Day 870: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Well readers, I finally did it: I finished drafting the body chapters of the DOS-D. At around 3am on day 868.

The Elvis chapter ended up a little over 86 pages long (before notes), including 75 figures. I still believe there are too many images, but I’m going to deal with that later, when I start revising the chapter. For now, I’m grateful to have (barely) made it through. That last day was very rough; I had promised the chapter to my chair by January 18 but kept hitting walls when it came to dealing with Viva Las Vegas and beyond, let alone concluding the chapter. So, I spent January 18 not eating but working constantly, which meant that I only missed the deadline by about 3 hours.


Elvis dancing for Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), for which I struggled to find a good angle of analysis.

It took me a few days to recuperate, but here I am on the other side of it. Now it’s time to switch mental gears and shape the project as a whole: revisions. Luckily for me, all three members of my committee have read through and given me detailed feedback on each chapter as I’ve written them, so I will have a lot of guidance through my revision process. I know that I need to do more secondary reading/citation for the “cultural context” parts of the chapters, and clarify my central argument. This means more sign-posting and better conclusions to my major examples and sections. I anticipate needing to print out the full chapters for myself, spread them out on the floor, and edit by hand. I need to be able to see the flow of the thing. My apologies in advance to the trees who had to die for me to achieve this; I promise to recycle it all when I’m done. Speaking of promises…

I have promised a draft of my Introduction alongside revised versions of Chapters 1 & 2 to my chair by February 22. Thus, I gave myself mini-deadlines to reach that goal:

  • Complete Ch. 1 revisions (Nicholas Brothers) by Jan. 30
  • Complete Ch. 2 revisions (Gene Kelly) by Feb 8
  • Use the 2 weeks between Feb 8 & Feb 22 to write the Intro

I expect to receive feedback on Elvis around Feb 22, and feedback on the Intro + revisions by St. Patrick’s day. I am due to submit the entire manuscript to my committee on March 29.

AHHHHH, it’s all so much. But I’m told this is just how the ‘final push’ tends to go. It’s a lot, but I can do it—I have to. March 29 really isn’t so far away…less than 10 weeks. Just 67 days. I have a lot of ground to cover, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This might mean that I check in here more often or less often; I’m not sure yet. But for now, the end is in sight and I just have to put my blinders on and charge forth!


Day 197: First Day of Writing! (Discussion: First Conference Talk; First Chapter Outline)

It’s been more than a month between posts this time, but much has transpired!  I did a great deal of traveling for conferences, archives, and meetings with my DOS-D committee.  In the process, I came up with what I think is the first viable potential title for this beast:

The Flash, The Feet, The Pelvis: Dancing Race and Masculinity across Midcentury Film and TV

(Please, big bad Interwebs, don’t steal that from me.)  “The Flash” represents the Nicholas Brothers, who were often (mistakenly) understood as flash dancers–their acrobatics made them seem to fall in that category, but they were actually jazz tap dancers through and through.  “The Feet” represents Gene Kelly, who was often referred to as such by critics, especially when he was featured alongside Frank Sinatra in films (Sinatra was “The Voice” to his Feet).  And, perhaps most obviously, “The Pelvis” represents Elvis Presley, famous for his naughty hip gyrations on national television.  These four men are the core of my DOS-D chapters, so this seems a fitting first stab at a title.  Many of my colleagues seem to have already settled on their titles but I’m one of those people who can’t finalize a title until literally every other part of a writing project is done.  So the fact that I’ve thought of even one decent title means I’ve come a long way toward conceptualizing the larger work, which is great news since I’m about 6 months in now!

Now then, as I mentioned last post, I had two conference talks to give at the end of March and both went well.  It was a special relief, though, that the second one went well because it was the first time I’ve presented dissertation material to the (academic) public.  In my case, this was a close analysis of Gene Kelly’s 1958 Omnibus special “Dancing, A Man’s Game.”

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

There is a particular fear that comes with presenting initial iterations of your first major ideas–the ideas you’re going to be living with for the next decade (see my first post for more on this problem)–to your “peers,” which I’ve placed in scare quotes because “peers” at this juncture in a young scholar’s career almost invariably actually means older, wiser, published, and successful scholars in one’s field.  If, for example, I had received particularly critical or exasperating comments, if my presentation was not met with enthusiasm, if the experience had been negative in any way, I’d have no doubt felt terribly crushed and feared that these precious initial ideas are silly, ill-conceived, boring, or even Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal.  So I’m proud to report that two famous scholars seemed to thoroughly enjoy the talk (one even said as much), the entire audience (which thankfully consisted of more than 4 people) giggled at my little jokes, and the follow-up questions conveyed sincere interest and constructive commentary rather than annoyed disdain.  A couple people even approached me afterwards with compliments.  In all, I was very pleased and even more relieved.

Not too long after, I finally managed to churn out a coherent outline for Chapter 2 of my dissertation (which I just so happen to be writing first, as it’s the easiest to put together).  Tentatively titled “The Feet: The Marlon Brando of Dance,” the chapter tracks Gene Kelly’s career from film to television, thinking about the ways his dancing presented masculinity to the WWII and postwar public on these different screens and the ways in which this representation intersected with blackness in particular (and racial politics in general) during that period.  (See the featured photo of my last post for a clear visual example from The Pirate, in which Kelly dances with the Nicholas Brothers.)  I was, of course, quite afraid of presenting this outline to my DOS-D advisors because I honestly don’t know the first thing about outlining a 60+ page document.  Even as a PhD candidate, I’ve never written (and therefore never created a detailed outline for) an academic paper longer than about 25 or 30 pages.  (The obvious exceptions, here, are my two undergraduate honors theses, one of which was maybe 40 pages and the other of which was about 100.  But I think we can all agree that an undergraduate thesis hardly requires the level of academic rigor that might be expected of an advanced graduate student.)  The dissertation chapter, then, is a difficult creature to conceptualize in terms of its ebbs, flows, arguments, threads, examples, etc.  Fortunately, I’ve been given the thumbs-up to start writing the chapter as envisioned in my outline.  The only real warnings were:

  1. Don’t forget to include some form of literature review at the beginning, so as to map out the terrain of other scholarship I’ll be referring to throughout the chapter
  2. Since this dissertation is equally about film and television, make sure not to accidentally favor the former because the films are both more easily accessible to watch and more often discussed in that other scholarship mentioned above
  3. Consider your opening anecdote a “first draft” anecdote, because it’s difficult to gauge how appropriate an opening anecdote is until the whole chapter is drafted

In many ways, the dissertation chapter seems to be a gargantuan 3-5 page college essay (of which I’ve now graded hundreds).  What would be a paragraph in these essays is now an entire section; each substantive sentence in the section represents a paragraph or two.  This is a good way, I think, to avoid getting completely lost in a sea of my own prose.  Which is a good realization to have just now, because today I begin writing in earnest.  I’ve opened a new Word document, I’ve got my Scrivener project file open, my outline with annotations from those advisor meetings sits on the table beside my laptop.  After I publish this post, I shall embark on the long journey.  (I’ve promised both myself and my advisors that this chapter will be in “full draft” form by June 12 and ready for workshopping/edits by June 21).

And so, here goes everything!

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!

Day 106: Digital Documents; Brick & Mortar Plans

Hello, long-lost readership (of 3)!  Happy 2015.  I’ve been remiss in posting, but slightly less remiss in holding myself accountable.

I’m working on completing the murky beginning phase of dissertation “prep” and trying to move into actual substantial writing by February.  Until now, I never really understood why it takes people so long to get into ‘the meat’ of actively productive research and writing, but for those of you watching at home, let me testify: there really is a lot of organizational and logistical junk that has to happen first.  It may be common knowledge that you have to research before you can write, but it’s less obvious that you have to figure out what, where, and how to research before you can even start researching proper.  In college and the first few years of graduate school, it was easy to simply follow in the footsteps of people who have already done the difficult initial research on a topic.  I’m now finding that it is much, much harder and far less intuitive when you’re the ‘trailblazer,’ as it were.  This is a good sign that you’re doing original work, of course, but it really goes quite slowly when there’s no blueprint for where (literally: where to travel for which collections) to begin and how to go about getting useful information.

Things achieved in the past 30-45 days (bearing in mind that the holidays were hardly very productive), some of which I mentioned briefly in the last post:

  1. I purchased and downloaded some writing productivity software, at the recommendation of friends and colleagues.  It’s called Scrivener, and so far I’m liking it; it’s organized enough to store all my research in an accessible way, as well as store actual dissertation notes/jottings/writing chunks that might not be ready for a big scary Word document yet.
  2. I collated a fairly exhaustive list of the television episodes I need to (attempt to) view from 1949 through about 1965 (with some later retrospectives for comparison).  These episodes all feature one or more of the dance stars I’ll probably be focusing on no matter what tweaks I make to structure.  (I’ve decided against bringing women back in–it’s just too much.  I’ll have to defend that decision in the introduction.)  There are about 50 essentials and another 20 usefuls…this may grow a bit more over time but it’s a solid start.  The list also includes information on where I can view most of these episodes (I haven’t yet tracked down some of them)–apparently, I’ll be spending a lot of time at the Paley Center this year.
    Part of the TV episodes list in Scrivener

    Part of my TV episodes list in Scrivener

    It’s hard for many of us to comprehend that not everything is floating around on the Internet in some sort of streaming or downloadable form, but much of early television (because it was actually live!) has either been lost or only saved on kinescopes of iffy quality.  Thus, assuming all goes according to plan (fingers crossed!), I’ll be one of the few people to have viewed these episodes since their original airing in the 40s/50s/60s.

  3. I’ve created two spreadsheets of archival collections I’d like to visit, one listing archives here in Los Angeles and the other listing archives elsewhere in the US.  These are mostly-paper collections containing studio memos, personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, contracts, and other ephemera that I’ll be trawling through in hopes of finding exactly what I need, without knowing exactly what that might be…until I find it.  The paper collections I need are proving much more difficult to track down than the TV episodes!  These spreadsheets are going to be continual works in progress.
  4. Per the suggestion of my chair, I’ve created a list of research questions to guide me through those archive visits.  I have questions intended for both the episode viewings and the paper hunts.  This way, I’ll have an idea of the questions I’m trying to answer even if I have no idea of what I’m physically looking for.  To make it feel more palpable, I printed it out today.  [I’ve lately suffered from feeling that I have nothing to show for myself these days because literally everything I ‘do’ for work is digital.]
  5. As part of an application for a summer seminar (which took up about a week of would-be dissertation time), I banged out a current DISSERTATION ABSTRACT.  I struggled with it for longer than I should have, but I think it will serve as a nice guide for me in the coming weeks.  I triumphantly printed this, too, today.  Now it’s real!

I am currently in the process of scheduling visits, requesting materials, etc. at various LA locations (my least favorite part), and will be focusing on more directly productive activities in the coming weeks: re-reading and/or reading for the first time some (more) key texts with which my DOS-D will be in conversation, drafting language, working on more detailed chapter outlines, etc.  Once I actually start finding useful stuff in the archives, I’ll add object analysis and start weaving it all together (I hope!).

The Anatomy of a DOS-D

It’s been over a month now since I last checked in here on DOS-D, and much has transpired since then.  I did indeed finish my conference talk for the Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress of Research on Dance, flew to the midwest, gave said talk despite a major power outage in the middle of my presentation, and had meetings with each of my committee members.

Of course, the difficulty in meeting with each member separately is the high likelihood that some of their thoughts and suggestions will clash with one another, so I’ve since been trying to resolve some of the conflicts in these suggestions.  BUT, I want to record the conceptual progress I’ve made before I get too caught up in archival research (what follows is probably boring nitty gritty for most readers, so be warned):

  • The main goal of the dissertation (at this juncture) is to document the shifts in staging race and dance on screen at the crucial juncture of the postwar moment, and how this affected male ‘star’ dancers in particular as a result of important shifts in gender and race dynamics of the period that were both much bigger than dance and also being worked out in front of the nation through dance (among other means).
    • There are several other issues bound up in this like differential media technologies, class, and age/generation which will hopefully get traced out (or at least wrapped in) along the way
  • My original interest in the symbiotic relationship between dance cultures and screen cultures remains–there’s clearly a sort of push/pull happening between the two, in which each side wants to blame the other for ruining or cheapening it while also being dependent on it for success, popularity, profit, etc.  Television was concerned about Elvis’s pelvis, of course, and dance was concerned that its Hollywood arm consisted mainly of cheap spectacle.  And yet, even Ed Sullivan knew that Elvis was the key to the ratings jackpot and even Dance Observer admitted that Hollywood is part of what made American dance so innovative.  This invisible exchange needs to be made evident in my diss.
    • That being said, maybe one of the key shifts for me to track is precisely the shift from film to TV (and in Elvis’s case, from TV to film) — maybe medium specificity in this case accounts for more than immediately meets the eye.

Regrettably, I think I’m going to have to move away from including ‘regular people’ (amateur hours & teen dance shows) to make more room for focusing on the big names who, by virtue of being big names, were the bodies across which the most aggressive representational rhetoric was etched out.

Now we get to the hardest part, the part I’m still struggling with and probably will continue to struggle with for some time: organization.  While two of my three committee members thought that the revised plans I’d brought to them seemed much better and more manageable than the initial prospectus, all three offered a slightly different take on what they envision going forward.  In basic terms, these options are:

  1. Structure by figure, and cut out a couple.  So:
    1. The Nicholas Brothers
    2. Gene Kelly
    3. Elvis Presley
  2. Structure by period/media arrangement, and bring the cut fellas back in.  So:
    1. The Nicholas Brothers & Bill Robinson (mainly film)
    2. Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly (film –> TV)
    3. Elvis Presley (TV –> film)
  3. Structure by concept, and maybe bring women & femininity back in.  So (roughly…):
    1. Dance vs. Screen Cultures
    2. Race & Gender
    3. Class & Generation
    4. Film vs. TV

Well, I’m still digesting all this.  I have plans to reach out to a potential fourth committee member who’s currently working on Bill Robinson.  I’ve downloaded Scrivener and imported the images from my digging through 8 years of Dance Observer archives (1934-1941, which is really too early but I wanted to check for precedents) and 2 years of Dance Magazine (1951-1952).  I’ve started a spreadsheet of archives in the LA area whose written records hold promise for me.  AND I’ve begun compiling a list of relevant television episodes for each of the figures listed above, as well as places where I can actually view these episodes.

Gene Kelly for Capezio shoes in a 1952 Dance Magazine

Gene Kelly for Capezio shoes in a 1952 Dance Magazine

So, progress has been made, and I’ll hopefully accomplish a bit more before the holidays so that I’m ready to actually visit all the necessary brick & mortar archives in the new year.