For Andrew Avilá, the dancer I met at A Party Called Rosie Perez, one form of movement galvanized the other: Initially paralyzed by pandemic despair, he recovered his desire to dance last summer, when he “marched the whole city” to protest police violence. It was a relief “to scream in the street and sweat” with strangers, to tune in to the pulse that precedes any choreography. Around the same time, D.J.s dropped beats below a viral video of a woman named Johnniqua Charles, popping her hip at a security guard who had her in handcuffs and wouldn’t let her back inside the club to collect her purse. She freestyled, half talking and half rapping through the injustice of her predicament, until she locked into a persuasive rhythm, a hook worth repeating: “You about to lose yo job.” In response to the nationwide protests, a few authorities were in fact placed on administrative leave. But the energy embodied by Charles aimed far beyond modest reforms. Her song-and-dance asserted a fundamental claim to freedom of movement: Even if she was not permitted to move from here to there, she would keep moving, ingeniously, right where she was.
The marketplace is eager to appropriate and subdue this kind of anarchic energy. No one owns tango or twerking, but plenty of well-positioned people have found fame and fortune quoting the dances of the underclass out of context. Jayna Brown, an African American studies scholar at Pratt, has chronicled the history of this dynamic in America’s clubs and cabarets. In her book “Babylon Girls,” she shows how the American vaudevillian Ruth St. Denis, often considered a mother of modern dance, built her reputation by adapting carnivalesque fantasies of Egyptian and Indian movement to the turn-of-the-century stage. Irene Castle, another white dancer who came up through vaudeville, established a lucrative business in the Roaring ’20s translating dances she learned from Harlem chorus girls like Ethel Williams for high-society parties. At midcentury, the Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda was the favored emissary of Afro-Brazilian samba. “With a few exceptions,” Brown writes, Black dancers “had to work behind the scenes.”
It can be hard to admit that we sometimes need to be taught how to treat our own bodies, and the bodies of others, with curiosity, courage and tenderness.
But the visibility afforded by contemporary technology hasn’t really solved the problem of credit and remuneration. In late June, a group of TikTok’s Black dancers — which grew to include Challan Trishann, Erick Louis and Marcus Greggory — called for a creative strike organized around Megan Thee Stallion’s latest single. They were tired of watching the dances they invented go viral via white influencers who usually failed to credit them as choreographers. But with key dancers sitting this round out, copycats struggled to come up with any choreography at all, despite the song’s clear directions: hands on my knees shakin’ ass. The strike made it very clear who was driving innovation on the app. Matthew D. Morrison, a musicologist at N.Y.U., analyzed these digital developments in real time on Twitter: “Yes, of course, people have been watching Black folks dance since they forced us over here as captives on slave ships, to the invention of the TV, etc., but social media provides a wholly different level of access and possibilities than before.” An almost frictionless experience.
The “social” in social media is not the same as the “social” in social dancing. Online, there’s no face-to-face accountability. The real-world encounter once required outsiders and amateurs to risk embarrassment. Even Irene Castle had to let Ethel Williams see her sweat. The dance floor cannot be mastered like a phrase of choreography; improvisation demands something more than imitation.
It can be hard to admit that we sometimes need to be taught how to treat our own bodies, and the bodies of others, with curiosity, courage and tenderness. The conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who was raised among upper-middle-class Black Americans in Washington Heights, had this in mind when she designed “Funk Lessons: A Collaborative Experiment in Cross-Cultural Transfusion.” Between 1982 and 1984, she toured the country teaching large groups how to “GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.” Later, she chronicled the experience in her essay “Notes on Funk.” Like Dunham and Kincaid, Piper found that her peers in the avant-garde elite had trouble squaring her formidable intellect — she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard — with her unwavering commitment to Black popular culture. But her experience as a “go-go girl” and her lifelong study of rhythm and blues was an equally rigorous education.
She began by “demonstrating some basic moves,” and then, with the audience along for the ride, “rehearsing, internalizing, rerehearsing and improvising on them.” Now and then, she introduced bits of musical history and political context. When the collaboration was successful, what she purported to teach her audience “was revealed to be a kind of fundamental sensory ‘knowledge’ that everyone has and can use.” But even when it was less successful, the experience provided a holding environment for the ugly feelings sometimes provoked by social dancing: “annoyance, self-consciousness, embarrassment, resentment, contempt, shame,” all the interpersonal funk we usually try to avoid or scrub clean.