While I unfortunately missed Friday’s class where Dr. DeFrantz came in and worked with students, I did attend his lecture the day prior called “The University Dances: Fifty Years in Motion.” He seems to be highly esteemed within the Dance Studies community as he was published multiple times and earned his PhD at New York University. Something he discussed that caught my attention was Katherine Dunham’s fellowship in the Caribbean following the completion of her masters. She traveled there as an acting anthropologist, but after the first day, she opted to learn about the local people through dancing with them directly. Dr. DeFrantz called this “Intercultural Communication,” and I will revisit this later in the post after providing a proper background of Dunham.
For those who have never heard of this woman, she is arguably one of the most essential figures in the history of modern dance as she broke down color barriers in dance through her research, choreography, her own dance company, and most of all, her lifestyle. Dr. DeFrantz explained that “she opened up space by living in that space.” Before her, feminist foundations in dance in the 1930s and ‘40s relied on dancers (men) with power allowing woman in. Additionally, she married a white man at a time where interracial couples were greatly stigmatized. She choreographed many dances, some of which she couldn’t even take credit for, because too many people would refuse to pay to see dance choreographed by an African-American. However, Dr. DeFrantz mentioned that when choreographing a dance scene in the film “Stormy Weather,” Dunham was told that her dancers were “too black.” And yet, she used them in the film anyway, and the film still went on to be wildly successful, despite the diverse cast.
Tracing back to Dunham’s “Intercultural Communication,” Dr. DeFrantz described this as “the study of approaches to life from other points of view.” After travelling across the Caribbean, as well as the continent of Africa, Dunham would return to the United States and demonstrate the dances she learned. While doing this, she was less concerned with authenticity than conveying the similarities and differences between the various regions’ traditional dances. Through comparing the similar appearances of dances in Haiti with those in the U.S south, Dunham was able to provide anthropological evidence of the African Diaspora through dance. Referring back to Joseph Roach’s Echoes in the Bones, he asserts that “diaspora tends to put pressure on autochthony, threatening its imputed purity.” As a result of American slavery, tremendous numbers of African descendants were raised in America. As dance, according to Dr. DeFrantz is a part of everyday life in Africa, their descendents would surely have an affinity towards dance, and as African-Americans gained rights incrementally, they increasingly sought to dance publicly, if not professionally.
While European white Americans themselves are not technically autochthonous as Native Americans were there before them, I am describing them as autochthonous compared to African-Americans in the sense that they made up the original majority of citizens of the US once it became an official nation. These majority whites tried to systematically reject African-Americans from contributing to the dance community centuries after slavery, but pioneers like Dunham made permanent discrimination impossible.
Other figures since Dunham have been so talented and committed to breaking racial barriers that modern white Americans actually aspire to dance using hip-hop and jazz styles that have their roots in African-American culture. This is referred to as “cultural appreciation” when the person honestly and actively learns and respects the culture they are drawing inspiration from. Ironically, however, white people today sometimes try to “act black” for personal gain and are correctly accused of “cultural appropriation.” America is an international melting pot which leads to cultural diffusion and mutual respect between different groups, and for this reason, people like Katherine Dunham are American heroes.