Sense of community is a central feature of African and Afrodiasporic culture and characteristic of African and Afrodiasporic dances. This has historically placed them in conflict with the self-definition of dance art that derives from the identity of the white individual artist. However, since the mid-twentieth century, the strong commitment of Africanist dance to communities has changed the public relationship of all art dance and has also led to the development of new forms of dance that emphasise community. Community was brought to postmodern and new dance from non-European traditions of performance. It has resulted in considering and highlighting different groups and individuals and community-oriented methods of making art. Thus, community dance has its roots in African and Afrodiasporic dance cultures. This article explores how Black dance artists have created dance through community-based methods for their communities.
Modern Dance Theatres and Community
When Alvin Ailey began his career as a choreographer in the late 1950s, Black dancers found it difficult to get work in white-produced musicals and in white choreographers’ dance companies. One of Ailey’s goals was to create job opportunities for Black performers. Modern dance needed a Black community that included not only the artists who created the work, but also the audience. When Ailey’s dance company toured Africa in the 1960s, the audiences for the performances could still be predominantly white. Ailey wanted the group to be allowed to perform for Black audiences informally outside of theatres and that some of the theatre tickets would be sold at a price that Black African audiences could afford. When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater visited Rio de Janeiro on its South American tour in 1978, Ailey wanted local dance students, teachers and performers to come to the Rio de Janeiro Opera House to observe rehearsals, attend dance classes and teach. Ailey was surprised when all the dancers invited by the US Embassy were white and came from the city’s ballet schools. Ailey wanted participants from the samba schools of poor favelas. Once sent for, they came, but the next day they were not allowed to re-enter the opera house. Ailey threatened to cancel all his group’s performances if the doors were not reopened to the people from the samba schools.
Since 1984, the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has had a second home in Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey) in the Midwestern United States. By decentralising its activities, Ailey was committed to making dance education accessible and to providing as many children and young people as possible with the opportunity to develop critical thinking and self-esteem through dance. Ailey himself continued to believe in integration rather than separatism even in the 1960s, which was a time of polarisation in the United States, and whenever, despite the progress of the civil rights struggle, improvement of the position of Black people slowed down. Even before operating in Kansas City, Ailey’s New York group was already investing in dance education for children and young people, providing dance classes for hundreds of children from low-income families in Brooklyn in the late 1960s.
In the 1960s, the importance of community was primarily reflected in the founding of new dance companies. Dancers who were successful in their careers but aware of racial discrimination sought to promote educational opportunities and professional careers for young dancers. One such enabler was Arthur Mitchell (1934–2018), who had been the first Black principal dancer with the New York City Ballet in 1955 and one of the principal performers of George Balanchine’s works. Mitchell began his teaching career in a garage converted into a dance classroom in Harlem, New York. In 1969, Mitchell co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) with Karel Shook (1920–1985). It was a time of civil rights struggle, and Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated the previous year. Mitchell wanted to do something for his community. Where Ailey was building his own community for Afrodiasporic modern dancers, Mitchell was now creating a safe haven for dancers from different backgrounds who had been led to believe that they could never become ballet dancers because of the colour of their skin. Many talented young people could not afford to train, but at DTH, lack of equipment was not allowed to be a barrier to attending dance classes. Since then, this kind of activity became known as “low-threshold” ballet training.
Virginia Johnson (b. 1950), one of the original members of DTH and its current director, recalls that the idea was not to create a Black ballet company but to make people understand that ballet could be danced by anyone. It was important to give African American, Latin American and Asian American people the opportunity to define their own identity rather than having to conform to other people’s ideas of what they could be. In the late 1970s, DTH had a repertory of 46 ballets, and in the 1980s it revamped the classical ballet repertoire with original performances including The Firebird, Giselle and Scheherazade. Today, Dance Theatre of Harlem works with the public – or perhaps more aptly, with the community – through a programme that began with the company’s tour of South Africa in 1992. This work involves a dance education programme for school children and senior citizens.
Community as a Way of Working
Compared to Arthur Mitchell, who diversified the tradition and aesthetics of ballet, Chuck Davis (1937–2017) took a different path. Working in modern dance, jazz and African dance, Davis drew heavily on African traditions. He began dancing in the 1960s with the groups of musician Michael Babatunde Olatunji and choreographer Eleo Pomare, before founding the Chuck Davis Dance Company (1967–1983). Davis focused his work on active audience participation and community involvement. In the 1960s, Davis and many other artists formed the Black dance movement on the basis of the Black Power ideology. Its purpose was to take the concept of Black dance and use it to embody the right of African Americans to self-determination. The works were intended to appeal specifically to Black audiences and to address current political issues. Audiences could be activated through call and response structures familiar from church services. In the late 1970s, Davis was invited to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a performing arts centre in New York. He in turn invited several groups to lead workshops, conduct master classes and perform with him. The idea grew into DanceAfrica, an annual event focusing on African dance.
Davis also founded the African American Dance Ensemble (AADE) in the 1980s. The group built its practices around traditional customs familiar to the community, such as dancing in a ring. The way of working was established as an interaction between dancers and musicians in a circular format. The performers take turns to dance in the centre of the ring, giving and taking space. The dancing in Davis’s workshops and performances in the 1990s was lively, encouraging and effective in the way the dancers listened to the rhythms they received from the musicians and in their acrobatic expression. Davis explained that when the drums began to play, the dancer who went to the centre of the ring had to think only of interpreting the rhythm from the African heritage they had learned. Questions such as the size or weight of the dancer, the body normative attitudes that were important in white dance, were completely secondary to the African dance aesthetic represented by the AADE, because the virtuosity of the dancer relied on the ability to create an original relationship with the living tradition.
The connection between music and movement was also central to Dianne McIntyre’s (b. 1946) Sounds in Motion group and school, which operated in New York from 1972–1988. During this period, McIntyre developed a profound choreographic method based on the connection between music and movement and working with musicians. McIntyre is one of the most experienced African American women choreographers of the generation following Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, and her work addresses the lives of the African American community. In McIntyre’s community-based approach, music and dance emerge simultaneously. The musician and choreographer do not work alone, but in the same space on the basis of a shared theme, story or concept. They rehearse and work on the material together (and separately between rehearsals) until the piece is complete.
One example of a work that emerged from such a process is Blues on Top o’ Blues (1991), which McIntyre made with musician Olu Dara and his Okra Orchestra. The concert dance work was initially drawn from the repertoire of social dances: African dances, work dances of enslaved people and African American vernacular dances. At the climax of the performance, in unison, the audience began to cheer the performers on. Because the dance was made for the community, the community responded in a way that was unique to it and knew when to participate. At the post-performance parties and jams, McIntyre’s dancers and Dara’s musicians performed parts of the piece seen on stage. The informal performance situation enabled the revellers to gather around the performers, allowing the vernacular dances that had been brought on stage and transformed into a work to return as community dances. Audience participation could appear as spontaneous self-expression, but was in fact planned by the choreographer.
After the important non-narrative experiments of the 1970s, narrative became fashionable again in the 1980s, resulting in another turn in contemporary dance making. Bebe Miller (b. 1950) and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (b. 1950), among others, began to use collaborative open structures to choreograph dance works. Miller had studied dance at Ohio State University and worked as a dancer with Nina Wiener and Dana Reitz before forming her own company in the mid-1980s. Zollar had grown up in Kansas City in an environment where she had been exposed to different aspects of jazz dance culture and had studied with Joseph Stevenson, who danced with Katherine Dunham’s company. After college, she moved to New York City, where she worked with McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion group. The open structure used by Miller and Zollar meant that the dancers had more influence on the works. The importance of dancers’ views in shaping the content of pieces increased as choreographers became interested in dancers as people with something unique to contribute to the work through their personal histories and life experiences. Miller’s Going to the Wall (1998), about race, gender and identity, is an example of how each performer’s individuality and internal and external specificity shaped a work. One Asian American woman could not be replaced by another Asian American woman without the work, which was based on the dancers’ individuality, suffering from the change.
The work of Zollar and her Urban Bush Women (UBW) group has included community workshops at the beginning of each project and public discussions after the performances. The workshops allow Zollar to create dance works rooted in community problems and current issues. In 1989, Zollar and UBW produced I Don’t Know, But I Been Told, If You Keep Dancin’ You’ll Never Grow Old, which includes
references to handclapping games, jump rope, double dutch, word games, cheerleading, ring games, step dancing, playground chants, vogueing, soul train lines and social dances, and celebrates these street vocal and movement forms that have continuously vitalized the creative legacy of black performance.
In this way, the work also questions the high culture references of concert dance and its separation from folklore. During its 1992 visit to New Orleans, UBW was involved in more than a dozen local community projects. Their community work was diverse; UBW joined groups and people of all ages in activities such as painting murals, playing basketball and creative writing.
Zollar and the UBW dancers hold discussions at the beginning and end of rehearsals. Feedback sessions are important to Zollar in maintaining dancer engagement and a supportive atmosphere in the work community. The group working method is demanding: it requires sensitivity and the ability to improvise responsively on stage. Zollar therefore uses contact improvisation as one working method but also requires her dancers to be able to sing, make up rhymes and act.
This same tradition of community still underpins much of contemporary dance in the 21st century. Black dance art has been about community in the broadest sense, including various forms of popular culture. Of these forms, hip hop has had a major impact on how non-African American dance makers have embraced communal ways of dance making. Hollywood films about hip hop reached a wide audience in the 1980s. In these films, hip hop dancing served as a metaphor for community, authority and resistance to the power of money. To trace the communal ways of making contemporary dance to hip hop is to become aware of how dance history has been whitewashed and Black traditions have been erased.
The Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2019 has brought new challenges for dance communities and anti-racist work in dance communities and dance education. In a conversation with Cynthia Oliver, Miller reflects on the implications of the pandemic for her own work. She notes that the pandemic has forced people to make, produce and perform dance work in new ways in small rooms, online and on the street. The pandemic has also given rise to a new kind of choreography in people’s everyday lives. Oliver says, “It is actually fascinating to observe people moving, choreographing everyday life in a different way and making movement choices in public space that involve new kinds of negotiation and confusion.”
1 Dunning 1996, 102.
2 Croft 2015, 87–88.
3 Dunning 1996, 315–316.
4 Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey 2020.
5 Dunning 1996, 360–361, 396–398.
6 Dunning 1996, 233–234, 242, 244.
7 Johnson n.d.
8 Johnson n.d.
9 Dance Theatre of Harlem 2021.
10 Gottschild 2003, xvi.
11 The Black Power ideology is based on the Black Panther Movement’s 1967 Ten-Point Program, the first point of which calls for Black freedom and the power to determine the future of the Black community. For the full Ten-Point Program, see Shames & Seale 2016, 33–35.
12 DeFrantz 2002, 10, 30.
13 Miller 2014, 167–168.
14 Albright 1997, 23.
15 Gottschild 2003, 33.
16 Goler 2002, 213.
17 Goler 2002, 216–217.
18 Hutera 1999, 158.
19 Gonzalez 2001, 35.
20 Barr 2011, 7.
21 Barr 2011, 5–7.
22 Chatterjea 2004, 15.
23 Chatterjea 2004, 41.
24 Chattarjea 2004, 41–42
25 Chatterjea 2004, 42–44.
26 Chatterjea 2004, 49–51.
27 DeFrantz 2014, 113.
28 On teaching anti-racism as part of dance studies, see McCarthy-Brown & Carter 2019.
29 Jakab, Miller & Oliver 2020.
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Hanna Väätäinen (PhD) teaches courses on the history of jazz dance, the history of ballet, the history of modern and contemporary dance and the history of Finnish art dance at Turku University of Applied Sciences. She is interested in improvisation in dance and its research, poetry, craft activism and comics. kirjosarjis.blogspot.com