Q&A with Christopher J. Smith, author of Dancing Revolution

Christopher J. Smith is a professor, chair of musicology, and founding director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music. He is the author of the award-winning book The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy. He recently answered some questions about his new book, Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History

Q: Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History explores how street music and dance have acted as tools of socio-political resistance for marginalized groups to claim or contest public space in North American and Caribbean history. What led you to explore this topic?

Well, initially there were two reasons I was particularly interested in a book-length study of dance as political resistance in North American and Caribbean history.

The first is that I’ve been a dance musician for almost fifty years, everywhere from nightclub stages to ballet studios arena rock concerts, and I’ve politically active for nearly as long: my mother took me to hear Dr King speak in Lynn Massachusetts in my stroller. Dancers and dance makers have been some of the central creative influences in my life, and “the political”—the social and cultural decisions people make to try to improve their lives—has been a driving force in my own arc as a scholar. So thinking about dance as politics was an intuitive and natural fit—it felt like bringing two central themes in my life together.

The second is that, in working on my prior study The Creolization of American Culture for Illinois, I had developed a set of tools for reading about and looking at images of movement, in order to recover the performance practice and sound implicit in those depictions. I wanted to apply those tools across a wider selection of historical “moments” around dance, particularly dance as resistance, throughout North American history. I had this intuition that, outside of certain specialized literatures, or event-specific analysis, movement in North America hadn’t received the kind of expansive, multi-moment study I thought I might merit.

Q: How did “hellfire” preachers of the evangelical great awakening utilize movement to convey their message?

That era of the First Great Awakening in the middle of the 18th century is a particularly interesting case, not least because of the ways it shaped or resonates in later manifestations of populist activism. It emerges as a result of the evangelical revolution of Jonathan Edwards (d1758), George Whitfield (d1770), and their contemporaries, as an injection of intense psycho-emotional subjective expression into doctrinal Protestant worship. Edwards and Whitfield espoused a personalized and theatrical style of sermonizing, but a few of their disciples and followers, most notably the radical activist James Davenport (d1757) took that personalized intensity still further, and actually promulgated the idea of moving bodies through public spaces as a form of protest—running through the streets, invading Anglican churches, burning tracts on the Connecticut wharves, for example. In that sense, the moving bodies of the crowds at Davenport’s public sermons, and of the Cumberland Revivals in Kentucky right around 1800, are a kind of “massed dance,” flowing through and Occupying spaces in ways that would recur at later historical moments throughout American history, including the Sons of Liberty in the Revolution, labor activists in the 1910s, anti-war protesters in the 1960s, and gay- and women’s-rights protesters in the 1970s.

Q: Why did theater become a platform for revolutionary movement in the English Caribbean?

Popular theater has always provided a forum in which contemporary social conflicts, including subaltern resistance, could be acted-out, ritualized and thus tamed. Idioms like the ballad operas of the 18th century (I am thinking especially of subversive comic pieces like The Beggar’s Opera in the 1720s and ‘30s) and blackface minstrelsy in the 19th provided a means of brutally caricaturing social groups like the poor and various ethnic minorities, but also a “mask” from behind which social and political critiques could be rendered. Theater—especially theater like commedia dell’arte, blackface, and drag—has always been a site for gaming-out social anxieties, especially middle-class ones. So enacting characters like Obi or Three Finger’d Jack or Blackbeard Teach, or fraught social rituals like vodou or a slave market, on stage, was a way of both titillating an audience’s exoticist voyeurism, and also symbolically “scripting” ways for those narrative arcs to play out reassuringly. Especially in the Age of Revolutions, circa 1775-1803, when France, England, the American Colonies, and Haiti all experienced revolutionary moments, middle-class audiences and the playwrights who catered to them had a powerful desire to theatrically depict and thus control revolutionary impulses. And of course, street theater is simultaneously a source of subaltern resistance, all the way down to the Diggers in 1960s San Francisco and Act Up! In the 1980s.

Q: What are some of the ways that noise serves as a counterpoint to dance as a tool of resistance?

Noise, like movement, is a temporal, temporary, mobile, and slippery phenomenon. Subversive “noise” in public spaces—whether the “iron bands” of 19th century New Orleans, the boomboxes of 1970s hip hop culture, the horns of Haitian rara and the chants of Mardi Gras Indians, the vuvuzelas of modern Olympic competitions, or the drumming and chanting of Occupy movements—has been a means for people who otherwise lacked social power to take over those spaces sonically, if only temporarily, and in a fashion that could slip away from dominant-culture control. It’s no coincidence that so many different kinds of street protest, all the way from the Sons of Liberty in the American Revolution to B-boys in the Bronx in the 1970s, have used both group movement and group noise as a way to temporarily contest public space.

Q: In chapter 7, you discuss the blackface comedy and tap-dance sequences in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). How does Spike Lee use dance in the film to manipulate the “blackface mask”?

Throughout his career, Spike has head-on confronted the interplay of race, class, and popular culture, and music and movement have been some of his most powerful tools—especially the music of the great Terrence Blanchard. From Radio Raheem’s boom box in Do the Right Thing (in 1989), to the jazz stylings in Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and the jitterbug sequences in Malcolm X (1992), Spike has understood that, in the African American traditions, music and movement have been tools of resistance. Bamboozled (2000) confronts the racist imagery, costume, movement, and—most challengingly and shockingly—the literal blackface makeup associated with 19th century minstrelsy. What’s so powerful about the TV sound-stage blackface performances at the core of Bamboozled is that Spike puts it right in our faces: he captures both the heartbreak of minstrelsy’s racism, and also the ferocious creativity which burst through those caricatures. Comedian Tommy Davidson and dancer Savion Glover, as the twin leads and the central performers in those sequences, embody that heartbreak and ferocity. For me, as a viewer and historian, it’s Spike’s most powerful film.

Q: In what contemporary movements has participatory dance played a role?

To an extent, that depends on how we define “movement.” Even if we employ a more limited definition—say, “that which is recognized and understood as ‘dance,”—then everything from conscious hip hop to drag performance to the women spontaneously dancing onstage with Sir Mix-A-Lot to “Baby Got Back,” all quite intentionally use the body in a way that challenges dominant-culture control. And, if we employ the more expansive definition that I prefer, to include “bodies moving through physical and cognitive space,” then street demonstrations like the Arab Spring and Occupy New York, the megaphones and chants of International Women’s Day and anti-fascist protests, and—an example I find especially powerful and courageous—the women posting videos of themselves dancing in public in fundamentalist theocracies: these are all examples of dance as resistance. In all these cases, movement is an expression of independence, awareness, personal conviction, and “bodies on the line,” in the service of freeing the imagination.


Author portrait by Tif Holmes www.tifholmes.com


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