Two Shoes, Same Foot: Vernacular Dance & Concert Dance

To read Part 2 of Emily Oleson’s commentary on vernacular and concert dance, click here.

By Emily Oleson

vernacular: adj. “something native and homegrown.” – Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance, The Story of American Vernacular Dance (Da Capo Press)

However you define them, I love both “vernacular dance” and “concert dance.” “Vernacular” dances are often described as being social and improvisational, and I do love to go out and dance socially: Swing dances, tango dances, Salsa bars, clubs with DJs spinning house or hip-hop music, tap jams, contra dances, square dances, Moldovan circle dances, parties with Irish set dancing in a tiny kitchen, parties with contact improv in a spacious living room, parties with flatfooting on a rickety porch, and festivals where all of these things might happen within the same weekend. These “vernacular” dances are often described as being both social and improvisational.

I find that going to formal dance classes also provides a lot of my regular social interaction. Though I wouldn’t call these classes “vernacular” dance experiences, they regularly have improvisational components. The modern dance class, popping, B-girling, and West African classes I take all often include sharing movement in a circle or small group.

I also love performing, and not just “in concert,” although I have been drawn to the theater since I was a young child. I love the luxurious sets and lights of Pina Bausch and the Royal Ballet. I love stark black box theaters, warehouses, and galleries. And I love a cafeteria lecture-demonstration under naked fluorescent bulbs. When dance became my academic focus in college, some of these experiences moved to the foreground in my course work, while others were scarcely addressed. Outside of school, I sought dance traditions that were not available at my university.

In both my undergraduate and graduate programs, it became obvious to me that some dances weren’t as highly prioritized in Dance Departments as Ballet and Modern Dance. I know. Try to contain your shock. The surprising thing to me is that most people don’t seem to be taken aback by this fact. They are surprised by the fact that I find the situation remarkable. After all, dance departments in universities are making Art. There are plenty of realms for “commercial” dance and social dance, and if they want to be represented in the Academy they could start their own programs, right? After getting this answer on several occasions, I found this attitude increasingly problematic for me, and I have started to sort out why.

When I read “Simmering Passivity: The Black Male Body in Concert Dance” by Thomas DeFrantz (in Gay Morris’s Moving Words: Re-Writing Dance [Routledge]), for my coursework, one particular question arose for me, perhaps not the one intended by the author: How do we define “concert dance”? As I tried to internalize DeFrantz’s points about masculinity in the early 20th century, my lack of resignation to this category “concert dance” sabotaged the entire conversation for me.

Here is the quote that tripped me up:

Black men entered the concert dance arena in the late 1920s, and the earliest dances they performed were aligned with modernism in terms of theme, conception, and technique. (p. 342)

By the time I read this, I had spent a significant portion of my research focusing on early tap and vernacular jazz. I was attempting to form a broad conceptualization of American vernacular dance so that it could stretch all the way from “old-time” Appalachian flatfooting to contemporary urban street dances. I found the above statement curious. What about well-known black dancers who lived, worked and gained national notoriety before the late 1920s? Apparently, their work is not considered “concert dance.” That idea made me uncomfortable.

After all, what is wrong with another category, another label? Talking about tango I don’t feel irritated by people calling it a “social dance” and wouldn’t argue that it be called anything else, like “concert dance” – but what about when it is done in concert? Is it a different dance?

William Henry Lane, Concert Dancer

The first African American male dance celebrity in the United States might be considered William Henry Lane (ca. 1825-ca. 1852), best known as Master Juba. (The first dance celebrity in the U.S. was white hornpipe dancer John Durang born in 1768.) Why is Lane not considered a member of the concert dance tradition? He, like Durang, was a performer in blackface minstrel shows. For a long time, and somewhat understandably so, blackface minstrelsy has been considered a chapter in American popular culture best left forgotten. I certainly don’t remember learning anything about it in my undergraduate dance history or theater classes.

Modern dance pioneers – artists that DeFrantz would group in the concert dance category – wanted to make a break with many popular aesthetic choices in the early 20th century, perhaps partly the de-humanizing ubiquity of blackface performance. Understandable. The question here is: Is it useful for us to look at “concert dance” as a category of performance now? What if that category excludes large numbers of artists and performances before the 20th century, including black men (not to mention women) until the late 1920s?

The fact is that there was a lot of dance, much of it percussive, happening in performances in the United States before the 1920s. On vaudeville stages, and before that in music halls, burlesques, circuses, dime museums and minstrel shows, plenty of dancing was happening. The way in which it was happening – in blackface – is a little embarrassing to recall today. (That’s an understatement.)

It’s easy to recognize and condemn intense and open discrimination, instances like P.T. Barnum’s travelling circuses, where black artists had to perform in a “side tent” and were not allowed under the big top. This was how William Henry Lane got his start. It’s also easy to see how artists who broke with these conventions wanted to be situated in a far different category. But what about the performers who stayed within these structures and undermined prejudice by breaking the rules about where and how African Americans could perform? Performers like William Henry Lane, Bill Robinson, and Bert Williams helped lay the groundwork for Hemsley Winfield, who, as founder of the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group, DeFrantz cites as the first black male concert dance choreographer. However terrible the racial climate was toward black men in the United States before the 1920s, is it an improvement for us to overlook these artists and their work entirely today?

So what are the parameters for “concert dance”? Is it just dance on the proscenium stage, as opposed to spontaneous dance outside, or formal competitive events? That parameter is not enough to exclude certain artists or genres. Nor can I find a good reason if I make my own attempt to distinguish “concert dance” as unique. In her 2010 book Tap Dancing America (Oxford University Press), Constance Valis Hill’s quick sketch of vernacular dancer William Henry Lane might fit all of the potential qualifiers that come readily to my mind.

Does concert dance happen in a concert hall? Lane performed in theaters and halls across the United States. Does “concert dance” imply some level of professional commitment or success? Lane toured internationally, receiving top billing over the name of his (all white) minstrel troupe, an unprecedented achievement. Does “concert dance” suggest some level of peer review or development of craft? Lane successfully studied and impersonated all of the other minstrel dancers in his field. He performed his impressions so perfectly that he was pronounced “King of Dancers” by those peers and rivals. Is it dance in formal costume instead of everyday clothes? In challenge dances and performances in the mid-19th century, dancers often dressed up to the extent they could afford to, wearing special boots or buckles on their shoes. One of the few depictions of Lane shows him wearing a dress coat and shiny boots. Clown and buffoon characters abounded in blackface minstrelsy, but while he did wear the cork mask like his contemporaries, Lane does not necessarily seem to have been a buffoon. Does “concert dance” reflect on the audience more than the performers, requiring discriminating patrons of the arts and critics to seriously review the work? Lane performed for Queen Victoria without the blackface makeup required in the United States and he was reviewed by the Theatrical Times, which said there was “an ideality in what he does that makes his efforts . . . poetical . . .” (Hill, 12). Without clearer parameters, Does “concert dance” seem like something that white socio-economic elitism has been advocating for 80 years out of a latent imperialist arrogance?  . . . . Um, kinda. That sounds harsh. But Master Juba — William Henry Lane — appeared at least 75 years before the 1920s; why is he excluded from a discussion of concert dance?does “concert dance” seem like something that white socio-economic elitism has been advocating for 80 years out of a latent imperialist arrogance?  . . . . Um, kinda. That sounds harsh. But Lane appeared at least 75 years before the 1920s; why is he excluded from a discussion of concert dance?

It is my impression that concert dance is used as a synonym for “art dance” and that art dance is used as a synonym for modern (and, of course, post-modern) dance, and sometimes ballet. I would like to see concert dance defined as a category or genre that might include William Henry Lane.

Does minstrelsy make us all feel ashamed? Yes. So why should we talk about it? Is it dangerous to ignore minstrelsy and exclude it from a look at the concert stage? It is. The reason is because the concert stage and the dancers associated with it were not actually completely separate from blackface performance in the United States. “Concert dancers” made a break with commercial performance to some extent, and many were socially progressive and fought for Civil Rights later in the 20th century; but they grew up and worked in an incredibly racist society and their transition away from popular entertainment forms and venues was gradual; vestiges of pop culture remained within and continued to inspire their “high art.”

Emily Oleson holds an M.F.A. in Dance at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the co-director of Good Foot Dance Company. Her evening-length show Vaudevival: Old is the new New came out of her affiliation with various dance communities including the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.V., the DC Tapfest, Ann Kilkelly in Blacksburg, Va., and Urban Artistry in Washington, D.C. and many others. 


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