Expression of Culture, Empowerment, and Memory and Forgetting Through Dance

Throughout the course, and in Dr. DeFrantz’s workshop, we have learned about the power of dance and expression.  Dance is powerful in the context of memory and forgetting—dance helps people mark their culture and thus contributes to memory. Dance can be used to help remember the culture of oppressed groups, such as the ballroom scene that was started in the 1970’s by queer people of color, and can be legitimized through place, like Congo Square in New Orleans. The Babydolls, a mark of New Orleans culture, help in the process of memory, and this practice was especially important after Hurricane Katrina. Dance can also be used to cope with traumatic events and help people understand the new semiotics of place after a change, which is seen in Zone One

When Dr. DeFrantz gave his workshop, I was struck by how similar the ballroom scene in the 1970’s-present and the culture of Congo Square are. Both cultures of practice use dance and embodiment as liberation from a larger, oppressive, social atmosphere. When enslaved Africans arrived in America, “some brought memory, music, and resistance, and those legacies flourished in New Orleans, where enslaved people kept alive African heritages and for decades into the nineteenth century met on Sundays to drum and dance in Congo Square” (Solnit and Snedeker 100). In Congo Square, the “people of African origin were allowed to gather and have memory” (104), which has allowed the dance culture of New Orleans to thrive, honor the past, and also evolve in the present. Dance also “takes away some of the preconceived notions that ‘you belong here, and you belong over there’” (104), which helps to break down barriers and binaries that lead to violence. This practice of remembering African heritage through dance and music continued “continued well into the 1880s. After the Civil War, white city leaders tried to suppress the gatherings, even going as far as officially re-naming Place Congo to ‘Beauregard Square,’ after former CSA General (and post-war civic leader) P.G.T. Beauregard” (Branley). Even though white confederates tried to rename the square, and thus force a forgetting of African culture and empowerment, “[t]he residents of the Vieux Carre and Faubourg Treme, however, always referred to the area as Congo Square, and that name was formalized by the New Orleans City Council in 2011” (Branley). African cultural influences have persevered in New Orleans in part through practicing memory in Congo Square, which pushed back against racist white people in power.

Another dance subculture that has pushed back against mainstream narratives, and has also been important in remembering queer, displaced, youth, is the ballroom scene that started in the 1970’s. Queer people of color gathered in Harlem to create spaces of their own and empower themselves, which led to the development of voguing. The film Paris is Burning, which was made in 1990, shows how the ballroom culture fostered memory and remembrance through competitions and creation of “houses.” For example, new youth to the scene would have to prove themselves by winning competitions, and then they would be placed in a “house” that was named after an iconic older member. One of the most well-known houses is the House of Ninja, which is named after Willi Ninja, who is “known as the Grandfather of Vogue” (Ogunnaike). Here is a clip from Paris is Burning, which depicts, and is narrated by, Willi Ninja. Like Congo Square, the ballroom scene gave a way to celebrate and empower cultures that were not especially esteemed in mainstream narratives. Voguing has also evolved over the years, and has recently been performed by FKA Twigs.

New Orleans Mardi Gras dance practices are important in the process of memory as well. The Babydolls started up in 1912 as empowering sex workers who were discriminated against, especially since “[i]t all started in New Orleans’ red-light district, which itself was divided along racial lines. The Storyville area, where the sex industry was legal, was for white customers; black customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was illegal, but allowed” (Antolini). When black sex workers found out that white sex workers “were going to dress up for Mardi Gras; they decided they needed to come up with some good costumes to compete,” and dressing as baby dolls was also a political statement—“ it had all that double meaning in it because African-American women weren’t considered precious and doll-like” (Antolini). Vaz, the dean at Xavier University, also says that “[t]he one way that they could make a statement was through their dance and their dress and their song. It’s when you’ve exhausted all your legal remedies that you have to use the culture to make a statement and express yourself,” and that the Babydolls “came up with their own dance step they called ‘walking raddy’” (Antolini). Even though the tradition petered out after “Interstate Highway 10 was built directly through the neighborhood where African-Americans gathered to celebrate carnival, disrupting many traditions,” the Babydolls made a comeback after Hurricane Katrina, where they brought “a glimpse of some kind of hope for a new New Orleans” (Antolini). The Babydolls mark New Orleans in the process of remembering, and their empowerment through dance helped to rebuild after Katrina.

In Zone One, Mark Spitz hears a story from a sniper about a skel. According to Gibson, the “fire activated the creature so that it looked like the skel was ‘break dancing’ in the flames” (Whitehead 44). This evokes processes of both memory and forgetting—in adjusting to the new semiotics of place, the humans put old narratives onto new actions, but through their laughter, they also forget that the skel was once a human whose body is now contorting because of the flames. This process of memory and forgetting through dance can be seen through the aforementioned examples—Congo Square, Voguing, and the Babydolls—the practices themselves live on, and evolve, but often times historical origins are forgotten. Dance can be used as a tool of empowerment and memory, but also as a tool of forgetting.

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