First Chapter Draft: The Aftermath

I admit I’ve been extremely remiss in posting–my last post was over 2 months ago. But I did submit a full chapter draft to my chair about a month ago…and since then I’ve been living in the aftermath.

The original goal for that chapter submission was June 21, but I submitted it July 6 (Day 305!). Not bad, considering that I spent one of those interim weeks at an intensive dance studies seminar and Independence Day was in there, too. (A note about the Mellon Dance Studies Summer Seminar I attended: it is both terrifying and very productive to give a “research talk” about your dissertation project before a group of experts in a field you’re brand new to. I am happy to report that the seminar gave me a much better sense of what my larger contribution is and why people should–and do!–care about my DOS-D.)

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

With footnotes included, the final chapter draft was indeed 60 pages. But it was still a pretty rough draft–I knew before I even submitted it that I needed to do more archival viewing, and I definitely wish I had more access to some of the paper files that do exist but aren’t publicly available right now. In many ways, the chapter is a product of what was available. If I’m lucky, patience and perseverance will bring me into contact with more materials and this will help me to enhance the basic draft I completed.

Of course, it feels good to have simply produced a “complete” thing. It took me 9 months to gestate that baby, and while it felt like a really long time, I’m told that’s still pretty fast for one’s first chapter. I must admit I got impatient with myself toward the end, because it really did feel interminable to write on the same basic topic for over 50 pages. And of course, this also meant that I started to hate my argument–it felt repetitive and boring by that point, and every example felt the same as the rest, even as it would draw out new concerns and new patterns to be considered in the context of the rest of the evidence. I can already tell I’m not going to be one of those scholars who goes through and does one big edit at the end; every chapter is going to go through a few drafts before it’s ready to be integrated with the rest. There will probably be more drafts of this first chapter since I was still so new to the process when I was writing it, but I just can’t imagine being able to responsibly tie such a large ‘essay’ together without several months’ distance between it and myself, no matter how good I get at the chapter-writing process.

So here I am in the aftermath. What have I been doing with myself? Well, first I gave myself a week off where I didn’t have to think about my DOS-D at all. I watched some movies, did a lot of laundry, painted my nails (in other words, I took some Practical Lost Days and Mental Health Lost Days). Then, as a way to ease myself back into working, I considered the most obvious gaps that came up and decided to collect the data to address them, so I made a few visits to The Paley Center for Media and watched some more programs. I also revamped my personal website to serve as a stronger representation of my academic self. And then I fell ill.

I’m sure a lot of us experienced the post-finals colds and flus that often struck in college or early grad school; when one pushes one’s body to the limit, running on little more than adrenaline for the final push of a marathon, the come-down often involves a weakened and vulnerable immune system. So we get sick. Similarly, many colleagues told me about how sick they got after taking qualifying exams–I did, too–but I hadn’t considered that this would happen after the stress of completing a dissertation chapter, as well. There’s also the problem of age: I’m not a 20-year-old anymore, and my body can’t take being pushed as hard. Quals were really, really too much for me, and I paid for that push with over a month of poor health. I didn’t push myself that hard for the chapter, but still found myself on antibiotics for a week, so my lesson to myself for next time is: I need to ease into those final weeks a little better.

I think I’ve successfully kicked the illness, though, and I’m ready to start reading and archive trips for my next chapter–on The Nicholas Brothers! This means more visits to The Paley Center and reading Marshall & Jean Stearns’ lengthy Jazz Dance, potentially cover-to-cover. I’ve also just submitted a conference paper proposal related to my last chapter: it’s about the relationship between dance movement and film technology in Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly’s musicals. I’ll be exploring their partnerships with Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen, respectively, and conducting a close analysis of both the ways in which dancing for the camera affected their choreography and the ways in which their visions for what I call “impossible” dances required innovation and tricks on the cinematography/production side.

So that’s where I’m at–the tail end of the post-chapter-submission aftermath, getting back on the horse and moving forward. Of course, summer is also coming to a close and I’ll be back to teaching and other institutional responsibilities in about a month so I’ll have those to juggle, too. Hopefully the more structured time will mean more updates here rather than fewer. Until next time, readers!

Day 124: Baby’s First Archive Dive

Every archive has its own set of protocols and procedures, and their range of difference is part of what makes the research process so time-consuming.  Some publish their finding aids, while others do not; some require an account for use of their online request system, while others require a snail-mail application; some allow laptops and cameras, while others prohibit them…etc.  And because they all enforce their regulations to protect both fragile materials and copyright holders, newbie researchers such as myself find the whole business a little stressful.

Thus, I was feeling triumphant after having successfully navigated UCLA’s online request system for its special collections, making my way to campus, and arriving in the basement of its research library (accompanied by a dear colleague–we decided to team up for our first research trip).  I was there to peruse the 6 boxes of RKO Pictures studio records pertaining to Swing Time (1936), hoping to glean something about the production context of Fred Astaire’s famous blackface number, “Bojangles of Harlem.”

A publicity still for the "Bojangles" number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

A publicity still for the “Bojangles” number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

And while I did manage to request the right series + box alphanumeric combinations and follow all the rules (I’m not allowed to post any of the photos I took on this blog, for example), I also found just about nothing of use for my dissertation in those 6 boxes.  Sure, I now know exactly how much Fred and Ginger were each paid for the film (spoiler alert: she made far less), and saw proof that Astaire the perfectionist did indeed rehearse from 9:30am ’til midnight on more than one occasion, but not even the scores for the Bojangles number offered up any useful margin notes.

It’s a strange kind of excitement to handle a handwritten note that appears to be from Mr. Austerlitz himself, or the original score for “The Way You Look Tonight,” only to realize that there’s nothing you can really do with such gems.  This is just the trouble with research visits; you’re certainly likely to discover interesting bits of historical paraphernalia during your pilgrimage, but it’s a harsh truth that very little of it is going to be directly useful for your particular project.  I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles at the moment so I didn’t waste too many resources on this, my first real trip to the archives, but I can only imagine the level of frustration that must meet those who travel long distances in pursuit of their own diamonds in the rough.  I’m also glad that I used my first research jaunt to excavate the production context of a film not absolutely central to my project (while it’s highly topical, it’s of an earlier era than the core objects of my study), but I suspect that future failures to find useful information will prove increasingly demoralizing.

Perhaps a good strategy going forward is to vary the types of work I do, even on research trips–maybe pepper in some secondary reading or visual analysis to make up for the feeling of failure that ensues when I come out of a 6-hour archive dive empty-handed.  This way I’ll avoid too much moping-induced lack of productivity…I hope?  Anyone have additional tips for coping with post-archive blues?

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.