanded compliment. As far as his name was concerned, he chose
it after watching Star Wars, alluding to “the dark side,” arguing (however
naïvely) that Scandinavians did not immediately associate “dark” with skin
color.11 He intended no offense; he just thought it was cool. Yet in New
York, though white breakers are common, Dark Marc’s whiteness stood out
because of his name.12 As a consequence, he became a nexus of discourses on
race, national difference, hip- hop culture, and an appropriation of blackness
itself— discourses that linger beneath the surface of the scene but do not
often take center stage.

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black culture without black PeoPle 197

Ultimately, East Coast audiences appreciated his capacity to groove in
synchronous harmony with the music rather than to just do a bunch of
breaking moves to impress the judges without regard for the song. In an in-
terview in 2006, Dark Marc told me how his appreciation for funk, soul,
rock, and jazz music developed out of his having grown up listening to his
father’s rec ord collection— some of which has since been canonized among
breakers— and appreciating James Brown the most.13 His father, a drummer,
had a vast rec ord collection, and Dark Marc got a distinct education from it.
Embedded in his personal history are lessons that lent themselves to break-
ing. One came from learning drumming at a young age, which taught him
about polyrhythms in a black music. A second lesson came from exposure to
musicians jamming at parties in his home, which facilitated an understand-
ing of improvisation, another central Africanist aesthetic. These details are
neither prescriptive nor indicative of a kind of exceptionalism, but par tic-
u lar to Dark Marc’s specific experiences with black aesthetics in music and
dance before and subsequently within breaking.

In New York, though, Dark Marc activated several points of tension that
could be analyzed just in reference to the “You dance good for a white boy”
comment. Instead I want to pay attention to his relationship to breaking.
Like other breakers around the world, Dark Marc did not just do the dance;
he lived as a b- boy. He saved money to travel, he competed in battles for
international re spect, and he pushed himself to create and express himself
within the form, while continuing to learn the dance’s history because it
was his history too. And that is what gave me initial pause. When I met him,
he had traveled to New York City to learn firsthand about the roots of his
adopted culture, a shared history with African diasporic, working- class
American communities. He went to the South Bronx and Brooklyn to
learn from first- and second- generation breakers and uprockers, these days
mostly older Puerto Rican men, to teach him about his adopted culture.14
In my interview with him, Dark Marc goes into some of those lessons, par-
ticularly around the rock dance, a battle dance born in New York (some
say Brooklyn; some say the Bronx) where breaking adopts its toprock or
upright dancing style.

Dm: People, I think, people that know, older people that can really see if you
know what you’re doing, or if you just do it because you seen someone
else doing it. If you know the history behind the move and you know
the meaning of the move, you do it with much more . . . I don’t know
how to say . . . you do it much more, uhh, execution because then

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198 imani kai Johnson

you’re sure of what you’re doing. . . . If you know the meaning behind
a lot of the thing then it’s easier to also create your own style. Because
that’s maybe one of the most impor tant things, also too: to learn the
dance, the foundation, and then try to do it your way. And, I think
a lot of new b- boys that want to try to [say], “Okay, I want to have
my own style right now.” And then they kind of skip the hard work
with the foundation stuff. Then they’re original but they don’t have
no good form, they have terrible form. Like, I think it’s really impor-
tant to know the history, know how the original move is. And then it’s
much more easy to make your own out of it.

ikJ: So knowing the history of the moves, does it help you innovate?
Dm: Yeah. It does help me a lot when I got interested in rocking. It’s, uh,

let’s say when they do the jerks for instance, it’s seen when b- boys try
to imitate it as when they go 1-2-3- and-4 and they go down on the 4
and hit on 2. That’s like the milder version of rocking. And then, when
I learned what the rockers described . . . that you grab the opponent
and then breaking them on the hips, and then they went down to drop
the remaining of the opponent. And then when I learned that I was
like, “Hmm. That was a cool thing.” Then it helps me to like, uh, try to
think in diff er ent ways . . . and make it my own. . . . I think it’s a good
help to like open your mind.

Let me explain. Unlike breaking battles, where one person enters the circle
at a time and dances in a back- and- forth exchange to breakbeats, uprockers
form two facing rows and dance against the person standing opposite them
to entire songs while pantomiming stories of dominating their opponent.
Not unlike playing the dozens, wherein how you insult is more impor tant
than the fact of insulting someone, rockers dance out intricate narratives of
dismemberment, beheadings, shootings, or breaking backs. The story told
is as creative and expressive as a rocker’s imagination. So when these moves
are acquired as steps rather than individual stories, a gesture of breaking
someone at the hips just becomes a squat to the ground.

When Dark Marc talks about learning that the “go down” part is not in
fact just a part of a count—as if every one should drop on the 4— his self-
assigned history lesson did more than satisfy a curiosity; it changed how
he understood his own practice. Moreover, it opened his mind to thinking
differently. This is not to absolve Dark Marc of any responsibilities that
come with adopting a culture, nor is this a fantasy of transracial pro gress
through dance. In fact, it is really not even about him. In meeting him, it

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black culture without black PeoPle 199

struck me that if I take Dark Marc’s and my students’ depth of commitment
to hip- hop dance seriously, then the culture has claimed them. This alone
compels a shift in discourse because those experiences are worthy of further
exploration.

Inappropriable Discourse

In an effort to speak to the lived experiences of my interlocutors, I looked
to work on cultural production (per for mance, fashion, theatre, ritual) to
offer tools for moving the discussion forward. For example, in one case study
featured in Appropriating Blackness: Per for mance and the Politics of Authenticity,
E. Patrick Johnson writes of an all- white Australian gospel choir— many of
the singers themselves atheists. In an analy sis of the choir’s per for mance
at a Harlem church, he argues that in one moment they “became black,”
Johnson’s way of accounting for the sonic achievement of what gets read
as blackness in the voices of a choir. Some members were so moved in fact
that they subsequently converted to Chris tian ity. Johnson provocatively
engages the language of race to speak to what a depth of performative in-
vestment can make pos si ble. His goal is to make the language of race and
particularly blackness more porous in order to undermine notions of au-
thenticity, an essentialist discourse that buttresses intraracial practices of
exclusion, such as homophobic and heteronormative black masculinities
that exclude queer- identified black men. Johnson argues for “embodiment
as a way of ‘knowing’ . . . as a way to disrupt the notion of au then tic black-
ness.” Embodiment also becomes a precondition for intersubjectivity and in-
tercultural exchange. Per for mance allows us to see ourselves in Others and
“engage the Others’ po liti cal, social, and cultural landscape, and contextu-
ally constituted subjectivities within contested spaces.”15 Thus, between self
and Other are power ful, dynamic, and transformative liminal spaces that
per for mance opens up.

While Johnson’s is an explicit engagement with African diasporic aes-
thetics rather than an implicit engagement mediated by hip hop, there is
something to considering what embodied practices make pos si ble. “Becom-
ing black” is not unlike “being hip hop,” which is an understanding in hip-
hop circles that is all about a deep cultural investment that is lived every day
and not merely put on for show or for exploitative profit. It is achievable not
in biology but in practice.

Other approaches to embodied cross- cultural per for mances can be found
in diff er ent areas of study. For example, Minh- Ha T. Pham’s discussion of

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200 imani kai Johnson

appropriation discourse in the fashion industry critiques the language’s too
easy collapse into binary oppositions (e.g., good/bad, respectful/not respect-
ful, high/low culture, first/third world), which maintains existing power
structures even within efforts to critique the fashion industry’s repeated ap-
propriative transgressions. Pham makes a case for “inappropriate critique,”
or that which cannot be appropriated while “continu[ing] to maintain the
existing power structure.”16 In her primary example of a plaid design promi-
nent among certain mi grant worker groups “poached” for Eu ro pean runways
as many critics argued, Pham brings attention to the design’s seventeenth-
century history left out of the appropriation discourse, which did nothing
to undermine the implicit high/low cultural bifurcation that posited that
the style was born in slums and elevated by innovative Eu ro pean designers,
“obscure[ing] the actual diversity and complexity of the cultural object being
copied.”17 Inappropriate critique might instead consider how statelessness
and fashion industry wealth might intersect at vari ous points of production,
allowing us to ask diff er ent questions about who benefits and how. 18

Works by historian Ivor Miller and per for mance anthropologist Dorinne
Kondo also offer up new frameworks for consideration. Miller considers the
participation of white elite Cuban prac ti tion ers of African- centered Palo
Monte, expounding on the language of ritual to capture cultural identities
through initiation, producing what he calls a “spiritual ethnicity” or ritual
kinships in a tradition that requires years of study within a community to
master an understanding.19 Kondo centers cross- racial theatrical per for-
mances by Anna Deavere Smith and Culture Clash that interrogate the
limits of racial discourses of multiculturalism and critiques of “identity poli-
tics.” Kondo argues that “unfaithful” impersonations in each artists’ works—
the purposeful gaps between performers and the “other” that they portray—
“disrupts audience complacency” by drawing attention to the performative
aspects of identity and de- essentializing them.20

Though only Johnson and Pham explic itly unpack “appropriation,” to-
gether these scholars’ examinations open up alternative discourses worth
exploring. In Kondo’s examples, cross- racial per for mances employ racial signi-
fiers in order to destabilize them, disrupting familiar racial scripts or ste reo-
types by demanding audiences experience the seemingly familiar differently.
Breaking has its own moments of shaking up audience expectations, lending
itself to potentially more nuanced discussions of appropriation, which I dis-
cuss further below. The language of initiation allows Miller to consider how
deep, long- term study of communal practices offer ways to read Dark Marc’s
cultural adoption in earnest and studied terms. By drawing attention to

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black culture without black PeoPle 201

inappropriate questions, Pham implores us to reframe appropriation debates
so as to not reaffirm power structures of “white Western domination . . . over
every one else.” This might, for example, allow us to shift our perspective from
whether Dark Marc appropriates hip hop to hip hop’s seduction of him, call-
ing to question the capacity for commercial hip- hop industries to supplant
embodied hip- hop identities (and thus Africanist aesthetics) with consumer
identities. Johnson’s analy sis makes room for these very engagements, ones
that acknowledge the profound impact of per for mance and the creation of
new subjectivities as …

C ha p t e r  1 8

I m p r o v i s i n g S o c i a l
E x c h a n g e

African American Social Dance

T h o m as F.  D e F r a n t z

Broadly defined, social dance operates as an unavoidable and essential site of iden-
tity formation for individuals and groups; in mythologies of American youth culture
from the 1950s forward, it stands as a primary site of improvised selfhood. In African
American communities, the importance of social dance to group cohesion through
changing historical eras can seldom be overstated. Social dance allows its practitioners
access to modes of personal expression that provide urgent clues of physical capacity,
desire, social flexibility, and an ability to innovate. In social dance, we discover the ever-
expanding range of possibilities that might define individual presence within a group
dynamic.

This essay explores African American social dance structures of the twentieth and
twenty- first centuries, where improvisation operates as a crucial methodology and
ideology. Improvisation provides a methodology for the construction of social dance
exchange. Improvisation also stands as a foundational ideology of black social dance
practice. Conceptually, this twinned resource demonstrates an unimpeachable central-
ity of the physical practice of improvisation: “creating while doing,” or consistently ask-
ing questions while moving, becomes foundational to the emergence of a social black
self in communion with others.

A black social self might be one that imagines itself in communion with other black
selves, even as it distinguishes its capacities along lines of ability, interest, and desire.
Black exists in relationship to other markers of identity, black and non- black, and the
process of relationship determines possibilities of recognition that undergird its exis-
tence. In other words, black is not a thing, but rather, a gesture, an action, a sensibil-
ity made manifest. Thus, a black social self is literally a concept in motion, shifting and
forming according to the terms of encounter that determine social relations.

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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Improvising Social Exchange 331

Social dance offers a site where black motion can be generated, accommodated,
honed, and appreciated; it offers a place of aesthetic possibility connected to personal
expression. For this chapter, social dance might be dance created in situations with-
out separation of performer and audience, and without a predetermined intention of
expression. The sites of this genre include school auditoriums, church basements, house
parties, nightclubs, and rented ballrooms, and the genre becomes manifest within event
celebrations such as family reunions, cotillions, weddings, school dances, and birthday
parties. On these sorts of occasions, and in these sites, social dance emerges as the con-
secration of an event by the group, as an embodied aesthetic marking of presence in
time. Non- linear creativity within social dance motion distinguishes it from goal- ori-
ented athletics or the politically tilted gestures of rallies or sit- ins (choreographies of
sport or protest). For our purposes, social dance hinges upon the possibility of expres-
sion and communication as its own goal within a particular time and place. Social dance
occurs outside of everyday interactions of commerce, meaning that it cannot be paid
labor, and, significantly, it requires the participation of a larger group who recognize the
dance event as such. Defined thus, by its own occurrence and participation, social dance
constitutes ritual practices that characterize individual action within communal com-
munication and exchange.

Rhetorics of African American
Improvisation

The adage that African American culture “makes something from nothing” under-
scores emphases on improvisation and composition that surround black presence in
the New World. Pundits and cultural theorists can easily align black social dances to
an “American inventiveness” and “do- it- yourself- ness” foundational to an understand-
ing of an American self. In this narrative line, youthful America creates itself out of
incessant volition and ambition to achieve. Similarly, improvisation arrives as ambition
toward achievement; as an ability to move unexpectedly toward a goal, as well as an abil-
ity to move as the situation demands. The performance of intentional, directed move-
ment allows for a recognition of the act of black social dance improvisation, and creative
invention in the moment characterize its possibilities.

Black social dances also align this necessary moving- to- express with an embod-
ied realization of pleasure. The assumption of a serious pleasure within the invention
of physical improvisation merits special consideration here. Black social dances con-
ceive of social, rhythmic motion as pleasurable, and essential, modes of interaction
and exchange; improvisation intends to allow for playful, liberatory embodied choice-
making within the context of the group. The pleasures of social dance relate to its musi-
cality and embedded processes of choice- making within agreed- upon group structures;
the practice of dancing in this genre demonstrates emotional and spiritual well- being.

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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332 Thomas F. DeFrantz

In a nod to the general tendency to value literature over orature, some dance scholars
have labored to define improvisation as choreography in black vernacular (social) danc-
ing. Dance literature, or choreography, might be work that could be recorded on paper or
via technologies of visual media, while improvisation might be more akin to structures
of spontaneous oration and rhetoric. In 2001, theorist Jonathan David Jackson called for
a valorization of sensing, or emotion, in social dance as a “path of intelligent knowing”
that might resist the violent Platonic/ Cartesian split caused by writing (Jackson 2001,
43). In black vernacular dance, “improvisation means the creative structuring, or the
choreographing, of human movement in the moment of ritual performance,” a structur-
ing that aligns improvisation with intentional composition (44). This line of argumenta-
tion tends to re- stabilize choreography, or writing, as the ideal model for dance practice.
But improvisation, especially in black social dance circumstances, conveys its own plea-
sures and urgencies without necessary recourse to translatable signs and symbols that
characterize writing. The improvisational practices of these dances complete themselves
without an insistence on translation into language or visual mark.

Jackson’s call for “sensing” as a mode of analysis suggests an intangible analytic for
improvisation, one that stresses the impermanent, time- based nature of social dance
production. Sensing becomes manifest in waves, like thought and motion, and resists
a fixing of gesture. Improvisation that proceeds from a reliance on sensing, then, might
become enlivened by the engagement of unexpected and unusual motion; by physical
embellishment or unruliness that works to unsettle formalized repetitions of gesture.
In other words, the dancer’s innovation in response to a rhythmic/ musical ground pro-
vides essential markers toward the production of emotion that might be sensed within
the dance. Fulfilling the age- old adage in a different way, the “something” produced by
the dance builds from the largely invisible “nothing” of physical perception.

Teleologies of Improvisation
in African American Social Dance

INSIDE the dance, I enjoy the discovery of what we can do together. With you watching,
a willing witness, confidante, and partner in motion, I feel supported to break the beat, to
resist the complex, but steady, grounding pulse that already offers so many ways to imagine
synchronicities of energy. The complex rhythm that forms the ground for our dance echoes
in my nervous system, pulsing outward from my incessantly rhythmicized life force, and
confirming the potency of this encounter of music and movement. My pulse, our pulse,
the musical pulse converge and align, but then separate so that our dance can emerge in-
between. I grimace at the effort to move outside of these cadences, I risk movements and
fail along the way, and laugh and smile at any achievement that you or I share as we dance.

Social dance functions as a barometer of connectivity, or a way for people to recognize
a social self. The dance produces relationship; and in it, we struggle to achieve. Moving

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
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Improvising Social Exchange 333

among others, we hope for connection to be born or to be laid bare as we stomp, shift,
glide, and dip through passages of spontaneous motion. This connection is not guaran-
teed, and the risk of social dance arrives intertwined with its improvisational imperative.
We risk failure, or a miscommunication that might alter our future capacities outside of
the dance. This risk adds to the sense of urgency surrounding its execution. Social dance
matters, and its improvisations are embedded within the relationships that it may or may
not inspire.

African American social dance proceeds from the need to communicate outside of lan-
guage; a passage of dance may be language- like, but it is not at all literal. Corporeal Orature,
a designator for the process of communicating through choices of movement, provides
methodology grounded in history for the practice of social dance. Here, body- talking
establishes intertextual connection among steps and gestures performed inside the dance,
with referents often drawn from circumstances outside its execution. A movement may
make reference to someone else’s version of its form, as in a step done in cousin Jan’s dis-
tinctive slow- motion style; it may reference dances no longer in wide distribution, as in
the insertion of a 1980s “Roger Rabbit” in the midst of a 2010s “Wobble”; it may mimeti-
cally suggest direct metaphor, as in bringing hands to the heart to indicate feelings of affec-
tion, or brushing a hand across a forehead, to indicate exertion or “sweating” a partner or
situation. These insertions of embodied referents arrive in non- linear, evocative assembly;
they confirm the expansive possibility of statement enabled by the dance. Dancers access
these referents in improvised response to the occasion of the dance. The most success-
ful corporeal orature employs elegant, unexpected assemblage of metaphor and physical
achievement.

A historical dimension of black social dance, alluded to above, renders it at once
archival and futuristic. Dancers rediscover pungent pleasure and expressive capac-
ity in older, discarded movements, made fresh again now with unanticipated musical
accompaniment. The music of social dance grounds its improvisational practices and
stimulates movement possibilities with sonic calls that provoke physical response. A
propulsive backbeat suggests fast footwork from 1930s dances; a slow, downward- slid-
ing bass line can inspire “lean back” gestures from repertories of 1960s or 1990s dances.
Improvisation in this realm, then, reaches back in order to cast forward, confirming
affiliation among movements from a lively past of dancing while reimagining possi-
bilities of gesture. This reiteration of motion aligns the practice of social dance with an
Africanist aesthetic imperative that values cycles of repetition (Snead 1981). Social dance
can fulfill the embodied reclaiming, or remembering, of musical genres/ rhythmic bases
that define eras and styles of black popular music.

Learning to Social Dance

I WANT to dance with you. I want to move alongside you, and toward and away from you,
as we navigate the rhythms and sonic structures that surround us. I want to guess at what

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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334 Thomas F. DeFrantz

you might do, and I want to be correct most of the time. I want to surprise you with my abil-
ity to do something you didn’t know I might. I want to ride the rhythm a little longer than
we may have done last time, or to work against the beat in a stutter step and turn toward
the group. I want my dance to confirm me in this moment. To validate our communion as
people in relationship, in the space of the dance, in the process of discovery. When we dance
we wonder at what is possible, we appreciate how impulse turns into gesture and gesture
reveals desire and intellect. Our dance is multidimensional, and I want it to be good, I want
to be provocative and profound. I never know whether this will happen, but I do hope for it.
Will you dance with me?

The process of learning to social dance is actually a process of learning to improvise.
Or, more correctly perhaps, a process of learning to trust one’s improvisation. Because
social dance has no set outcome, or ironclad form, its practice may be defined in large
part by the willingness of its participants. The willingness to engage in social dance is
a willingness to accept risk and an unruly inability to know what will happen. Social
dance challenges the faculties of physical engagement and relational correspondence.
To dance well in this idiom is to trust that one’s choices have value, and that they will
communicate something recognizable and fleetingly noteworthy.

A longstanding Hollywood trope casts awkward young men in the role of needing to
learn to social dance in order to connect with their object of desire; in this idiom, social
dance is defined as a rite of passage. Formulaically, this scenario usually involves a best
friend or mentor leading the protagonist through a montage of missteps and embar-
rassments before the big dance event/ prom where tensions and disappointments may
be resolved through the demonstration of dance. In these scenarios, the main char-
acter exceeds his training in the heat of the performative moment, and in an impro-
visational flourish, achieves gestures that he didn’t know he might. Footloose offers
a classic portrayal of this genre. Note that in both the first 1984 iteration and the 2011
remake, the small- city, white dancers engage in white- derived “rock and roll” dances,
as well as African American- created social dance movements. The black social dance
movements— steps drawn from 1960s “black power”– era social dances including “the
football” and “the Four Tops”— allow the main characters of the films to shine forth in
improvisatory demonstrations of their abilities and personalities. The black social dance
improvisations confirm the arrival of a recognizable subject in motion, ready to engage
others in a physical, desirous relationship.

To dance well differs little from speaking well: social dance demonstrates embodied
rhetoric. Improvisational movers can align ideas in coherent sequence to signal agility,
ability, wit, or sensual pleasure. Elegance of execution and composition matters here,
and a recognizable “turn of phrase” separates the best social artists from their compan-
ions. But because dance movement does not carry literal meaning, witnesses and part-
ners engage the essential act of decoding that confers communicative value. To reiterate,
social dance arrives as a mode of encounter, realized by two or more participants.

Some social dancers have little to say, and their dance arrives in simple, repetitive
motion. These might be the dances that most people perform: dances that engage lit-
tle improvisation, and make few extra- dance references; dances that answer a simple

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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Improvising Social Exchange 335

rhythmic and social need to be in motion with others. These dances also matter, as sen-
sation and confirmation of possibilities for a group dynamic. But, as in the Hollywood
prototype, the moments of black social dance that linger longest in memory tend to
derive from those compressed circumstances that produce an unanticipated articula-
tion of character or self, even if only in the instant of their improvised realization. These
might be small acts, but they can surely shift the architecture of relationship.

Professional Social Dance

THIS is what I already know. If I push back with my weight through my hips, and grind
my feet into the ground with a heaviness of step, I can amaze you with the acuteness of an
angle produced by my bent knees and elbows; I can stun you into silence with the accuracy
and force of my attacking hips in motion, or the smoothness of my glide across the floor as
I release my weight ever upwards from the ground. I scurry across the floor, shifting my feet
without seeming effort. I curve my arm up my body, circling my hips, touching my torso
lightly, gazing inward, pulling my focus inside, and as I close my eyes, I suppose I do find
something out. I didn’t know about this weight here, or that possible shift of energy to there.
Did you see me do that? But even in these few seconds of knowing my motion, and sensing
it differently, I need your witnessing to stabilize my discovery.

Professional social dances offer an illusion of improvisation. The conceptual contra-
diction between professional and social dance has to do with the level of improvisation
present in performance. Professional dancers practice and rehearse consistently alone
or with others, in order to engage an expanded repertory of movement available for per-
formance. Social dancers, though, practice less consistently, and discover possibilities
within the realm of social dancing itself. Talented and highly skilled social dancers move
beyond the category that would seem to define them as they become the leading partici-
pants of any circumstance of dance. Their leadership typically indicates two truths: one,
that their practice intends to minimize risk and maximize a finished quality of execu-
tion; and two, that their performance might be repeated, or replicated, nearly intact in
other circumstances and on other occasions.

Professional social dance is the dance of television and film, the dance of the stage,
and the dance of demonstration. In this form of dance, dancers embellish and exagger-
ate the physical contours, or steps, of the form to affirm the possibilities of organized
performance. Expert social dancers in any genre inspire and delight their audiences,
who inevitably enjoy witnessing the supremely confident execution of movement that
emerges without the hesitations and ruptured mistakes of everyday improvisation. The
thrill of social dance performed with minimal risk move its contents toward the space of
the refined, the repeatable, the commodifiable.

When black social dance can be repeated and professionalized, it loses its ability to
convey the unexpected discovery. Rather, it seeks to amaze by its spectacular presence.
In this, black social dance has been entirely successful, from its earlier international

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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336 Thomas F. DeFrantz

achievement in the nineteenth- century cakewalk, to the twenty- first- century inventions
of j- setting and turf dancing distributed by YouTube videos. The professional social
dancers who practice these forms, and arrive in films made by Thomas A. Edison or in
HD on internet sites, seldom make a living by dancing. Like other dance artists, they
encounter a field full of competition and small opportunity compared to their number.
But for these best of the best, social dancing is more than avocation, and their pres-
ence in social settings transforms the event from a place of mutual exploration to a place
of the show. The professional social dancers— those in the “cat’s corner” at the Savoy
Ballroom in the 1930s, or on the upper level of the Studio 54 in the 1970s— demonstrate
a soaring potential for social exchange in their embodied excellence, their practiced
expertise. Surely they also improvise to some degree, but the terms of improvisation
arrive in studied difference of effect.

For devoted social dancers, competitions allow a high- level engagement with the
raised stakes of performance necessary for movement invention. Indeed, African
American dance competitions occupy a valued and essential site of social perfor-
mance, stretching from dances in seventeenth- century corn- husking competitions
to twentieth- century Chicago Stepping competitions. In these events, expert social
dancers try their skills against other, equally committed movers, to be judged by other
experts and gathered witnesses surrounding the performance. Here, improvisation
arises as dancers push their movement beyond the routines they’ve practiced so care-
fully. Improvisation supplies the burnished energy of desire that marks physical effort as
extraordinary. Collectively, we feel this “push to exceed” and move beyond the known
gestures, and the improvisatory flourish inevitably wins the challenge.

Improvising Sexuality and Failure

THE YOUNG man focuses his energy through his pelvis, through the muscles that bind the
torso and abdomen to the hips and thighs. His face contorts in the visage of worry. With one
arm held high, he reaches forward with his other arm, hand opened and tensed at once, as
if to slap something. He plays different rhythms across his body: hands moving in a slow
patting gesture against the air, while he animates his hips in staggered but quick jabbing
circles, moving faster and faster as he bends his legs more and more. The young women who
surround him seem concerned as well; they seem to want to understand what he means to
express through his dance. They clap for him, and hold the beat steady so that he can solo in
front of it. Suddenly, the film cuts to another dancer. The short film clip lasts less than five
seconds, and viewers witnessing the film learn little of its implications, or what the short
improvisation might mean for the dancer or his witnesses.

Social dance incites considerations of sexuality, and both its practitioners and
detractors tend to conflate ability in the dance with sexual availability. This makes
sense, if we consider social dance as a barometer of intimate responsiveness and abil-
ity to improvise physically; these might be preferred qualities in intimate encounter.

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
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Improvising Social Exchange 337

But often, detractors construe black social dances— these dances that consistently
emphasize an agility in all parts of the body with knees bent, torso engaged, and pelvis
released— as agents of immorality and instigators of lust. The young man described
above, dancing in the documentary Rize, demonstrates movements aligned with “the
stripper dance,” a form named for its borrowing from commodified, and largely impro-
vised, sexually charged performance dance. Social dancers conceive the stripper dance
as a solo form, practiced in turns amid a witnessing and supportive group— often at
the center of a dance circle. The stripper dance exists along the border of social dance
to be explored in encounter with another, and dances of labor, to be shared with an
entire group.

The dance circle acts as intermediary between an intimate sociality of two and the
unwieldiness of a dancer viewed by a mass audience. The dance circle mitigates inter-
pretive distances that arise as social dance broadens its reach, and provides an “in-
between” space of encounter for prepared dance and improvisation, personal discovery
and group consensus. The dance circle protects and permits, and its boundaries reveal
the limitations of palpable discovery in dance motion. Outside the circle— sitting in the
auditorium watching social dancers onstage, or at home viewing dancers online— I can
only guess at the value of danced exchange. Without the cues of context that mark any
successful and evocative communication, my guesses at the importance of danced inno-
vations before me will largely fail.

The circle of the dance, referenced by Fanon, accommodates the needs of a commu-
nity to recognize itself in motion. More important, the circle allows improvisers to find
their own form without reference to the movements of the larger group. Outside the
circle— when the group is in its larger, improvising whole— small gestures and discover-
ies rise and fall, emerge and dissipate alongside the rhythmic pulse of the dance. These
small victories in movement matter, but they remain small and contained by the near-
privacy of their occurrence. Without the circle, improvising social dancers often exceed
the emerging trends of the larger group. Within the circle, physical moments of “flash”
or “shine” reveal an inner emotional life of the dancers. In the circle, these surprising
movements are encouraged, observed, supported, valued, and remembered. But what
do they mean? What of the improvised gestures that resist even the norms of the group
black social dance, the electric slide or cha- cha slide? If these group dances promote
access to a black social self in communion with others, what does improvisation outside
of these formal structures do?

Improvisation, then, poses special problems of interpretation in black social dance,
largely constrained by pressures of everyday racism. Improvising black social danc-
ers, more than others, may be seen to operate as provocateurs, non- normative danc-
ers whose moves seek to subvert social norms. In many ways, this capacity stands, as
social dance allows for the performance of outrageous gesture— sexualized, desirous,
intimidating— within its context of embodied thought. But black social dance also risks
failure in its improvisations, and that circumstance, where movements land without
value or impact, continually reminds us all of the fragility of gesture, and the abiding
need to try again.

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis, and Benjamin Piekut, Oxford University Press USA –
OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucsd/detail.action?docID=4717492.
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338 Thomas F. DeFrantz

Because it is probably …

Naomi Bragin

TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2014 (T222),
pp. 99-114 (Article)

For additional information about this article

Access provided by University of California @ Riverside (17 Dec 2014 13:47 GMT)

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/tdr/summary/v058/58.2.bragin.html

99
TDR: The Drama Review 58:2 (T222) Summer 2014. ©2014

New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Shot and Captured
Turf Dance, YAK Films, and the
Oakland, California, R.I.P. Project

Naomi Bragin

When a group comprised primarily of African-derived “people” — yes, the scare quotes matter — gather at the
intersection of performance and subjectivity, the result is often […] a palpable structure of feeling, a shared
sense that violence and captivity are the grammar and ghosts of our every gesture.

— Frank B. Wilderson, III (2009:119)

barred gates hem sidewalk
rain splash up on passing cars
unremarkable

two hooded figures stand by
everyday grays wash street corner clean
sweeps a cross signal tag white

R.I.P. Haunt

They haltingly disappear and reappear.1 The camera’s jump cut pushes them abruptly in and out of place.
Cut. Patrol car marked with Oakland Police insignia momentarily blocks them from view. One pulls a

1. Turf Feinz dancers appearing in RIP RichD (in order of solos) are Garion “No Noize” Morgan, Leon “Mann”
Williams, Byron “T7” Sanders, and Darrell “D-Real” Armstead. Dancers and Turf Feinz appearing in other

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keffiyah down revealing brown. Skin. Cut. Patrol car turns corner, leaving two bodies lingering amidst
distended strains of synthesizer chords. Swelling soundtrack. Close focus in on two street signs marking
crossroads. Pan back down on two bodies. Identified. MacArthur and 90th. Swollen chords. In time to the
drumbeat’s pickup, one ritually crosses himself. He performs a classic turfing move — the Busta. Arms
stretch skyward. Hands grip for invisible support. Waking in mourning. Cut. A car turns the corner as
he steps into the street. Disappears. Cut. Reappears. Robotically, he directs traffic. Cut.

Frozen in a deep lunge; the car maneuvers around his still silent body.

Stage: Set. Scene: Shot and Captured.

Black Liveness/Black Performance

The opening shots of the four-minute YouTube film RIP RichD (2009c) relay a recogniz-
able scene: two young black men biding time on a street corner are subject to surveillance and
sanctioning. That the film was not storyboarded in advance and the police just “happened”
to show up, confirms the inevitability of the narrative. Police presence is the condition under
which the young men’s evidently criminal lingering breaks into streetside performance. The
removal of gloves, hood, and keffiyah to show brown skin marks the revelation and identifi-
cation of black bodies under the regulatory sanction of the law — accentuated by the visual
effect of the police car passing over the performers’ bodies. Blackness exists in the moment of
monitored movement.

YouTube users can replay the scene in perpetuity (nearly six million views as of 11 December
2013), demonstrating the performativity of the interface itself. In the street and online, acts of
repetition rehearse “an invidious ethos of excess” (Martinot and Sexton 2003:173) that consti-
tutes the paradigm — not in any spectacular act of violence but rather “in the fact these cops
were there on the street looking for this event in the first place, as a matter of routine business
[…] a more inarticulable evil of banality” (171).

On the Season Two opening episode of MTV’s World of Jenks, dancer D-Real recalls how
“we did it in one take,” the police’s parting warning — “y’all better just be dancin” — setting the
hostile terms under which black males may stand on street corners (MTV 2013b). The scene
simultaneously frames the demand for black performance in the existential criminality of black
bodies and situates the hood dance of turfing in the context of everyday police violence — a trau-
matic reality conditioning life in East Oakland neighborhoods.2 The fact that RIP RichD was
created in the wake of yet another friend’s passing dovetails with the film’s particularly apt stag-
ing of black performance — a staging that captures the social life of turfing as an embodied
expression of mourning and death.

RIP videos are Larry Alford, Eric “E-Ninja” Davis, Deondrei “Pstyles” Donyell, Danny “Bboy Silver” Fiamingo,
Kashif “Bboy Phlauz” Gaines, William Latimore, Davarea McKinley, Jeremiah “Joyntz” Scott, Rayshawn “Lil
Looney” Thompson, and Denzel “Chonkie” Worthington. YAK Films is Yoram Savion, Kash Gaines, and
Ben Tarquin.

2. I use the term hood dance to define hip hop dances created in response to local histories of specific urban neigh-
borhoods. Hood dances circulate through club, theatre, street, cyberspace, and studio, such that even unexpected
spaces (home, rooftop, bus stop, YouTube) hold potential to become stages through performance. For instruc-
tional hood dance videos, see host Lenaya “Tweetie” Straker and producer Sway Calloway’s “Dances From Tha
Hood” at MTV.com (MTV 2008).

Figure 1. (previous page) Capturing the scene of routine police violence. Garion “No Noize” Morgan and
Leon “Mann” Williams (behind car) remove their hoods under the terms of the cops’ warning, “Y’all better
just be dancin.” “TURF FEINZ RIP RichD Dancing in the Rain.” YAK Films, Oakland, CA, 2009.
(Screen grab courtesy of YAK Films)

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Sasha Torres has noted television studies scholar Jane Feuer’s description of an “ideology of
liveness” that promotes “the false promise of television’s immediate access to and transmission
of the real” (Torres 1998:7). Considering televisual control over “authentic” representations of
black life, Torres extends the ideology of liveness to encompass what José Esteban Muñoz calls
the “burden of liveness,” a demand that the minoritized subject “be only in ‘the live’ mean[ing]
that one is denied history and futurity” (1999:189). Challenging celebratory imputations of per-
formance’s radical potential, Muñoz argues that liveness is “encouraged […] especially when
human and civil rights disintegrate” (187). Torres adds that televisual liveness is most evidently
revealed “as one of the chief mechanisms in the reproduction of racial hegemony,” in that its
“depictions of ‘live’ blacks tend to proliferate just as dead black bodies are piling up” (2003:49).
I would argue that in the case of blackness, the demand to perform not only “substitute[s] for
historical and political representation” (Muñoz 1999:188) but moreover is a scheme for onto-
logically positioning blackness-as-liveness. Experiencing black performance is the same as
gaining “immediate access to […] the real.” What remains overlooked is how, within a world
predicated on serving and protecting non-blackness, blackness is absolute negation.

With regard to the screening of RIP RichD, the demand for blackness-as-liveness ensures
that conditions of black life are radically misread, securing the ontological disappearance of
the black. When hood dance is screened on popular social networking sites like Facebook and
YouTube, it encounters an antiblack discourse extended through its global proliferation and
reception. Through the recognition of blackness as captured life, RIP RichD, the hood dance
practice of turfing, and the collaborating artists solicit empathy for and politicized awareness
of black life and lives lived. Circulating in an antiblack world, the RIP dances gain visibility and
value on the global stage, ensured (and insured) by the turf dancers’ embodiment of captivity
and death.

Student Essay Contest Co-Winner

Naomi Bragin is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. She works at
the intersection of dance, performance studies, critical black theory, and ethnography,
drawing from her background as a street dancer, educator, activist, and Founding Artistic
Director of Oakland-based DREAM Dance Company. Her dissertation, “The Black Power
of Hip-Hop Dance: On Kinesthetic Politics,” is an ethno-history of hip hop’s California
foundations during the 1960s and 1970s, and a critique of the politics and ethics of
participating in street dance culture in a contemporary context that denies freedom to
black people. [email protected]

The PhD program in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley,
provides an interdisciplinary and individually crafted curriculum directed at advanced
studies in the literatures, performances, cultural contexts, and theories of performance
throughout the world. Based in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance
Studies, the program affords access to a rich range of faculty drawn from across the arts,
humanities, and social sciences. It at once takes advantage of Berkeley’s distinguished
history in the field of drama and theatre studies, and opens out to a wider interrogation of
the disciplines and methodologies of performance studies. Students in the PhD program
conduct research in a diverse array of interdisciplinary methodologies and topics, and
have the opportunity to engage in performance activities that complement dissertation
research. The PhD program is designed as a six-year program (12 semesters). It offers
core courses, but no predetermined areas of emphasis. Each student determines an
individual research agenda within the broader field of performance studies, using faculty
resources to develop both a clear field specialization and a sense of interdisciplinary
innovation.

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3. Judges on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew consistently demand dancers be “clean,” a management strategy that
assimilates hip hop movement into a choreocentric commercial frame, policing total uniformity of timing and

Hood Dance and Choreocentricity

Hood dances are an element of black street dance, which I define to encompass a transnational
range of formal techniques, based in improvisation and driven by African-derived grammars
that retain in their practices and politics a strong alliance with a discourse of the street, main-
taining critically unstable relationships to formal, and often elite, institutions of artistic pro-
duction. As importantly, black street dance is a conceptual framework for studying dance as a
sensory-kinesthetic modality through which the logic of racial blackness — and the imagination
of a form of black power — remains operative, even, and perhaps more significantly, when for-
gotten, ignored, or denied.

Based in black improvisational practices that teach hip hop aesthetics, hood dances are acts
that locate movement style in the social life of black neighborhoods. In the process of its collec-
tive formation and ongoing innovation, hood dancing supports an intramural dialogue among
black participants located in different times and places. This kinesthetic process follows Thomas
DeFrantz’s definition of corporeal orature, “align[ing] movement with speech […] to incite
action,” communicating meaning both within and beyond the immediate performance context
(2004:67).

As a mode of black thought and sociality, hood dance resists the terms of choreocentricity — a
racialized logic that sustains a Eurocentric discourse of choreography as the standard by which
to evaluate peoples and cultures that are non-Western, not completely Western, or antagonis-
tic to Western modes of thinking and being. I distinguish the logic of choreocentricity from
the concept of choreography encompassed by black social dancing, as Jonathan David Jackson
argues: “[I]n African-American vernacular dancing in its original sociocultural contexts, where
there is no division between improvisation and composition […] improvisation means the cre-
ative structuring, or the choreographing, of human movement in the moment of ritual perfor-
mance” (2001:44). Likewise, Anthea Kraut historicizes the concept of choreography/er, revealing
its discursive functions in European classical dance and critiquing its relevance to black vernac-
ular forms. The choreographer’s elevated (in fact mythic and transcendental) status creates “a
division between choreography and improvisation, with the former perceived as premeditated
and intentional and the latter seen as impromptu and haphazard” (2008:56). The choreography-
improvisation binary continues to enable stereotypes of “instinctive black performativity” (57).

Choreocentric logic frames hood dance as choreography’s ontological opposite: nontechni-
cal, spontaneous, disorganized, intuitive, raw, in crisis — concepts bound up in notions of black-
ness and black performance. Blackness-as-liveness functions within the choreocentric operation
to frame hood dance as the im/mediate(d), “putatively ‘natural’ expressive behavior of black per-
formers” (Kraut 2008:57), over and against the arbitration of artists trained in white Western
author-choreography. Whiteness does not necessarily map onto white bodies but indexes a con-
ceptual fusion: abstraction, development, structure, coherence, stability, maturity.

In addition, a critique of choreocentricity considers the limitations of scholars’ discursive
resources and the ways Western intellectualism produces the conditions of possibility by which
black social life remains largely incomprehensible and ignorable, as the two factors are co-
constitutive. Within dance studies, the priority of a theoretics of choreography cannot be disso-
ciated from a historical privileging of single author, proscenium, concert stage works that follow
elite and avantgarde Eurocentric tradition. Within mass culture as well, choreography tends to
be the primary way people view, interpret, and evaluate dance, most evident in the judging spec-
tacle of popular dance reality shows that promote formulaic creative practices antagonistic to
the black improvisation principles that vitalize hip hop dance.3

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movement. The judging operation effectively cleanses hip hop of its funky blackness — funk being hip hop’s musi-
cal predecessor and standing for everything whiteness does not — the smelly, unclean, super-bad. The recent genre
hip hop choreo has evolved in step, marginalizing black improvisation principles of multifocal orientation, rhyth-
mic complexity, dynamic subtlety, and collective innovation.

4. While Henry Jenkins has coined the term transmedia to describe fictional narratives that develop across media
platforms (2006:96), I use the term to consider dance as a kinetic mode of storytelling that, in the particular
instance of the RIP films, bridges embodied and virtual mediums of expression.

5. In the early 2000s, dancer Jeriel Bey created the acronym TURF (Taking Up Room on the Floor) to counter neg-
ative assumptions about the style (Bey 2013). After moving to Oakland from Los Angeles, Bey increased media
and civic recognition of turfing as a city sport, organizing local battles and cofounding Architeckz dance crew
with Demetrius Zigler.

6. To name only a few dance groups of that period: Granny and the Robotroids, Demons of the Mind, Close
Encounters of the Funkiest Kind (San Francisco); The Black Resurgents, The Black Messengers aka Mechanical
Devices (Oakland); Richmond Robots, Audionauts, Androids, Lady Mechanical Robots, Green Machine
(Richmond); and Playboyz Inc. (San Jose).

7. René “Rawnay” Neal-De-Stanton is cofounder of the Animaniackz turf crew (Oakland) and created a move called
the “stutter” walk.

A theory of hood dance seeks to make scholarship conversant with the discourse of hip
hop practitioners, to participate in the grammar and life of hip hop culture, and to make vis-
ible the intellectual labor embedded in dance practices that maintain their own distinct and
coherent theoretical systems. Hood dancing undoes a range of implicitly racialized distinc-
tions — commercial/political, entertainment/art, sacred/secular, aural/kinesthetic. Hood dances
(and black bodies) are persistently read against institutionalized forms (and unmarked bodies),
making them immediately available to institutional seizure and control. When hood dance
appears on YouTube, its unstable, even anti-institutional, status gets caught up in larger dis-
courses about black people and blackness — discourses that are most effective when their imma-
nent antiblack logic is obscured. A consideration of hood dance forms circulating in mass media
foregrounds the stressful relations between blackness, liveness, embodiment, mediation, and
mass reception.

Shot and Captured

East Oakland knows the mourning ritual: a hastily constructed streetside altar, flowers and
teddy bears propped at signposts, heavily circulating air-brushed RIP T-shirts imprinted with
images of recently passed loved ones. RIP RichD is a transmediation of these rituals, extending
the mourning ritual from street to cyberspace.4 At the same time, turfing transmediates ritual
tools of mourning into sensory-kinesthetic modes of commemoration.

Turfing developed in the early 1990s as people created signature dance moves representing
their different neighborhoods (Neal-De-Stanton 2013).5 Dances like the “Brookfield” name and
lay claim to turfs, emphasizing the way hood dance sustains an intramural dialogue among prac-
titioners. Turfing cites and sites the local, performing a consciousness of history and place — the
term “turf” referring to territory but also meaning ground, soil, roots. Turfing forms a lineage
with styles developing in different localities of the Bay Area through the 1960s and 1970s, nota-
bly Oakland boogaloo, Richmond roboting, and San Francisco strutting.6

Turf movement is highly intertextual, linked to local language, rap lyrics, street culture, and
fashion. First-generation turfer Rawnay defines turfing by its “unorthodox movements” based in
storytelling and pantomime about “things we do in our daily life.”7 A playful narrative process
inspires classic moves like “the auntie,” where “you got your hands out and you skippin’, acting
like somebody’s auntie that’s mad,” and “the Busta,” “from the Busta Rhymes video [where] you
sit down and you squat like you waking up in the morning” (in Neal-De-Stanton 2008).

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8. Examiner.com dance correspondents Ian Ono and Jana Monji note this fact in their online segment on RIP 211:
“You didn’t hear about this death on the news and that is what makes this memorial video more important and
perhaps more socially informative — the reality is that young black men in this particular neighborhood in East
Oakland die prematurely and their deaths often go unnoticed by the public” (Ono and Monji 2010). After RIP
RichD’s viral spread, ABC News correspondent Brian Rooney recorded a nationally broadcast segment on turfing,
Turf Feinz, and YAK Films, in which the deaths of 211 and RichD are noted (ABC News 2010). RIP 211 won
San Francisco arts organization Southern Exposure’s 2010 juried exhibition.

Deaths of black youth in Oakland have generally been excluded from the official histori-
cal record and especially from mainstream news media accounts.8 In contradistinction, turfing
mediates local history as the body incorporates the aesthetic material of movement style, inti-
mating a particular spatial politics. Turfing represents the local through a felt sense of motion,
to build kinship, continuity, and stability. Space is not a blank slate onto which performance is
momentarily inscribed but a container of local histories and collective memories. The spatial
politics of turfing stand apart from site-specific dances that highlight a choreographer’s choice
to leave the proscenium stage and enter “nonconventional” spaces, marked as such because the
concert stage is the assumed norm (Kloetzel and Pavlik 2009). Turfing is a site-specific practice
by definition — embedded in its techniques for moving are ways of knowing place and imbuing
place with meaning and connection.

RIP RichD is one of four memorial films featuring turfing, created through a collaboration
of Oakland dance collective Turf Feinz and youth production crew YAK Films. The two col-
lectives got together in 2008 at East Oakland’s Youth Uprising community center, where YAK
cofounders Yoram Savion and Kash Gaines offered free video production classes. Several years

Figure 2. YAK Films Director Yoram Savion captures Chonkie’s solo on the set of RIP 211, an abandoned
home on MacArthur Blvd across from Youth Uprising, made into a shrine for Kenneth “211” Ross. (Photo
courtesy of YAK Films)

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9. Mehserle was sentenced to two years minus time served and released on parole 13 June 2011. A $50 million civil
rights suit against Mehserle currently in process by the US Justice Department would override double jeopardy.
BART settled with Grant’s family for $1.5 million, so that the entity could not be held responsible or sued for
his death.

after the videos’ viral spread, YAK Films has established itself in the global street dance scene
and travels internationally documenting local street dance cultures.

The films deploy turfing to explore the persistence of death and counter-memory in local
spaces, working in tension with the transient character of their chosen sites of tribute — street
corners, train stations, abandoned homes. Turfing practices use bodily movement as a citational
practice to create chains of reference, establishing kinship with prior dance forms and accessing
collective counter-memory. Ideas that performance is essentially ephemeral, not reproducible
(Phelan 1996), or even a process of substitution (Roach 1996), do not fully address how turfing’s
repertoire works to contest impermanence and create kinship, with especially high stakes for
groups historically subject to the exploitation, distortion, and erasure of their histories (Taylor
2003). RIP RichD tributes dancer D-Real’s brother, Richard Davis, who died at the site of the
filming on the previous day. The collaborating artists’ choice to film and dance at this particular
time and place grounds the film in the urgency of its creation, signaling the specifically racial-
ized condition of death in East Oakland.

RIP RichD was filmed in 2009, a year that dawned with the highly politicized murder of
22-year-old Oscar Grant. Grant was prostrate and unarmed when BART transit police offi-
cer Johannes Mehserle, surrounded by five other officers, shot him in the back on the platform
of East Oakland’s Fruitvale BART train station in the early hours of the New Year. Numerous
BART riders used cell phone cameras to capture and immediately disseminate footage of the
murder across the web. Less than a month after Mehserle’s murder trial began, a jury found
him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, fueling local uprisings.9 Three months later, on 21
March 2009, Lovelle Mixon confronted Oakland police, fatally shooting four cops over the
course of a 200-officer hunt down, ending in his murder at 73rd Avenue and MacArthur
Boulevard (Winston 2011). Residents affirmed Mixon’s insurrectionary act in the wake of
Grant’s death (Valrey 2009).

The first of the RIP films, RIP June was shot spontaneously after June’s funeral and uploaded
2 May 2009. June, whose death was gun-related, was a friend of the dancers. RIP RichD followed
that fall — uploaded 27 October 2009. RIP 211 was uploaded 17 December 2009, in tribute to
Kenneth “211” Ross, murdered by police in an alleged shootout at 64th and Bancroft Avenues
on 5 December 2009. Ross, like Mixon, was a local hero. The fourth and final video, RIP Oscar
Grant, was uploaded 31 December 2010, five months after the Mehserle verdict. RIP Oscar
Grant was the only pre-planned filming, which YAK member Kash Gaines chose to shoot and
edit on his own at the dancers’ request (Savion 2011).

The RIP videos locate the practice of turfing within the political context of deaths of young
black men in East Oakland. As a mode of witnessing, turf style supported the dancers’ imme-
diate embodied response to local events. The dancers’ movements enacted and transmitted a
paralinguistic record of meanings that persist in local spaces — reflecting the everyday-ness of
death in their communities. The videos leave evidence of a death specific to blackness, which
RIP RichD reproduces on multiple levels, both in terms of its representational capacities and its
modes of reception, beginning with the initial scene of policing.

The interaction between police and turfers sets the scene of a performance perpetually in
crisis. Risk of dispersal raises the stakes for black liveness, making the turfers’ bodies more cap-
tivating with the imminence of being cited, disciplined, imprisoned, removed. The crisis of the
black body’s ongoing erasure is metadiscursively rendered by the repetitive use of the jump
cut (an increasingly signature feature of subsequent RIP films). The jump cut initially served

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10. André Lepecki reads RIP RichD through the relational concepts of choreopolitics and choreopolicing, forming a the-
orization of choreography that embodies the political (Lepecki 2013). My reading differently works from my
understanding of improvisation in what Fred Moten calls the black radical tradition (Moten 2003), using choreo-
centricity to critique attempted erasures of black improvisational practices.

11. This aesthetic is most pronounced in RIP 211.

the practical purpose of match-
ing the turfers’ movements (per-
formed in the street without
music) to the beats of a musi-
cal score produced by local art-
ists Yung FX, Erk tha Jerk, and
COOP (Savion 2013). YAK con-
tinued to develop the “raw, no-
effect look,” which fit with the
“raw dance experience” they
intended to visualize (Savion
2011). Video and audio edit-
ing techniques function recip-
rocally to double the sense of
erasure implicit in RIP RichD’s
representational aesthetics.

The jump cut fragments and
jolts the dancers’ bodies out of
their fluid execution of move-
ment, exposing the technology
of capturing the body on film/
onscreen. The technique visu-

alizes the body’s restricted freedom of movement at the same time that it makes bodies disap-
pear. Drawing attention to the camera as editing tool, the jump cut provides a metacommentary
on the monitoring and control of black movement, already captured onscreen in the initial
confrontation between police and turfers. The institution that sanctions black presence under
threat of arrest aligns with a choreocentric logic hostile to the anti-institutional position of
hood dance, demanding institutional custody of (lawless) black bodies and demanding that these
black bodies compose their (wild, uncultured, free) black movement.10

As the dancers’ bodies haltingly disappear and reappear across time and space, the indi-
vidual body’s structural integrity is threatened by edited erasure, its ephemerality made more
emphatic. The dancers’ ghosted bodies fray the boundary between death and life, their spectral-
ity accented in the transient space of street corners.11 The jump cut literally ruptures visual con-
tinuity, both imposing a fragmented visual experience onto the viewer and undermining a stable
narrative or linear unfolding of time.

RIP RichD’s post-produced soundtrack doubles the jump cut’s optic erasure, creating an
aural seal around the turfers’ live performance. YAK’s editing techniques manipulate viewers’
ability to perceive the turfers’ sensory environment, literally and meta-discursively rendering
life at 90th and Mac insensible (unknowable). Voices, passing cars, falling rain, are deleted from
the final cut, leaving the isolated music track audible to viewers. What remains internal to turf-
ing’s dialogue is an aural-kinesthetic consciousness of time and place, affirmed and underscored
by YAK’s …

r

Love Dances

Loss and Mourning in Intercultural

Collaboration

SANSAN KWAN

OXFORD
UNIVERSITY PRESS

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