Black Performance Theory: The Africanist Dancing Body and Transformations Within the Mainstream

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Black Performance Theory, a collection of essays edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, establishes Black expressive culture as an area of academic inquiry and acknowledges the emergence and dynamism of Black performativity (Gonzalez and DeFrantz 1). In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez chronicle the emergence and transformation of Black Performance Theory from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” to Robert Farris Thompson’s “Africanist aesthetics,” to contemporary efforts by scholars to provide a nuanced discussion of Black performance as historically and artistically significant (2-5). Undergirding Black Performance Theory are ideas and negotiations of Black/Blackness, Diaspora, Black sensibilities, performance, and theory — what they are, where they happen, how they happen, and their implications. A primary and crucial claim made by DeFrantz and Gonzalez is that Black sensibilities emerge in performance whether Black bodies are present or not, but underlying this point is that Black performance is always enabled by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). While the collection spans a wide variety of performative practices and works, I focus this critical analysis on two essays that explicitly deal with Africanist dancing bodies and Black sensibilities within the mainstream dancescape. The first essay, written by Carl Paris, explores the question of imminent spiritual potentialities in the works of two postmodern Black male choreographers (Paris 99). The second essay, written by DeFrantz himself, “explores slippage from Africanist performance histories to global hip-hop corporealities” (223). I argue that both essays, though different in dance topic and critique, exemplify the transformational nature of the Africanist dancing body on, through, and by the mainstream. Furthermore, the concepts of connectivity and communal practice underlie both analyses, highlighting the interplay of Black sensibilities with mainstream and global spaces.

In his essay, “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson,” Carl Paris, dancer, choreographer, and a scholar of Dance and Cultural Studies, engages a variety of Black dance, Black theology, and anthropological sources to read “imminent potentiality” through the works of Brown and Wilson (Paris 102). Citing key Black Dance scholars, like Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Robert Farris Thompson, DeFrantz, Sterling Stuckey, and Halifu Osumare, Paris begins his argument by discussing the role of spirit and the spiritual in the African Diaspora worldview and how it permeates all aspects of Black life (100). He then goes on to discuss the inherent spirituality in modern dance, as discussed by Gerald Myers (101). Combining the inherent spirituality of both Black life and modern dance, Paris then interprets the work of Brown and Wilson, demonstrating how they merge Africanist cultural elements and modern dance to produce choreography that links the negotiation of identities with Africanist cosmological and cultural elements that are grounded in community practice.

Noted Black Dance scholar, DeFrantz, in his essay, “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0,” examines the transformation of hip-hop from a site of local social resistance to an aesthetic of pleasure and cool. For DeFrantz, this transformation is a result of hip-hop’s entrance into the mainstream and its subsequent commodification and consumption on a global scale. Habitus provides the conceptual framework for DeFrantz to argue that hip-hop, like other forms of Black social dance, exemplifies how Black expressive culture can emerge as an agent of social change, but once compressed into popular culture, loses its vitality as a resistant aesthetic practice as it begins to comply with the very system to which it creatively responded (237).  Thus, DeFrantz is in conversation with not only other Black Dance scholars as he reviews the literature on hip-hop, but also with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose quotes on habitus from The Logic of Reason outline the sections of the essay.

My decision to group these two essays in the same critical analysis arises out of the way that they both provide examples of the transformational nature of Black Dance, particularly the negotiation of identities that happens through Black Dance. In the introduction, DeFrantz, and Gonzalez provide their definitions of “Black.” DeFrantz describes it as “the manifestation of Africanist aesthetics” (5) and “action engaged to enlarge capacity, confirm presence, to dare” (5), while Gonzalez describes it as “a response to histories” (6) and “a dialogic imagination. . .[that] responds to imaginations about black identities” (6). These descriptions of “Black” are found in the works of Brown and Wilson, as analyzed by Paris, and in DeFrantz’ discussion of hip-hop habitus. For example, in Paris’ essay, he notes the dualistic nature of Brown and Wilson’s choreography as they integrate Black aesthetics/culture and postmodern dance (102). In doing so, they engage how the sense of self interacts with the dominant culture and the histories that produced it, and at the same time, they use the spiritual element of the dance to transform the sense of self beyond the monolithic notions of the dominant culture.

DeFrantz’s “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0” also confirms the negotiation of identities through Black Dance. In reference to the shifting purpose of hip-hop dance once it is taken out of its original, local contexts, DeFrantz writes, “Public dance competitions change the idiom and its possibilities. . .But in black communities pleasure must be aligned with aesthetic purpose and social function of one sort or another. Global stages overwhelm social function beyond their local identities. . .” (234-235). This suggests that where hip-hop in its local contexts serves as the manifestation of African aesthetics and the confirmation of presence, on the global stage, it becomes imaginations about identities, and therefore, exemplifies the dialogic nature of Black performance even when there is no conscious consideration of the performers’ identities or the histories out of which they emerge. This flexibility is a key component of Black performance which allows Black Dance to transform and be transformed by the mainstream.

In this negotiation of Black identities, there also lies a connectivity and communal element that both Paris and DeFrantz note as key components of the choreographic works and expressive idioms discussed. In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez describe Diaspora as a “process of community and unification”(11), so “[p]erformance becomes a dialogue between ourselves and others as we ‘make sense’ of diasporic journeys” (11). According to Paris, Wilson and Brown’s choreographies are underscored by the community/unification aspect. Paris notes Brown’s use of a circular formation to convey a sense of antiphonal interaction between individual and community (104), as well as how the unfolding of the choreography suggests the interplay between the spiritual individual and the well-being of the community (107). In addition, Paris maintains that in Wilson’s work, “the dancing body conveys spirit and meaning through community and cultural representation” (112), and Wilson draws in the unification aspect of Diaspora by bringing together three different companies from three different cultures with different backgrounds in dance and training. This serves to amplify “a unified sense of spiritual and community practice” (112).

In a different way, DeFrantz suggests how hip-hop dance and its global reach exemplifies the connectivity and community underlying Diaspora and its representations in Black performance. In his review of previous hip-hop scholarship, DeFrantz writes that for the second generation of hip-hop scholars, hip-hop “became a connectivity for youth across a geography, practiced locally” (226). As he goes on to discuss these “youth” and those engaged in hop-hop dance, he notes that not all of them are Black, or even consciously connected to the socio-historical contexts out of which the dance style emerged. However, something important to consider is the endurance of the imperative to innovate and what that suggests about identity formation within the social landscape. Like Brown’s choreography, hip-hop exemplifies the capacity to work as an individual within a group dynamic. It also demonstrates how that individuality simultaneously influences the group dynamic, much like how the spiritual individual interacts with the well-being of the community. Furthermore, while DeFrantz argues that the “aesthetic of the cool” and the driving force of pleasure behind hip-hop’s global popularity is problematic through the habitus framework, the aesthetic/pleasure aspect is the unifying force across various borders. This is significant because it corroborates DeFrantz and Gonzalez’s introductory claim that even when Black bodies are not present, Black performance is made possible by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). Thus, there is an important interaction between Black sensibilities and mainstream spaces that demonstrates the capacity of Black Dance to reach beyond the individual and not only extend out into already-established communities, but to carve new spaces of community, as well.

Black Performance Theory is a critically important work because it introduces various frameworks by which Black expressive works can be interpreted, and in doing so, it establishes the dynamic nature of Black Performance, and by extension Black Dance. This makes it a key source for my exploration into Black women’s capacity to use Black Dance as a vehicle for restructuring boundaries. As they discuss in their introduction, the editors of this collection of essays are not wedded to any framework, but they do make it explicit that their goal is to demonstrate the reach of Black sensibilities and the possibilities of Black performance through Black sensibilities, expressive cultures, and people. One shortcoming of the two essays, due to my focus being on Black women, is that both essays are concerned with men and masculinist performances. However, they still provided valuable information on the role of Black Dance in negotiating identities and carving spaces that simultaneously work within the dominant culture and transform or get transformed by the mainstream. Furthermore, while Paris and DeFrantz focus on men and masculinist performances, Daphne A. Brooks provides an analysis of work by Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy to highlight negotiations of Black womanhood through sonic forms in her essay “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” She examines how sonic distortions found in “Four Women” and Funnyhouse of a Negro exemplify Black women’s discursive practice of speaking in racial and gendered voices, the (dis)identification these dual voices signify, and the histories out of which these voices emerge (Brooks). Like DeFrantz and Paris, Brook draws attention to the interplay between self-identification and hegemonic structures, and how performance is the method for negotiating these identities. Overall, Black Performance Theory is a crucial collection of work and adds much to Black Studies and Performance Studies scholarship, while also raising questions for further examination.


Works Cited

Brooks, Daphne. “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 204-222.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 223-242.

Gonzalez, Anita, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, editors. “From ‘Negro Expression’ to ‘Black Performance’.” Black Performance Theory, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-15.

Paris, Carl. “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 99-114.