By Megan Pugh
utilizing the tales of tapper invoice "Bojangles" Robinson, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, ballet and Broadway choreographer Agnes de Mille, choreographer Paul Taylor, and Michael Jackson, Megan Pugh exhibits how freedom—that nebulous, contested American ideal—emerges as a genre-defining aesthetic. In Pugh’s account, ballerinas mingle with slumming thrill-seekers, and hoedowns appear on elite opera condo levels. Steps invented through slaves on antebellum plantations captivate the British royalty and the Parisian avant-garde. Dances have been higher boundary crossers than their dancers, in spite of the fact that, and the problems of race and sophistication that hang-out daily life shadow American dance to boot. Deftly narrated, America Dancing demonstrates the centrality of dance in American paintings, lifestyles, and identification, taking us to watershed moments while the country labored out a feeling of itself via public movement.
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Extra info for America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk
Some amateur white cakewalkers even donned blackface— a sign that wearing the mask, whether literal or ﬁgurative, was central to white dancers’ enjoyment. Digging into black culture was a way for white cakewalkers to mount their own tittering rebellions. 15 Thumb through the theatrical and society pages of the 1890s, and you’ll ﬁ nd stories about the cakewalk proliferating in a dizzying whirl. Those stodgy dancing professors hadn’t a prayer of squelching the national fervor. Across the country hundreds of 20 TH E CA K E WAL K black churches and social clubs organized cakewalks as fundraisers.
That spirit is preserved in one origin story, printed in a 1903 Arizona newspaper: “At a dinner given by a wealthy plantation owner a rich negro and his wife were guests. The black pair were so inﬂated with pride at being there, and walked with so much studied ‘air’ that they attracted much attention. When the black couple had retired the host offered a prize of a cake to the man and woman giving the best imitation of the black pair’s walk. Everybody wanted to win the prize. ”9 In fact, the reverse was true.
This was a voluntary demotion: audiences tended to walk into the theater and talk through the ﬁrst number. In addition, Robinson made it a condition that George receive his full salary; Robinson took no money. Whether or not George’s blackface act changed after this, his attitude did. “I was born in the South,” he said, “and I must B I L L RO BI N SO N ’S D RE AM 47 confess to my shame that I had all the lack of respect for the Negro as a unit that the southerners have. ” That same year, in 1922, at a per for mance below the Mason-Dixon Line, three middle-aged white women hissed loudly during Robinson’s act.
America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk by Megan Pugh