Rant & Rave: What's in a Name?

January 16, 2008

…And while we are on the subject of Black History Month, there is something I would like to get off my chest. We are well into the first decade of the new millennium; the Internet has effectively shrunk the world to the size of a marble by placing information at the fingertips, and as a nation we are closer than ever to having a woman or an African American as president. Yet we are still practicing segregated cultural recognition. Sub rosa the racist ideology of the “majority and the other” is alive and active. Ubiquitous in all facets of American culture, in the dance world it surfaces in the irksome label “black dance”—the sound alone makes my teeth itch. I feel it’s time to eradicate this troublesome term from our vocabulary.

While it might seem benign, an expression solely descriptive of race, the term is problematic in regard to racial social politics as well as artistic equality. The genesis of the term is as nebulous as the work it seeks to define. What is certain is that the moniker was not chosen by artists whose work it seeks to identify, but was a branding by others as a classification, one that pigeonholed the artists and their work as something “other than.” Ironically the term is not linked to an ethnically-based technique (African, Indian, Balinese) but rather to a racial segment of the American culture. Paradoxically, the majority of “black dance” choreographers work in modern techniques created by westerners of European descent (Graham, Horton, Cunningham), transforming it stylistically.

No doubt the social landscape of the country was ripe for the questionable labeling. We were—nay, are—a nation divided by race and racism. Where the Civil Rights movement begot legislation that legally abolished apartheid, integrating the public school system, neighborhoods, and commerce, it did not transform the heart of the nation.

“Black dance” is a term that sets the doers apart as separate and unequal in artistic validity. Many African American choreographers, in telling their cultural stories through dance, often favor narrative as opposed to formalistic concerns (Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle) hence earning, perhaps unduly,  the perception of lacking conceptual rigor and abstraction—unlike Merce Cunningham’s spatial games and dances about nothing. But what of Ralph Lemon, Gus Solomons jr, Bill T. Jones, Ulysses Dove, Garth Fagan, Donald Byrd, and Alonzo King, whose works have a broad base of subject matter, abstraction, and diversity in techniques and aesthetics? Not to mention they also choreograph on nonblack bodies and companies. The work created by African Americans is too diverse to be compartmentalized and uniformly labeled. What of Katherine Dunham, Blondell Cummings, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Ronald K. Brown? It’s insulting. In the words of Aretha Franklin,  “Just a little bit: R-e-s-p-e-c-t!”

The dictators of the edict are essentially the makers and breakers of careers: funders, critics, journalists, and presenters. Those in power oversimplify the subject matter of African American choreographers and companies who work within a certain tradition. They devalue the work, creating another level of separatism between them and those whose aesthetic is closer to that of “white dance”—or should I say, “dance” as we don’t have such a term. It is narrow-minded and culturally elitist.

So what’s the solution? The dance world is a micro culture within the larger, macro culture. As a community, it has the power to govern itself. We need a Neighborhood Watch that will not tolerate artistic compartmentalization, an intervention that works to integrate the world of dance. As a community we should insist on an open dialogue that takes critics and journalists to task. I am calling for the dance world to bring a case akin to Brown v. Board of Education against the perpetuators of the term. The docket should read: Joan Myers Brown and Philadanco v. The Canon of Modern Dance!

We needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Dance companies founded by African American artists, like Philadanco, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, can firmly stand in The Black Tradition in American Dance (to borrow the title of the historic book by Richard A. Long). They needn’t eradicate or camouflage their ethnicity: “Say it loud, we’re black and we’re proud!” However that identification shouldn’t cast a shadow on their artistry, and beauty should be revered regardless of race. Perhaps then the harbinger that is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a global company with dancers from the four corners of the world and a diverse repertoire that sets a standard, will not stand so far apart from its sisters. For these companies are not separate, just equal.

Theresa Ruth Howard, a former dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Armitage Gone! Dance, teaches at The Ailey School and internationally.