Presley Loving You

Image Dependency Issues

Well everyone, I’ve completed my second Dissertation Bootcamp. It was a rough one, because I came down with a pretty nasty cold at the dawn of the 2-week period and battled it throughout the duration. The good news is: in spite of my illness and some bitter cold temperatures during my commute to campus every morning, I wrote about 34 pages during bootcamp! I am therefore roughly half done with my Elvis chapter. The bad news is: I have become image-dependent.

I assume this is a pretty rare problem for most writers, who don’t necessarily plan to include a whole slew of illustrations with their book-length work for adult readers. In my case, one of the pieces of feedback I received on my first chapter was that images would really help readers to visualize and process some of the very specifically visual arguments I am making regarding dance, costuming, and bodily comportment. Thus, my second chapter included 48 figures (all diptychs) over the course of its 76.5 pages (before endnotes). Even then, I was worried that this might amount to too many images–one certainly doesn’t want the images to overshadow or distract from the actual text. The final file size for the chapter was so large that I had to share it with readers via Google Docs rather than email. The jury’s still out on what my readers think about the image issue, but the file size problem alone really should have given me pause when adding images to this final chapter. Unfortunately, I somehow already have 36 figures in about 45 pages of text. Surely this is too many, but with Elvis I struggle to accurately describe his movements because they are rarely comprised of formal, recognizable dance steps. Thus, I find myself relying on images for all of my descriptive segments.

Presley Loving You

Elvis busts out one of his signature moves toward the end of LOVING YOU (1957)–while sporting a Canadian tuxedo!

Even though I know I can easily go back and delete images when I’m revising, I’m worried that my constant use of images to illustrate my points means that the writing itself is far weaker and less nuanced. I already have the tendency, as a writer, to assume that I’ve made my point when I haven’t quite done so on paper (the point is always thoroughly made in my head!), so something tells me that the presence of images is only exacerbating this tendency.

There’s also the issue of readers’ preexisting knowledge. Unlike the Nicholas Brothers or Gene Kelly, Presley was not a formally trained dancer, nor was dancing his primary entertainment form. So most readers think of him first and foremost as a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not dancer. As a result, I feel more compelled to constantly ‘prove’ that Elvis is dancing as I develop my argument about him, partially to reassure readers that he belongs in this dissertation, but also to reassure them that my argument about his dancing is, in fact, different from the familiar and much-rehearsed argument that he appropriated black music…though it is clearly related. On this register, it feels almost as if I am still at least somewhat worried about being “Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal,” a fear I discussed on this blog waaaay back in November of 2014 (over 2 years ago now!). Some things never change, I suppose.

A reasonable solution to this problem would be to restrict myself to 1 or 2 figures per 5 pages of writing, forcing myself to choose my images more wisely and write “better” prose. But it feels like this will slow me down at a time when I need to be writing quite quickly in order to meet all of my deadlines, self imposed or otherwise. Thus, I think I’m going to just continue working whatever way is easiest and hope that future me, in revisions mode, will still approve of the plan to move faster rather than more responsibly forward. With luck, it will be easier to revise when I’ve achieved a bit of distance from this specific chapter and have begun to approach the dissertation as a whole body of work.

ed-sullivan-show-10-28-56-18

What better way to demonstrate Elvis’s use of eyeliner than with a screenshot? (from The Ed Sullivan Show, November 1956)

 

Well, with this problem noted, I guess I should simply get back to it and push forward. I still want to have this final chapter completed by early January, and I’d say I’m definitely only about halfway through Presley’s screen career. So, there’s much left to do!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I wish you all a less work-heavy winter than mine.

Coming Up Short and Moving On Anyway

Pardon my extended absence, fair readers. I’ve just returned from a very busy three weeks in Germany, and am suddenly confronted with the meeting-heavy craziness of Fall Quarter.

As you may recall from my last post: bootcamp got me within 10 pages of the finish line on my second chapter, but then teaching took over my life, and then moving…and then a trip to Germany. Now, part of my purpose in Germany was to track down and watch a copy of the 1955 film Musik im Blut, which features a performance by the Nicholas brothers. Unfortunately, all I was able to find in various archives was a single program for the film. This was a pretty major letdown for me, as I’ve been quite committed to uncovering more about the brothers’ foreign films–these more obscure films currently represent a major gap in the literature on the Nicholases.

This is a good lesson, I suppose, in letting go of your plans for a chapter when the reality of the archive just doesn’t support those plans. You might say this is why scientists offer hypotheses instead of outright arguments, because sometimes you just can’t prove what you thought you could. As a humanist, I sometimes find the gaps in the archive a difficult reality to face, but all scholars are forced to confront it now and then. Still, a large part of me really wants to keep searching for this elusive text…if I just Google deep enough, find the right repository, comb through the right foreign eBay…

But alas, it is job season (another difficult reality to face!) so I can’t stall on this chapter any longer: I plan to write those last few Nicholas brothers pages over the next few days and send the completed chapter off to my committee sans compelling analysis of a rare German film because I really need my committee to be able to say that they’ve seen 2 of 3 body chapters and that I’m on track to defend in May.

AND SO, as a gesture of my moving on, I spent part of my flight back from Germany embarking on research for my Elvis Presley chapter: I watched and took notes on Love Me Tender (1956).

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-8-31-32-pm

At a schoolhouse raising, Elvis’ Clint throws his guitar behind his back to give his female audience a full view of his crotch as he rises up on his toes.

For a film set in 1865, Elvis’s hips are awfully busy when he starts singing–whether for his character’s mother or a crowd of teenage girls. I look forward to describing his gyrations with colorful adjectives!

But before I can really start on the Presley chapter, I’ve got to finish up my first round of job applications! And so, I take my leave for now, but I will check in again in a week or so, I hope…

Day 633: Getting Back in the Saddle

It’s been a little over 2 months since my last post, when I was in a dark place with my dissertation. I have more or less made my way out of the darkness since then, as I’m currently at 25 pages for my second chapter. This isn’t wonderful, but it’s also not nothing–it’s nearly the halfway point! I promised myself I’d be at the halfway point by June 6. Why June 6, you ask?

Well, there’s a nifty little program at my university called “Dissertation Bootcamp” that occurs 3 or 4 times a year. It’s a 2-week commitment, 9am-1pm, and you have to put down a $50 cash deposit as motivation to show up and work (which is returned at the end if you’re a good little dissertator). I’ve heard great things about it, so I’m hoping it will be as productive a time for me as it has been for others, especially because I’m teaching a fast-paced summer course right afterwards so I don’t envision having a lot of time to work on my DOS-D during that time. My official goal is to finish the chapter by the time I arrive in Germany mid-August (for a humanities institute).

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 4.18.06 PM

The Nicholas Brothers wearing cute crop tops for the “Cha Cha” number in the German film Bonjour Kathrin (1956)

 

Reflecting on the past 9 months and my very slow writing, I’d say my experience with this chapter overall has been something of a roller coaster; I go through spurts of productivity, confidence, and genuine excitement about my arguments…surrounded by long stretches of boredom, sluggishness, writer’s block, and lack of faith in its importance. I oddly didn’t experience this as much with my first chapter, though it’s objectively no more interesting or revolutionary. I wonder if the main problem is just burnout?

In the next week or so, I’ll be wrapping up my very last quarter as a teaching assistant–this is my 9th and final course as a TA and it’s coming at the end of my 5th year of graduate school. Just writing this makes me feel exhausted, so maybe it really is burnout. I am lucky to have been granted a 6th year of funding by my university, so I plan to complete the dissertation and defend in roughly one year’s time (without that funding, I’d have to seek other means of survival and thus it would take twice as long to finish). This timeline seems fairly reasonable to me; the first chapter took 6 months to create (conceive, research, outline) but only 3 months to write, and this second chapter is taking about 9 months but with consistent interruptions by other obligations like teaching etc. So, the third and final chapter can probably be completed by January 2017 (including one more Bootcamp), leaving me several months to write the intro & conclusion, revise, and defend before the filing deadline (May 5). Phew!

This is a lot to wrap my brain around, because it feels like it was just a few short months ago that I started my DOS-D (and this blog). But in reality, I’m going to be hitting the job market in the fall and telling all the search committees that I plan to defend in the spring (because it’s true!).

And so, in the immortal words of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments (1956): So let it be written; so let it be done.

Slow & Steady Wins…An Eventual Book Deal?

Well, this time it’s been a somewhat respectable month since my last post. Since then, I’ve written about 6 pages. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not very good. Reflecting on my process for my first chapter draft, the first few pages definitely went the slowest–things sped up once I got to actual analysis rather than introductory framing. So let’s hope that holds true now, as well!

I’ve found that each time I sit down with the DOS-D (which I’ve learned never to do unless I have at least 3 uninterrupted hours ahead of me), I only manage to crank out about 1.5 pages before I’m completely exhausted. Part of this slowness is due to my meticulous citations & endnotes, which I insist on completing at the time of creation because I’ve heard horror stories about what happens when one leaves too many dissertation citations for “later.” Yesterday, for example, I found myself in a 15-minute endnote black hole while writing an aside-with-citation about the politics of historically black neighborhoods in old northern cities like Philadelphia. What does this have to do with my DOS-D, you may ask? Well, in trying to explain the Nicholas Brothers’ relative privilege within the black community, I point out how, in both Philadelphia and then New York City, their parents were able to move the family into the “wealthy” parts of black neighborhoods. This is easier to explain re: Harlem than it is re: Philadelphia…thus the endnote black hole.

All of this is to say that I am, by all measures, moving “slow and steady” now. This is much preferred to last quarter’s “slower and unsteady,” and I can only hope that moving a little more slowly now will help me out down the road when it’s time to (attempt to) convert this manuscript into a book manuscript. The one compliment from one of my committee members I took most to heart on my previous chapter draft was that she found the prose unusually clear for a first draft of a dissertation chapter. I’m hoping to maintain that advantage as I continue!

In any case, these 6 pages land me at the end of my first section, which is about the Nicholases’ early lives and entry into professional dancing (it’s short because little Harold was only 7 when they went pro!). I skimped on the literature review for now (my most dreaded part of everything I write) so I’ll have to come back to the opening and flesh it out somewhat, but it’s otherwise pretty thorough. I made some notes to myself at the end of my workday yesterday to prepare me for a final paragraph about the brothers’ ongoing contract at the Cotton Club in the 30s, but other than that, I’m ready to (finally) dive into the actual screens part of the chapter.

So, I will leave you today with a screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 screen debut, Pie, Pie Blackbird. This was a 10-ish minute Vitaphone short produced at the end of the Vitaphone era. It’s sort of a miracle that it still exists! And it’s really wonderful, I think, to see the brothers so young, just 2 years into their professional career, and still fresh imports to New York City.

Pie Pie Blackbird (1932)

Harold (left) and Fayard (right) Nicholas in Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932)

Like An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), which I posted a screen shot of in my last post, this film falls before the time period I focus on in my dissertation (roughly 1945-1965…which in actuality spans 1943-1968, I think) but it’s really very important pre-history.

 

Well, until next time, folks!

Tactile Arguments

It’s been nearly a month since my last post so I figure I should check in.  I have two conference talks to give later this month, so those are becoming my primary focus going forward.  The good news: one of them is based on a dissertation chapter, so working on that talk = working on my DOS-D.  (The chapter in question is the Gene Kelly chapter–ergo this post’s primary image from The Pirate).  The bad news: the other talk has nothing to do with my dissertation.  That’s how it goes, though.  Not everything can be about this giant (future) tome looming over my head.

These conferences aside, I’ve spent the majority of the past month on three tasks:

  1. A thorough, annotated reading of Constance Valis Hill’s Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History up through the 1960s.  Many of Hill’s arguments are useful points of entry for my chapter on Gene Kelly.
  2. Watching a lotttt of Gene Kelly films.  I’m viewing as many as possible, and in chronological order, so that I have a general sense of how his onscreen dance style and presence morphed over the course of his career.  I’m flagging some for rewatches.  One of them is The Pirate (1948), which features not only Gene Kelly, but also the Nicholas Brothers.

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate)

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate).

  3. Getting my arguments out.  This has been tricky–I tend to get half-baked ideas at random moments, refuse to write them down because they’re only half-baked, and then regret it when I suddenly feel like I have no ideas at all.  It’s one thing to take notes on specific scenes in a film or a specific claim by another scholar; it’s another thing altogether to formulate, clarify, and articulate my own overarching arguments.  In short, I’m starting to have a lot of supporting thoughts but not enough main points.  SO, I’m trying to make my arguments tactile.  How so, you might ask?  Using index cards!
    Index cards = tactile arguments!  (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies...)

    Index cards = tactile arguments! (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies in the corner…)

    On one side of a card, I’ll write a keyword or three, and on the other side I’ll write a first draft of a sentence stating one of my general arguments for the chapter.  By writing them out instead of typing them into a document, I’m sidestepping the anxiety that comes with actually writing my dissertation, which I still feel a bit unprepared to do.  Hopefully, between these cards and the conference paper I’m putting together, I’ll have the guts to actually write the chapter in April, May, and June.

My cohort and I have been arranging monthly virtual meetings to check in on each other’s progress, and this has been helpful.  We troubleshoot each other’s problems, exchange archive stories, offer feedback on writing, etc.  It has been heartening to see that my colleagues are in roughly the same place I am: we’re all working on outlining or writing our first chapter, and about half of us still have research to wrap up before we can begin writing in earnest.  It still astounds me that every part of the process takes so much time!  Everything moved so much faster during coursework, but making long-term plans helps with the sense of interminability.

The X factor in all of my future DOS-D plans is my archive visits.  I’ve been contacting two archives via phone/email/in person but still haven’t made much headway on accessing what I need from them, which is worrisome.  When I return in April, I’ll also be ready to view the television episodes housed at various LA institutions, so hopefully that will be a little easier to arrange.

Well, onward!

Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal

In the two weeks since my first major breakthrough on the DOS-D, I’ve had to switch gears somewhat and focus on the conference talk I’ll be giving at the joint Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress of Research on Dance annual conference in Iowa City this month.  My topic is the Dance Company Film (the first term I’ve coined, I believe) and I’m using the Ruth Page Collection from the Chicago Film Archives as my case study.

As of today, I’ve gotten about 7 pages together for it.  My average length for a conference paper is about 10, so I’m most of the way there but I’ve reached that point–one I reach often with short pieces like this–where everything I’m saying feels obvious.  You can’t take on too much with a 20-30 minute conference talk, especially if you’re using clips, and I usually do.  But as a result, given that I’m mainly thinking about the very big, very complex claims of my DOS-D lately, this little conference talk feels like it’s saying nothing at all, which is one of my greatest fears about my work in general.

In fact, I think the trifecta of fears for most of us humanities scholars is that our work is either obvious, unimportant, or unoriginal.  I know I’ve been through this entire cycle in the past week alone, and will go through it many times again.  For example, regarding my work’s importance: I’m very interested in technology, new media, and the Internet–topics which are undeniably “important” to think about–so studying old and sometimes obscure things can be difficult to justify to myself.  Why put so much effort into understanding the presentation of masculinity in midcentury dance on screen when the key problem today seems to be performances of gender in relation to gaming, coding, technophilia and technophobia?  It can be hard to remember that understanding contemporary problems is always aided by understanding older, only tangentially related problems, and that the building up of knowledge need not be as linear or utilitarian as the current market-driven neoliberal zeitgeist would have me believe.

As for originality, I don’t think I know any young scholars who haven’t experienced the overwhelming panic that accompanies accidental discovery of the article/dissertation/book that “already said EXACTLY what I’m saying.”  It’s already happened to me a couple of times in the past few months, but the wisdom of others indicates that even when it seems like their ideas are exactly like yours, you’ll probably end up saying it differently anyway because you’re probably coming at things from a somewhat different angle/perspective/background.

A still from a film currently entitled "B & H Dupe" (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

A still from a film currently entitled “B & H Dupe” (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to cut the Ruth Page chapter from my dissertation since I’m doing so much work on it lately, but perhaps this means I’ll be able to turn it into a strong article for publication sooner rather than later.  And once I’ve finished drafting the talk, I’ll be able to focus squarely on restructuring my DOS-D in a way befitting my narrower topic.  I really want to avoid a boring person-per-chapter or decade-per-chapter approach, but I don’t completely trust my ability to come up with a more nuanced, synthetic organization before writing a bunch of it.

…which leads me to my biggest current frustration.  I was just telling a close friend and colleague that I’m in a strange, liminal place as a scholar right now: I feel like I ‘know better’ than much of what I read (that is to say, I have viable critiques and can imagine more interesting arguments to make or more compelling presentations of the material I go through) yet I feel unable to express the smart stuff floating around in my brain.  As I said to my colleague, I’m afraid I’m never going to become the caliber of scholar I want myself to be.  Now, this is silly–I’m just now embarking on my dissertation so of course I have a ton of developing left to do.  But, nonetheless, it’s an odd place to be: on the precipice of my potential, able to sense it but not able to actually see it yet.

I’m hoping that forcing myself to come up with a structure I can live with in the next 10 days (before I leave for the midwest, the conference, and check-in meetings with my advisors) will assuage this somewhat, for the time being.  So I guess now I need to figure out the most effective way to force this brilliant structure out of myself.  I think it will involve a little inspirational reading of texts I’d like to emulate (like Murray Forman’s One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television) and maybe some light archival fishing to point me in some direction or other…

Day 14: Completion of First “Work Module,” Followed by First Breakthrough

I’ve actually accomplished a surprising amount in the last two weeks.  I told myself I couldn’t write this blog post until I finished the ‘module’ of work I created for myself, so that I could coherently synthesize my thoughts on a range of related items, but I probably shouldn’t have waited this long.  Lesson learned.  Here’s a bunch of stuff.  The first 2/3rds is an in-depth rundown of my thoughts after the first “work module” I assigned myself, but that’s skippable if you’re more interested in the first major breakthrough that followed it.

One of the things my committee suggested during my defense is that I stop cleaving so desperately to the “postwar” era specifically and consider expanding my periodization to “mid-century” in order to give myself a bit more flexibility in my history-telling.  I immediately agreed with this idea in theory, but realized that in practice one of my weakest areas of historical knowledge between, say, the industrial revolution and the present, is the 1940s.  That late interwar period, those years leading up to WWII and even during it…I don’t have the most thorough grasp of exactly what the key social, political, and economic dynamics were, to say nothing of how they related to dance cultures or screen cultures of the time.  So I decided, by way of introduction, to take a look at a few 1940s texts that I suspect will be key for me and read my way around them, as it were:

  • I watched Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), both all-black-cast musicals starring Lena Horne and adapted from previous material (a Broadway musical in the former case [whose choreography was incidentally collaboratively created by George Balanchine & Katherine Dunham] and a story + song + Bill Robinson’s life in the latter).
  • I read Shane Vogel’s article “Performing ‘Stormy Weather’: Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham”
  • I re-read the introduction and third chapter (“In the Shadow of War”) of Susan Manning’s Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion.  

The central figure through all of this, for me, anyway, is clearly black dancer & choreographer Katherine Dunham.  She’s also sort of the through-line for old versions of my dissertation, as she had a working relationship with both Maya Deren and Ruth Page, each of whom had chapters devoted to them once-upon-a-prospectus.

Dunham and her dancers in the 'abstract' dance scene of Stormy Weather.

Dunham and her dancers in the ‘abstract’ dance scene of Stormy Weather.

So, what were my thoughts? Because my chair is an expert in sound and music cultures, and because he strongly encouraged me to look for potential scholarly models in the existing work on music cultures’ mixture with screen cultures, I developed a habit while reading for exams: I’m always on the lookout for killer sentences in the music literature where I could simply replace the musical terms with dance terms and the sentence would be totally spot-on for my own argument.  I found one in the Vogel article:

[Interracial] collaborations made popular songs dance a rich sites for the sonic visual articulation and negotiation of dynamic social processes inaugurated by migration, immigration, and urbanization. (95)

Now, maybe this wasn’t true of all dance at the time, but definitely in the Broadway version of Cabin in the Sky.  Excellent.  Also, I have a feeling this isn’t unlike John Perpener’s position in African-American Concert Dance (2001), which I clearly need to read. I also found Vogel’s general reading of the film version of Stormy Weather compelling.  After including a nice little archival treat—an illustration of “the very public dispute between the studio and black classical composer William Grant Still” re: the stereotypical music to be used in the film, c/o The Chicago Defender, a primarily black paper—he offers up his own argument:

I want to suggest that Stormy Weather was more than just a nostalgic backward glance at a rapidly vanishing era of black performance. While it was this, some of the performances in the film manage to articulate a critique of the film’s conditions of aesthetic possibility and can be seen as a reflection on the fraught historical trajectory of black American performance and white spectatorship. (105)
This makes a lot of sense to me, and helps to explain why the 1940s represented a bit of a gap in my brain.  If minstrelsy started disappearing from live stages in the ’20s, and was relegated mainly to cartoons and musicals in the ’30s, something had to be happening onscreen in the 1940s, in the absence of actual minstrelsy, that was a prelude to the phenomenon of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley in the ’50s (Krin Gabbard argues that Brando “may have been the first American actor to practice minstrelsy in whiteface”).  Maybe that ‘something’ of the ’40s was a moment of black critical performance. Vogel’s main vehicle for this argument is—surprise!—Katherine Dunham.  Some key quotes around that:
Dunham’s performance marks a choreographic contradiction within the film between the history of stereotyped minstrel dance and the emergence of modern Negro dance. (107)
Dunham’s kinesthetic rewriting of “Stormy Weather” situates the song and its racial inscription within a diasporic rather than a national horizon. (107)
This abstract representation of stormy weather undoes the suffocating aesthetics of literalism that governed black performance, made all the more totalizing in the age of cinema. (106)
Then, on the more technical side (note to self: good surface-level movement analysis):
As Dunham’s formal modern ballet softens gradually by the end of “Stormy Weather” into more fluent movements centered on the pelvis and a relaxed upper body, we see—as homage, as critique, as citation—traces of vernacular black dance. (108)
Some dancers, arms raised and bent at the elbow, do a stylized version of the shimmy, transforming for the concert stage the upper-body movement that Ethel Waters was known for doing on the saloon stage. What was imagined as a stereotypical association of physicality and naturalness in black performance is revealed instead by Dunham’s choreography to be the product of technical precision and put into syncretic conversation with European dance traditions. (108-109)
And finally, driving it home:
In short, Dunham and her troupe, occupying the role originally held by the Cotton Club’s chorus girls, offered a modernist revision of the racial aesthetic of the black nightclub tradition and restaged the history of black performance. (109)
Ah, Shane Vogel, you never disappoint.  So, as I was reading this, of course nodding a vigorous “yes” at his arguments, I remembered that there’s a very detailed analysis of this very period of Dunham’s stage work in Manning’s book.  So, I ran off to re-read that.  There’s a great deal going on there, and it’s not concerned with the screens at all, but it was a very useful re-read with some new take-aways:
  • In her introduction, Manning keeps mentioning “divided historiography,” which is a nice, clean moniker for a certain tendency in dance history before the 1990s to write histories of African-American concert dance and modern (+ postmodern) dance separately.  But, perhaps more importantly, the recent “more inclusive histories obscure the extent to which modern dance and Negro dance remained conceptually distinct, yet mutually constitutive, categories at midcentury” (xxiii).  Manning’s point here, which is a pretty brilliant one, is not simply that all American dance is a complex intertwining of cultural influences and we should acknowledge it as such, which plenty of smart scholars have now illustrated in various ways; it’s that “spectators at midcentury could not perceive the intercultural fusions that now seem so apparent,” particularly in “modern dance” and “Negro dance” of the period (xxiv).  One of the key questions her book interrogates is why.  She illustrates the cultural landscape & dance spectatorship backdrop over the course of the book, but I think this is going to be a key question for me, in relation to dance on screen spectatorship, as well.  I wonder how my answer will differ from Manning’s.
  • What’s ‘new’ about Katherine Dunham is that she choreographs and performs a newly diasporic understanding of African-American experience.  A lot of this is due to her education in anthropology.  She wasn’t the only one to deal with diaspora, of course—Pearl Primus did so as well, but Manning characterized her approach as a “more fragmented vision of African-American life, juxtaposing African dances with dances of social protest and dances set to spirituals, blues, jazz, and experimental music” (172).  Primus, for example, had a famous piece called “Strange Fruit,” whereas Dunham’s works were more concerned with what Paul Gilroy would call the Black Atlantic.  This, along with a clear preference for the abstract expressivity of “modern dance,” may have something to do with why a dance critic like John Martin seemed to see Primus as more of a “modern” dancer than Dunham. (See Manning’s analysis on 167)
  • This is more of a note to self than a take-home point, but there are numerous mentions in Manning’s third chapter of the activist approach Dunham would take when touring her company around the U.S.  More than once, her reception (especially in the South) was troubling.  It would be interesting for me to compare this live reception with her film’s reception, if Stormy Weather was even played in southern white theaters.  I could compare the reception of Stormy Weather with Dunham’s touring in Louisville, for example, in 1944.  (See Manning 125)

The final thing that happened while I worked my way through my module was the reminder that there’s always more to view, more to read.  I think this will become commonplace in my blog posts—I am now going to list (mainly for myself) the items I discovered which future me is going to want to examine.

FilmsCarnival of Rhythm (1941) [I think it’s based on a suite of dances performed at the Windsor Theatre in 1940 called Island Songs, which starred Dunham, Talley Beatty, and Archie Savage, apparently like the film]; Star Spangled Rhythm (1943)

Archived Periodicals: Dance Observer; Dance Magazine; American Dance[r]; Dance; [The Nation & The New Republic?]

Secondary Sources: John O. Perpener’s African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond; Julia L. Foulkes’s Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey; VèVè Clark’s Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham

And now, the breakthrough. It all started with a conversation with my mom, as so many great breakthroughs do for me.  I’d been doing some work on Ruth Page for the Chicago Film Archives and was commenting, especially in light of my committee’s recommendation that I remove that chapter from my DOS-D, that someone really should write an academic book about Page because her career represents a fascinating story of risk-taking, success, experimenting, and firsts.  “First” feminist ballet, (one of the) “first” times Nureyev danced in the US post-defection, “first” person to conduct ethnographic dance study (using film!) abroad for the purposes of adapting it here in the U.S., “first” and probably only big-name choreographer to see that most of her repertoire be recorded on film, etc. etc.  Discussing it with Mumzot (why she puts up with that nickname I don’t know) helped me realize something: I should be the one to write it.  It would be a book not just about Page and her function as this rich hub in American dance that for some reason has slipped largely under the radar, but also about women and technology and useful cinema and the dance company film.

And then I thought: Oh my gods, this would be a great second book.  Which then helped me figure out what my first book (read: DOS-D) should be about: masculinity.  Funnily enough, I already had a document sitting on my desktop entitled “SECOND BOOK,” and in it was the (very) rough outline of this very book about masculinity, race, and dance on screen at midcentury.  So then I said to myself: “Shit, Pam, this isn’t your second book at all; this is your dissertation!”  Ta-daaaaa!

SO.  The breakthrough is a lovely scholarly progression to be made.  DOS-D/first book = masculinity, race, dance on the commercial screen.  Second book = feminist ballet, women & cinematic technologies, dance on the non-commercial screen.  And there we have it.  Much excitement!

Next questions, then: Which dudes? What periodization? Structured how? Current list of possible dudes to be included:

Fred Astaire
Bill Robinson
Gene Kelly
The Nicholas Brothers
Elvis Presley

Donald McKayle
Talley Beatty
Merce Cunningham?

I feel like Cunningham is more properly saved for later.  (Maybe my third book can be on Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, and their dance/screen combos…hahahaha that’s a good 15 years away, Pam).  And Beatty, while interesting, doesn’t have that much of a screen presence, really…  That leaves 6.  Still too many; better think on it.

Well, reader, that concludes today’s epic blog post.  Obviously I need to post more often to prevent behemoths such as this.  Congratulations if you made it all the way to the end.  Until next time~