America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk by Megan Pugh

By Megan Pugh

The heritage of yankee dance displays the nation’s tangled tradition. Dancers from wildly diversified backgrounds discovered, imitated, and stole from each other.  Audiences in all places embraced the end result as deeply American.
utilizing the tales of tapper invoice "Bojangles" Robinson, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, ballet and Broadway choreographer Agnes de Mille, choreographer Paul Taylor, and Michael Jackson, Megan Pugh indicates how freedom—that nebulous, contested American ideal—emerges as a genre-defining aesthetic. In Pugh’s account, ballerinas mingle with slumming thrill-seekers, and hoedowns appear on elite opera condo levels. Steps invented by way of slaves on antebellum plantations captivate the British royalty and the Parisian avant-garde. Dances have been greater boundary crossers than their dancers, besides the fact that, and the problems of race and sophistication that hang-out daily life shadow American dance in addition. Deftly narrated, America Dancing demonstrates the centrality of dance in American paintings, existence, and id, taking us to watershed moments while the state labored out a feeling of itself via public movement.

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Sample text

1 Bill Robinson elevated tap, both figuratively and literally. Tap had sprung to national prominence on the nineteenth-century minstrel stage, where it was known as buck dancing. To the casual observer, early tappers could seem more spastic than skillful. Their steps, a hybrid of Irish and African moves, became associated with ugly depictions of flat-footed, shuffl ing “darkies,” a stereotype whose weight black performers subsequently had to 29 bear. But Robinson sloughed those images off, dancing up on his toes, speedy and swinging.

Robinson’s defense had audiences howling with “heart-aching laughter,” perhaps from the pleasure of his actingout. There are hints of rebellion, too, in an act that black vaudeville veteran Tom Fletcher recalled years after the fact. ” Given Robinson’s “shrewdness in meeting and overcoming the problem of racial and religious prejudice,” Fletcher wrote, folks suspected that Cooper and Robinson’s Jewface was a satirical provocation, meant to protest the ugliness of the “racially obnoxious” acts that were so pervasive.

But for black audiences, black blackface could be a mockery of white blackface, a means of puncturing stereotypes from behind the mask. Whatever audiences took away from Comedy Cakewalk, it points at a truth that was reenacted every time someone did the dance: race, and jokes about race, were central to the cakewalk’s meaning. At whose expense wasn’t always clear. Everyone knew that black folks had invented the cakewalk, but the details were hazy. ”8 To many white Americans, black cakewalkers were pretentious dandies who— like the stock minstrel-show character Zip Coon, and the ankle-scratching lady in Comedy Cakewalk— aped high society and got it all wrong.

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