‘Tis the season of many a nog-fueled party, which means ‘tis also the season that Flo from finance attempts to whip and/or nae-nae in front of the whole staff. It might not look like it at first glance (or wince), but with every step she takes, she’s advancing a rich American tradition. (As well as a potential situation with HR.)
To call ourselves the land of a thousand dances would be to lowball a long history of crazes, sensations, and other things that “everybody's doin.’ ” The ways America moves its respective bodies are subject to sweeping, frequent, and controversial change, but the spirit that moves us emerges from something like a shared system of core values.
By nature, dance is a reflection of our freedoms and our constraints, our limits and our dreams; but what is it, as Megan Pugh asks with “America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk,’’ that makes a dance American?
Among other things, she suggests, an American dance “should be welcoming, strong, beautiful, and free.” The ballet impresario Lincoln Kerstein once specified it should be “frank, open, fresh, and friendly.” Pugh choreographs a procession of characters who trace and one-up each other’s steps — not unlike the cakewalks where she kicks off. Pugh’s dance card hews closest to those dances and dancers who best exemplified (with occasional lapses — looking at you, Fred Astaire in blackface) the multiplicity that any true Americanism must embody.
Pugh charts the history of popular dance, starting with the Virginia Jigs of the first slaves (which were swiftly ripped off by their white masters), through the elaborate and wildly popular cakewalks of the next century (also appropriated by whites via vaudeville and later, every end of popular culture), and beyond. She bounds from Fred and Ginger’s association-loaded balancing act between tap and ballet to Agnes de Mille's “mingling of black and white, urban and rural styles” (not least among them square dancing), and Paul Taylor’s fitful investigations of “how we come together and fall apart.” She examines the social commentary coded into every twitch of the robot and trails the converging origin stories of the moonwalk, which has roots “in the same mongrel mix as tap dance, on nineteenth-century minstrel stages,” (specifically, she adds, as “an offshoot of the slow-shuffling Virginia Essence), as well as the “illusion dancing” moonwalker extraordinaire Michael Jackson marveled to spot in the streets of Harlem.
To pull off this performance, Pugh executes some fancy footwork of her own; and like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taking flight up a flight of stairs (and back down again), Pugh nimbly keeps step with a chronology that’s given to doubling back abruptly and leaping forward. The history of American dance is a centuries-long push and pull between “imitation and adaptation,” appreciation and appropriation, theft and homage.
And as simple as some of the steps may seem, things can get complicated very quickly. Take the case of the cakewalk itself; when it became the first American dance craze at the turn of the 20th century, “[a]mateur white European cakewalkers were imitating professional black American cakewalkers, who were imitating white minstrel cakewalkers imitating black slaves imitating their masters, who were unable to recognize they were being mocked.”
Like any language, dance is loaded with ironies, double meanings, and associations both muted and blaring. A poet herself, Pugh is especially attuned to the many ways meaning can encase other meanings and histories other histories. And she doesn’t keep the two disciplines far apart, using meter and rhyme as a way to illustrate freedom within constraints, and citing the poems of Frank O’Hara as an aid in approaching Paul Taylor — in particular some lines from his poem “Dances Before the Wall” that sweep, leap, and pivot like Taylor himself: “Midi/ Garth goes tearing down the aisle towards Fred/ Herko while Sybil Shearer swoons in the balcony/ which is like a box when she’s in it and Paul/ Taylor tell Bob Rauschenberg it’s on fire/ and Bob Rauschenberg says what’s on fire.”
Pugh keenly translates a silent dialogue that has been unfolding across stages for decades, but not by putting words in anyone’s mouth. She brings what can only be called a dancerly understanding to who is leading and who is following, and how, as she observes in discussing Taylor, the “body is always telling you something, even if it doesn't mean to.”
How we dance can be a revelation of who we are as Americans. And it has changed — from the intimate cabarets where Vernon and Irene Castle would rise from their chairs to dazzle diners with their sanitized ragtime, to the revolutionary power of “Soul Train,” where “politics and pop got down together.” Pugh keeps steady footing from start to finish, even as “America keeps shifting beneath Americans’ feet.”
By Megan Pugh
Yale University, 398 pp., $32.50Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.