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Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performance of

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Brianna Johnson

on 20 October 2015

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Transcript of Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performance of

Overview of Article
Author’s objective:
“... I hope to challenge existing artistic categories that too often separate "concert dance" artists like Dunham from "folk" artists like Hurston and "entertainers" like Baker, as well as to highlight historical developments in the theatrical conventions surrounding black dancing bodies.”

What is Diaspora and Primitivism ?
-the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.
Shift from blackness from primitivism to a diaspora
In the 20s, 30s, and 40s Anthropoligists began to offer a contrasting view to the status quo due to people like Franz Boas, Melville Herskovits(social scientist and father of American Anthropology), as well as Hurston and Dunham

Josephine Baker
The Entertainer
Josephine Baker cont...
Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performance of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham
by: Anthea Kraut

Zora Neale Hurston
The author of
Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Hurston is celebrated for her ability to adapt non-literate folk traditions to literary forms and for her embracing of the black vernacular culture of the rural South” - Kraut

” - described the critical construction of her as the signifier of folk and foremother of black women’s literary tradition

Zora Neale Hurston cont...
Went to the Bahamas & Southern U.S. and did anthropological research to assemble performers for a series of concerts consisting of folk songs, dances, and pantomime.
First folk concert:
The Great Day
Presented black diasporic folk dance - help black vernacular dance terminology to stray away from racist views while moving toward a better understanding of how African-derived dance arrived to America

Brought Caribbean Fire Dance to St. Louis in 1934 for First National Folk Festival
Caribbean Fire Dance
Great examples of the spirit of the native rites for the people in the Bahamas
“Dressed in bizarre and rather scanty costumes … the ten Negroes in Miss Hurston’s group danced and yelled in primitive fashion, such as is read about in books but rarely seen in life, while a tom-tom throbbed with a jungle rhythm” - St. Louis Globe Democrat (Kraut)
Unique embodiment of blackness
Blacks and whites labeled Hurston’s concert as “primitive”
She noticed the difficulties of conveying the diasporic elements to the audience
The Great Day
Cotton Club
Katherine Dunham
These works depicted the transformation of black dance forms as they moved from the Caribbean to the United States.

By: Thanh Tran, Ashleigh Footman, Brianna Johnson,
David Pratt, Kaitlyn McNeill & LaToya Martin

Katherine Dunham cont...
Discussion Questions
"Her choreography was serving the important function of familiarizing North Americans with the African survivals in "New World Negro dance."
1. Do you agree with Anthea Kraut that Hurston’s work should be viewed as ? Explain.

2. Is “urban” the modern day “primitive”? - Are the negative connotations attached to urban now as they were attached to primitive back then?
3. In your opinion, is there anything that is “exotic,” and why is this?
4. In what ways has diaspora affected culture?
Opened in 1923, on 142nd St. and Lenox Avenue

Became a hot spot for the Harlem Renaissance
All black performers with predominantly white audience

Featured artist like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and the dancers from the fire dance

It is unclear if the club did much more than fill people’s hunger for the “exotic.”
Club closed was closed in February 1935 and was not reopened until September 1936

The Great Day
was Hurston’s first performed African folk dance in which she rehearsed, directed, produced, and performed

It premiered on Sunday, January 10, 1932 at the John Golden Theatre in New York
The performance was based on four years of anthropological research in the Southern United States and the Bahamas and traced a day in the life of a railroad work camp, from daybreak until dusk
The dance was propelled by “her desire to communicate black culture forms to a broad public”
Hurston continued to perform the dance over many years, presenting it in slightly different versions and under various titles although it always included the final climactic finale of a Caribbean Fire Dance.
They documented the survival of African cultural traditions in the New World
The term black diaspora was coined for the latter half of the twentieth century by Brent Hayes Edwards due to the pronouncement of African values and metamorphosis in the United States

In the 1990s, Paul Gilroy helped to create a new transnational vantage of black identity, one that “focuses not only on African roots and cultural continuities, but also on the routes, ruptures, and cross cultural exchanges that are equally constitutive of the black diaspora.”

Paradigm shift from primitivism to diaspora thus had profound consequences for conceptions of blackness in the last century.
Pioneer of Black concert dance movement

Went to the Caribbean during the 1930s for anthropological work

New York debut in 1937 in “Negro Dance Evening”
organized by a group of African American choreographers to establish “Negro Dance” as a serious artistic genre
4 Sections: Africa, West Indies, United States, & Modern Trends

Tropical Revue
- 1943
Bal Negre
- 1946
Caribbean Rhapsody
- 1950
L'Ag'Ya (1938) was a fusion of diasporic folk idioms and ballet technique that also invoked both Afrocentricity and hybridization
Dunham's concerts reached broad audiences and had major impact on their perceptions of black dance.
"[N]ever before in all the efforts of recent years to establish the Negro dance as a serious medium," wrote New York Times critic John Martin in a review of one of her early concerts, "has there been so convincing and authoritative an approach."

Still faced the challenges of primitivism
"Extolling the "singularly exotic character" of her presentation of Haitian dances, a Chicago critic explained that the "impassive faces and motions of the dancers provided a more vivid description than words ever could of the very essence of mysterious primitive humanity."

John Perpener writes, "The fact that a woman, especially a black woman?who was invited to lecture at universities and anthropological societies could, at the same time, present a sensuous, glamorous image on Broadway stages and in Hollywood films sent writers into fits of journalistic ecstasy."
a. belief in the superiority of a simple way of life close to nature
b. belief in the superiority of nonindustrial society to that of the present
With her career developing largely overseas, Josephine Baker was still an ubiquitous icon in the United States
She had many years of dance training starting from her childhood in St. Louis; her touring work with the vaudeville troupe the Dixie Steppers; her role as the chorus girl in Noble Sissle’s and Eubie Blake’s Broadway hit Shuffle Along
She built up a repertory of moves including the Charleston, Black Bottom,Mess Around Shimmy,Tack Annie, and a distinctive knack for crossing her eyes
Baker developed ways to distance herself from conventional black dancers
Many factors were used in trying to determine the meaning of Bakers dances: from the mind-sets and fantasy of the spectators, to the particular dynamics of her own style, to the manifold theatrical settings that framed her dancing body

The dominant narrative that enveloped Baker’s dance performances was the encounter between primitives and civilization
Baker’s deeply rooted African American vernacular dance traditions allowed critics like Andre Levinson to declare Baker to be “ an extraordinary creature of simian suppleness,” exhibiting “wild splendor and magnificent animality.”
In 1925 Baker’s performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was concerned that her dancing was not African enough, Baker masked the dance style of the American jazz tradition by “playing up the image of herself as a natural”
By 1931 her Americanness had faded and she was nominated Queen of the Colonial Exposition. Wearing her now infamous banana skirt
She became the symbol of black women and all colonized women
Her black vernacular dance practices were the repositories for African retentions and transformations
Baker never directed or produced any of the shows she was in and she had choreographers bought in to choreograph for her; however, Baker always seemed to forget the steps she had been taught and would end up performing her own moves.
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