Roots and Resurrection in Dance

“We can do better… we come back together… we’re still here.”

This is what the first line of my notes looks like from the day Dr. DeFrantz joined our class for a workshop on interdisciplinary dance studies, and the words have been on my mind since.

After I had written this line down, I admittedly became a bit lost as Dr. DeFrantz started talking about HVAC systems using the most energy of all our appliances. I was able to follow the conversation again rather soon, though, when our focus turned to Congo Square and New Orleans dance traditions. I found our discussion of the Quadrille particularly interesting, especially as this topic relates to the last line of my notes from the workshop, which looks like this: “Dance = ancient + futuristic simultaneously.” As Dr. DeFrantz explained, the Quadrille was satirized into a black version of it by enslaved people and those who worked as servants in Francophone Big Houses. Over time, this dance apparently grew more energetic and comedic, becoming a common end to minstrel shows and eventually providing foundations for the Broadway kick line. This transformation of the Quadrille serves as a prime example of the duality of dance as both ancient and futuristic: while recognizing how the dance has evolved and will probably continue to do so into the future, we can also trace its origins which reveal both the oppression and, importantly, the self-determination and creativity out of which this dance was born.

This tracing from origins to transformation while remaining mindful of roots is something we’ve been practicing all semester—I’m thinking of such aspects of New Orleans culture as Flambeaux, Baby Dolls, and Voodoo here. In this vein, I don’t think it was anything but intentional when Dr. DeFrantz talked specifically about Big Freedia as “resurrecting” Bounce as a form of music and dance into the “popular eye” decades after it had “come and gone” in popular black music and dance culture. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with white girls twerking in the club (or on the VMAs, I guess?), artists like Big Freedia remind us of the origins of this form of dance, which, as Dr. DeFrantz explained, is actually rooted in the black queer community. Bounce music and dance is transformed as it enters and re-enters the “public eye,” but while Miley Cyrus performs her version of this expression on television, Big Freedia serves as a representative of the black queer community who gave original life to this dance, seeming to say, “We’re still here.”

Again, this notion of the resurrection of a cultural practice as a way to proclaim that “We’re still here” is one we have seen before in New Orleans. Artists such as Flambeaux carriers and Baby Dolls have used their respective forms of expression after Hurricane Katrina as a way to proudly proclaim, “We’re still here,” and our class has discussed the ways in which these cultural practices are simultaneously ancient and futuristic, much in the same way that Dr. DeFrantz showed dance to be.

Among other things, our workshop with Dr. DeFrantz has awoken my perceptions of dance as another form of celebratory cultural expression–an expression that thriving in the face of oppression is possible, that it has been done and continues to be done. The ability of dance to be simultaneously ancient and futuristic allows it also to be very much in the present, providing an inspiring opportunity for people and groups that are often undervalued to proclaim, “We’re still here.”

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