Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall & Jean Stearns
Book Club Questions
May 21-27 Question:

Aesthetic has been a hot button topic in many blues dance communities lately. Therefore, I think it only fitting that we find a succinct description/discussion of it on pages 14-15 of our book. “The matter of style is important. While comparing films of African dancing with social dancing of the twenties and thirties, Chilkovsky, who is an expert at dance notation, found it necessary to formulate a new ‘signature,’ that is, a symbol indicating the style of movement, to distinguish both African and American dancing from the dancing of the rest of the world” (14). It’s not, then, a matter of personal choice in determining how these dances are recognized, but an aesthetic with a notation that recognizes commonalities among dances in the African diaspora. It’s further broken down into six main elements: 1 “flat-footed . . . gliding, dragging, or shuffling steps,” 2 “performed at a crouch, knees flexed and body bent at the waist,” 3 “generally imitates animals in realistic detail,” 4 “great importance upon improvisation, satirical and otherwise . . . for flexibility and aids the evolution,” 5 “centrifugal, exploding outward from the hips,” and 6 “propulsive rhythm, which gives it a swinging quality” (15).

What are your thoughts on how we as dancers define aesthetic for the various African American dances we perform? What do you think of the Stearns’ definition/description?

May 28 – June 3 Question:

What minstrel dance(s) did you find to be the most interesting in section 2? Why?

June 4 – June 10 Question:

What do you think of the system dancers and performers had to come up through in order to make it on the T.O.B.A. and elsewhere? Thoughts on the Whitman Sisters and their system and success? And finally, does anyone have thoughts on how this system as described could be similar to performance circuits today? Or has the performing world changed enough that this history isn’t so visible anymore?

June 11 – June 17 Question:

In Part 4, the Stearnses lay out the history of popular songs that gave dance instruction within them. They say, “What might be called ‘dance-songs with instructions’ indirectly aided the survival of vernacular dance because they were derived in part from folk sources and sometimes described how to perform a specific dance” (95). What did you think of these songs as described? Of the examples the Stearnses gave? Do you see these as being useful in your engagement with the dance? How so? Do you have any particular favorites for songs?

June 18 – June 24 Question:

On Broadway, white directors regularly appropriated or stole black choreographers’ work, claimed it as their own, and made a lot of money off of it. For example, Eubie Blake tells the story of their musical: “Before we left for Boston, they brought in a white dance director named Walter Brooks to give the show ‘that Broadway touch.’ . . . He got two per cent of the production, and Lawrence Deas, who had done all the work, was paid off with a small amount of cash and dropped. The same thing happened in Chocolate Dandies [1924], when Julian Mitchell got all the money and credit, while Charlie Davis did the real work” (137). How can we, as a varied group of people from all over the world, strive to end the cycle of appropriation and theft as we perform black music and dances in both blues and jazz?

June 25 – July 1

In 1933, Buddy Bradley was put in charge of all the choreography for the show “Evergreen” in London, and “as far as can be ascertained, it was the first time a Negro choreographed an entire white show and received credit for it on the program” (162). He would go on to choreograph many more plays, films, and night club performances, as well as teaching some of the most famous individuals in show business. Shown in the video below is Ken “Snakehips” Johnson dancing in the film “Oh Daddy,” choreographed by Bradley. I’d like people to share videos of choreography that they like that Bradley would have choreographed, and videos of his students dancing. What are your thoughts on Bradley’s influence on dance?

July 2 – July 8

The chapters for this week’s reading begin to cover individual dancers and their contributions to their art forms. In your opinion, how do individual dancers influence and evolve the dances they perform?

July 9 – 15

There are recordings of many of the individuals mentioned in Part Six of our book. We encourage you to go online and look for some of them. Here’s one of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to get you started:

July 16 – 22

According to the Stearns’, Earl Snakehips Tucker’s dance movements were considered too radical, even in the 60s, for a general public audience, because Tucker’s hip movements were far and away more pronounced than anything rock and roll artists were doing in the 60s. And since Tucker was alive and dancing in the Jazz Age, which was less accepting of such hip movement, consequently, the clip below is about the longest clip we have of his dancing. What classifies movements as radical today? Is it still hip movement? Would Tucker still be considered radical today with his movement? What similarities and differences are there between discussions of movement then and now?

July 23 – 29

There is a question of value that comes up in Part 9 of our book: blacks were paid less for their work, even if it was of better quality than the white performances. Also, blacks like Covan and Ruffin were so well liked, “Nobody wanted to follow them, because the audience liked [them] so much they booed any attempt to go on with the next act. So for three days the act was switched around among six or seven other acts. . . . They were fired by the Palace, promptly hired by the competing Hippodrome, and fired again after a few days—for the same reason. To the management it was the easiest solution” (Stearns 288). Would this have ever happened to a white performing duo? What inherent problems are there with labeling black performance work as “too good” to have stage time, especially when whites were copying blacks and performing similar, not as quality acts? Can you think of any good examples of this problem of value in our culture today?

July 30 – Aug 5

How do you view the Swing Era dancing, particularly the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug, as influencing the dancing done today?