Friday, September 30, 2011

The Hurston, Dunham, and Hughes Connection: “Danse Africaine” and Black Vernacular Dance

[By Danielle Hall] 

In my research on Katherine Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston, two of the leading black female anthropologists and intellectuals of the 20th century, it often leads me to examine their similarities and/or dissimilarities, but chiefly the extent of their social networks through their correspondences and artistic productions. One of those interesting connections includes poet and writer Langston Hughes.

Although the friendship between Hurston and Hughes ended with a dispute over the play Mule Bone, in 1967, Hughes edited and published an anthology entitled The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, in which he reprinted Hurston’s short story, “Sweat” (originally published in 1926 in the first and only issue of Fire!! magazine) and Dunham’s short story Afternoon into Night (first published in 1952 in Bandwagon magazine).

Many times we often associate the term “vernacular” with dialectic writings, but for Hurston, Dunham, and Hughes, this was also associated with black dance. They each had an interest in dance, music, writing, and the development of “talking pictures” became another medium to articulate the beauty and depth of black vernacular language and black vernacular dance.

Although Hurston is seldom discussed in this context of dance culture (with the exception of recent scholarship such as Anthea Kraut’s Choreographing the Folk, which examines Hurston as choreographer in her various staging’s of The Great Day and From Sun to Sun, a revised version of The Great Day), writers would often submit their work to movie studios.

Though Hurston would not appear in film, she had worked as a story consultant for Paramount Pictures between October 1941 and January 1942. Dunham would appear in and choreograph dances for several films, including Mambo (1955), a Paramount Pictures production.

Hughes’s poem “Danse Africaine” written in 1923 would appear twenty years later in the film Stormy Weather (1943). "Danse Africaine" was set to music and accompanied with dance by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

In a previous blog I discuss a “trajectory of black aesthetic materials” that outlines the dimensions of black culture through performance strategies that traces vaudeville, Broadway, and beyond. While stereotypes of “primitive jungle dances” were popularized and exploited among white audiences, in many ways Danse Africaine with Bill Robinson and Diga Diga Do with Lena Horne offer perspectives into what black theater and cabaret life was like when we consider the assimilation of African and Afro-Caribbean dance influences being circulated into the mainstream American culture as part of a black identity spanning two decades, 1923-1943. In particular, it would be the intellectual ideas, writings, and dances of Hurston and Dunham that would ostensibly catapult a black vernacular dance tradition.

Below is a clip of the classic scene with Bill Robinson tap dancing on “drums” in the musical adaptation to Danse Africaine!

In this video below, you have Lena Horne, draped in ostrich feathers, followed by an African “ostrich dance” number, which was a trademark of musician and dancer Asadata Dafora, which became popular mainstays in black theater and film productions. Also, there are noticeable movements and isolations among the dancers that can be seen in Dunham Technique as well.

Danielle Hall is a Spoken Word poet from St. Louis, Missouri, and a second-year graduate student in the department of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she also serves as a program coordinator for the Black Studies Program and as a Fellow for the Eugene B. Redmond Collection. She writes about black women intellectuals, movements in black political and cultural history, and African American poets and film studies. This summer, she participated in the Furious Flower Poetry Center Seminar on Sonia Sanchez at James Madison University and the 28th Annual International Katherine Dunham Technique Seminar.

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