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Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion.

Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion By Susan Manning. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. 2004. 296 pages. Illustrated $34.95.

The past decade has seen an explosion of new scholarship about the history of African American dance and attempts by scholars to integrate that history into traditional narratives of the dance past. Susan Manning's new book continues this effort by examining the early development of African American concert dance, emphasizing its uneasy relationship with white modern dance, which largely ignored it, and the left-wing movement, which supported its political aspirations.

Manning, the author of Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman, brings a wealth of research to her new project. She has combed the black, dance, and left-wing press and discovered a rich cache of material in the Works Progress Administration archives.

Many of her assertions me bound to stir controversy. Especially problematic is her use of the phrase "metaphorical minstrelsy" to describe the personification of non-white subjects by white modern dancers of the 1930s, as exemplified by Helen Tamiris and Ted Shawn in their dances to spirituals. This idea, inspired by currently fashionable "whiteness" studies, raises more problems than it illuminates. How is "metaphorical minstrelsy" different for example, from dancers impersonating swans or victims of the Spanish civil war? Tamiris was a committed radical with a history of supporting black artists. Manning, however, contends that the left betrayed the "Negro dance" because it condoned while dancers representing black experience. Yet, as her own evidence shows, the left provided "not only production opportunities but also platforms for advocacy" for African American dancers.

"Metaphorical minstrelsy" disappeared in the 1940s, when modern dance choreographers embraced what Manning calls "mythic abstraction." By this she means mythic dramas such as Martha Graham's "Greek" works or abstract dances by choreographers like Merce Cunningham. Manning calls these works "stagings of whiteness," meaning that the subject and the dancers are considered white, even when, as in the postwar Graham company, they were increasingly African and Asian American.

During the 1940s and 1930s, performance opportunities for African American dancers grew, along with audiences. Manning attributes this "acceptance of black self-representation" solely to the decline of metaphorical minstrelsy and the rise of mythic abstraction. Yet the growing numbers of African American modern dancers reflected far more the popularity of Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus and the commitment to training black performers by organizations like the New Dance Group, which retained a progressive orientation throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Manning all but ignores the links among "Negro dance," African American vernacular dance, and African American popular entertainment. Her grasp of the larger political context is uneven.

Still, Modern Dance, Negro Dance is a serious and important book. Even if it doesn't answer all the questions it raises--and indeed sometimes asks the wrong questions--it challenges the reader to think differently about the past and the racism that has shaped it.
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Author:Garafola, Lynn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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