Whoa! Whiteness in Dance?

June 10, 2005

In our nation, black, white, and brown peoples inherit a mixed, shared culture. This is what makes the U.S.A. what it is. Each generation seeks new ways of dealing with old problems. American race relations in the new century are not the same as they were 100 years ago, and new ways of thinking about the problems are needed. One of these ways is the new area called “whiteness studies.” Talking about whiteness means looking at racial issues as not only a problem of color. Whiteness studies invites Americans of all ethnicities to acknowledge, in novelist Ralph Ellison’s words, “the interrelatedness of blackness and whiteness” and to conceive of “white” not as superior to other cultures and lifestyles, but as part of the whole.

“Whiteness studies:” The point of giving it this name is to show that white—or whiteness—is not the “normal” state of being, with everything else a “deviation from the norm.” Instead, it is simply one cultural stream out of many. This field is a new-kid-on-the-block addition to the cultural studies roster and was created to stand alongside women’s, African American, Asian, and Latino studies. As cultural critic Maurice Berger wrote (quoted in a recent Margo Jefferson review in The New York Times): “In mainstream American society and culture, whiteness remains an ever-present state of mind and body, a powerful norm so pervasive that it is rarely acknowledged or even named.” Berger curated an exhibit called “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art” at New York’s International Center of Photography. The exhibition and the whiteness discipline do not look at a film, a painting, or a way of dancing to say “this is definitively white.” Instead, whiteness studies looks at how our assumptions of white superiority “shape our most basic thoughts and feelings.”

What does this have to do with dance? In our field we have every opportunity to embrace a broader, more diverse way of thinking. Every form of contemporary dance, like most forms of music and visual art, is a mixed bag showing black, brown, and white influences. A whiteness outlook asks us to question whether we think ballet is a superior form. Thanks to George Balanchine and his successors like Arthur Mitchell, even ballet is no longer an exclusively white form (See “Balanchine in Black,” DM, October, 2004). But do we believe that it is inherently “better”?

In the dance field we are fortunate to have an excellent conceptual model to guide us. Back in 1969 dance anthropologist Joann Keali’inohomoku published an article titled “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” She explained in detail how the Euro-American dance world privileged ballet and modern dance over so-called “ethnic” forms, from the way publicity was handled and artists were credited (or not) to how critics wrote reviews and researchers approached documentation. We can consider Keali’inohomoku’s classic essay an example of whiteness studies before the discipline had a name.

Despite our shared cultural heritage and a great deal of cultural borrowing from one group to another, certain positions, body attitudes, ways of phrasing and ways of moving are associated with European—white—cultures, and others are associated with African cultures and other non-white cultures, worldwide. Here are a few examples:

  • European: couple dancing, with the male and female facing each other while in a quasi-embrace.
  • African and world cultures: dancing in lines, circular formations, or individually.
  • European: vertical torso alignment (sometimes rigidly so, as is seen in Irish step dancing), with limbs controlled by the erect spine. The torso can tilt or bend, but the individual parts (shoulders, rib cage, hips, and pelvis) are not articulated separately.
  • African: “dancing many drums,” or allowing the individual parts of a flexible torso (shoulders, rib cage, hips, and pelvis) to move independently. We find this quality in jazz and tap as well as in Euro-Afro dance forms such as flamenco and in world forms from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In flamenco, the arch in the upper back is exaggerated and the hips are allowed to freely respond to the tapping, percussive feet. In many other world forms the knees are bent, with torso inclined forward and buttocks tilted backwards, in what has been called a “get-down” pose by Yale University art historian Robert Farris Thompson.
  • European: pointed, lifted feet, dancing in shoes (and for ballet women, the use of pointe shoes to exaggerate this quality), and a tentative contact with the ground, so that there is a light, airy feeling. The lateral arch and pointed toe are emphasized. The characteristic quality is airborne.
  • African and world cultures and many forms of European modern dance: barefoot dancing, the foot making full contact with the ground, often with intentionally flexed feet when lifting the leg or jumping. The characteristic quality is earthy.
  • European: lyrical, rounded arms, flowing into one continuous line.
  • African and world cultures and many forms of European modern dance: angular, bent arms delineating upper arm, lower arm, and hands as separate units. This aesthetic preference is particularly evident in Southeast Asian and Indian dancing, which has a specific vocabulary of “mudras” for the hands.

These are just a few markers, but cultural exchange between people all over the world means that ballet now uses flexed feet, leg kicks that pull the hips off center (rather than carefully placed, centered battements), and African American jazzy torso moves. And African American dance forms from the Lindy to the Hustle are couple dances. Latin dance—mambo, cha-cha, rumba, samba, tango, and so on—are Afro-Euro forms defined by the coming together of black, brown, and white peoples in the Americas. African American hip hop permeates the way an entire American generation understands movement and is evident in ballets by choreographers like Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan and postmodern choreographers like Doug Elkins and Nicholas Leichter.

Examining whiteness teaches us that the myths and stereotypes of whiteness go hand in hand with the myths and stereotypes of blackness, Asianness, or any other ethnicity. One aesthetic preference is no better than another—only different. There is as much nobility and elegance in a flexed foot and bent spine as there is in its opposite, and the influences are constantly intermingling. As Robert Farris Thompson wrote, “To be white in America is to be very black. If you don’t know how black you are, you don’t know how American you are.” The “lesson plan” taught by whiteness studies for all comers, including those in dance, is that white and black/brown are two sides of the same American coin, the negative-positive of the American photograph. One cannot exist without the other.