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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Dance

Continuation and the Break: Notes on Black Lives and Tap Dance

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the Hot Mikado.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the Hot Mikado.

During the early months of the pandemic, my studio was a carriage house-turned-garage in Central Falls, behind the Rhode Island Latino Arts cultural center. I’d drive over from Providence. I’d sanitize the doorknobs and light switches and let outside air into the musty space. I’d take off my sneakers, then start to half-walk, half-dance among chairs and boards, feeling the give of the raised floor we installed there, noticing where the underlying planks were, where the sound turned more hollow or resonant.

I’d put on my tap shoes—soft beaten leather with hard soles and four pieces of metal underneath, one for each ball of the foot and one for each heel.

*

George Floyd was murdered by police officers on May 25, 2020. May 25 is National Tap Dance Day, the birthday of the legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

*

In the tap dance community, we hold up Bill Robinson as our form’s founding father. Though the way people tap dance now is probably more directly influenced by the dancing of John Bubbles, Bill Robinson’s younger contemporary known for “dropping his heels” to create more complex, syncopated rhythms, it’s Robinson who seems to hold up the whole architecture of tap dance in the 20th century.

His dancing was virtuosic, magnetic; it had a quality of apparent seamlessness. Like listening to a stream, I feel my head grow clearer inside the open vibration and breath of his swing. His ability to communicate beauty and power through the confines of white frames of perception is staggering.

Poet Langston Hughes celebrated Robinson’s delicate, polished expression, his ability to create “little running trills of rippling softness or terrific syncopated rolls of mounting sound, rollicking little nuances of tap-tap-toe, or staccato runs like a series of gun-shots.”1

*

A little tap dance light in the pandemic—with the performance industry shut down, my gigs canceled or postponed, and the company I dance with in Boston not rehearsing—was a series of Zoom workshops I took with Marshall Davis called “Basic Tap Dance for the Advanced Mind.”

In Marshall’s class, we worked with only four rudiments: a brush, a spank, a step, and a heel. On Wednesday evenings from May to July, we worked with these basic building blocks, reversing and recombining them, lifting out of them specific accents and rhythms, situating them in different contexts of time and feel.

Marshall invited us to listen to a rhythm as a relation of sounds rather than an indicator of a time signature. Instead of hearing a rhythm and, because of what it reminds you of, immediately locating it in 4/4, 5/4, etc., can you hear a rhythm, live in it, and only then add a context? What does that do to your listening?

*

Each context has its own expectations for how you listen; each place, its own centers of gravity and time.

Vine Deloria Jr., a theologian and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, writes in his landmark 1973 book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, “The world … is not a global village so much as a series of non-homogeneous pockets of identity that must eventually come into conflict because they represent different historical arrangements of emotional energy.”2

*

One of the earliest memories I have in Puerto Rico is walking around the back of my Titi Carmen’s house—tracing the paths of little lizards—where lush green leaves and growth spilled onto the cement patio, up out of a steep chasm that terrified my brother and me.

The last time I saw my Titi Sara (I didn’t know then that it would be), I wrote this poem:


I dreamed about freedom
and woke up with the word columpio
hiding in my mouth.

I extracted memories like cells
and placed them in new bodies.

I traveled across one-eighth of the world.
I saw my tía-abuela in the hospital
and smoothed her hair (her hands
were covered with sores),
my cousin on leave from Japan,

resuming things making it hard
to track where I was, or when
I was here, before.

If the world is, as Deloria writes, “a series
of non-homogeneous pockets of identity
that must eventually come into conflict,”

what is my going from one
to another, not freedom?


*

One way of understanding the last 500 years or so, since the colonization by European countries of what we now call the Global South, is the attempt to forcefully consolidate disparate places and their peoples into a Master Timeline. Deloria explains that this particular ordering of experience that prioritizes time over place comes from Christian theology, and it is the defining conceptual structure of Western culture.

“Instead of working toward the Kingdom of God on Earth,” he writes, “history becomes the story of a particular race fulfilling its manifest destiny. Thus, Western history is written as if the torch of enlightenment was fated to march from the Mediterranean to the San Francisco Bay.”

Fulfilling itself in Time, whiteness disregards the spatial realities of existence: the complex systems of animals and plants, the rocks, the soil, the air and water (all of which have their own temporal realities). Specific knowledges and frameworks that our ancestors had, based in their intergenerational communities and those communities’ relationships to specific land and ecosystems, were torn apart. This is why the theologian Willie Jennings understands whiteness as a fissure.3

*

A phenomenon I’ve noticed in the Americas is the linking of a Master Timeline with racial mixing. Racial mixing in this context is understood as a final synthesis, a fusion of seemingly disparate elements, while the power that undergirds it remains firmly white.

In the US, tap dance and jazz music are often understood as uniquely “American” art forms. White critics and practitioners of these arts especially have tended to frame them as an encounter between white people and Black people, a fusion of European and African elements. In the case of tap dance, the European element is Irish step-dancing. It’s more threatening to US official culture to leave these forces un-fused; to see the “non-homogeneous pockets of identity” that Deloria writes about and not attempt to synthesize them.

The theorist and critic Alain Locke, one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote of Bill Robinson, “A Bojangles performance is excellent vaudeville. But listen with closed eyes, and it becomes an almost symphonic composition of sounds. What the eye sees is the tawdry American convention; what the ear hears is the priceless African heritage.”4

The “tawdry American convention” can be bought and sold; our eyes consume it. If we can operate outside of this mode of racial commodification, we can acknowledge a Black heritage that rapacious capitalism can’t reach.5 Its meaning isn’t static or finished—that’s how I read “almost symphonic.”

*

When white US slaveholders outlawed the use of drums out of fear of their subversive power, Black people encoded their rhythmic languages into their bodies and feet.

White people have often witnessed only the deceptive surface of tap dance, the entertainment, and not the underlying freedom.

When Louis Armstrong was asked to define “jazz,” he said, “If you have to ask … you’ll never know.”

*

On May 25, for 24 hours, the Joyce Theater in New York screened “And Still You Must Swing,” a show created by the tap dancer Dormeshia and featuring Derick K. Grant, Jason Samuels Smith, and Camille A. Brown. The show arose out of Dormeshia’s observation that many young tap dancers don’t have a relationship with swing—as a feel, a way of playing music and dancing.

The title comes from a quotation by the master tap dancer Jimmy Slyde in the documentary About Tap (1985). He explains his approach to improvising:

Jimmy Slyde in a scene from the Broadway production of the musical <em>Black And Blue</em>, 1988. Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Photo: Martha Swope.
Jimmy Slyde in a scene from the Broadway production of the musical Black And Blue, 1988. Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Photo: Martha Swope.


There’s balance involved; there’s movement involved; and still you must swing.

I like to move a lot. Sometimes they call it a blur—because you move too fast, you get out of focus. So you have to catch up with yourself; that’s where the slides come in.

You can’t just meter out slides and say, “Well, I’m going to do a slide that’s a foot long,” because it may be a little slippery, and you might go three feet.


As Slyde dances, he tunes in and adjusts to the musicians, as they improvise together; to himself (catching up—“that’s where the slides come in”), and to the particularities of where he’s dancing: the texture of the floor, the dimensions of the stage. I’m curious how tap dance, with swing as its guiding musical and physical feel, models a space-sensitive mode of moving in time.

*

“Right now,” write Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine, “violent ideas about black people are embedded in every arrangement of American society, and the effect is constant black death.”6 Bailey and Lobenstine are two of the people who coordinate the Design Studio for Social Intervention in Boston. They emphasize, “Ideas are embedded in arrangements, which in turn produce effects.”

It’s the effects that people most respond to. We say the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and so many others after they have been murdered by police, by vigilantes, and the news—and often the video footage itself—has been broadcast on repeat. It is a successful strategy of white supremacy that so many, especially non-Black, people remain complacent until faced with the visible murders of Black people. It also seems to indicate the existence of a white audience in some way obsessed with the spectacle of racial violence.

As the swell of response subsides, Bailey and Lobenstine write in “The Work After Our Rage,” it’s important to diagnose and understand the arrangements that produce the effects. They suggest mapping the systems and relations that make up those arrangements—the architecture, social interactions, and choreography:

For example, one arrangement we could begin by mapping is that of 911, a state arrangement that intersects with cultural ideas. As we map its connections back to ideas of white safety (and the arrangement of police in protecting that safety), we see how 911 is integral to the equation of white safety yielding black death. We see how white fear has been weaponized, but also how communities of color are left without safety when they call for help and the result is violence against them and their loved ones.

As a National People’s Investigation, let’s explore and expose such overlapping arrangements, using them as the bridge between the tragic effects they produce and the sturdy ideas that are embedded within them.


*

On my first drive during the pandemic, I found myself over on the east side of Providence. I drove slowly around RISD and Brown University. I cruised by the mansions off of Blackstone Boulevard. I saw people walking their dogs, jogging, many of them not wearing masks. They seemed calm, like they had all the time in the world.

If you asked me what neighborhoods I like to spend time in, I’d tell you South Providence, Cranston Street, places where I see other Latinos, where I can go to Latin American bakeries and bodegas, where I hear Spanish and see Black and brown families and children, where I can practice my Spanish with people (even if they give me funny looks or ask me where I’m from).

But here I was, in the midst of a pandemic, gravitating toward the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods of Providence. Seeking unconscious white reassurance—an image of stability, of white safety and order.

*

Non-Black Latinx people, including mixed Puerto Ricans with African DNA and heritage, have a tendency to excuse ourselves from the vicious, subtle arrangements of white supremacy.

Bailey and Lobenstine write, “We ask us all to make a conceptual and practical move—especially white people and others who are not victims of violent and lethal Afrophobic hatred. This shift ideally should erase the line between you and the state, between you and the racist cop or crazed, white 911 caller.”

Instead of distancing myself from that violence, I need to step inside of it to see the ways in which I participate in its arrangement.

*

Bill Robinson gained so much respect from the people of his community that he was known as the Mayor of Harlem.

White police gave Bill Robinson—a Black man—a revolver. They gave him a gold badge designating him an honorary special deputy sheriff of New York County. He carried documents that demonstrated his friendship with the police chiefs of most major US cities.

This wasn’t enough to stop a policeman from shooting him. In Pittsburgh, Robinson witnessed two young Black people mugging an elderly white woman and tried to intervene by firing his revolver into the air. A white policeman arrived on the scene, saw a Black man firing a gun, and shot Robinson in the shoulder.7

*

Another tap dancer who carried in his body the cruel marks and technologies of US history was Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates. Born in South Carolina in 1907, Bates lost his leg at the age of 12 in an accident at the cotton-gin mill where he worked.

He went on to have an extremely successful career as a tap dancer. He danced with a tap shoe on his right foot, and below his left knee, where his leg had been amputated, a wooden peg ending in a half-rubber, half-leather tip.

A bass sound punches through his time, creating unexpected accents and punctuation, in contrast with the metronomic regularity of Bill Robinson’s dancing. The push and pull of his swing—it feels to me like triangles laid over circles—offers a different figure for understanding the passage of time than the linear, marching step-by-step image that is synonymous with time for so many able-bodied Westerners.

*

In the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country last summer, as we called to defund the police and prison systems that are such key structures in the arrangements of US white supremacy, I felt a powerful linkage with the protests that happened the summer before in Puerto Rico. After two weeks of massive public demonstrations, Puerto Ricans successfully ousted the corrupt, inept, misogynistic, and homophobic governor Ricardo Rosselló.

One of the tactics of protestors was to gather in the streets, plazas, and on the steps of buildings in the colonial capital of San Juan, and twerk to reggaetón, dembow, and hip-hop music. Journalists Verónica Dávila and Marisol LeBrón write, “This ‘perreo combativo,’ as dubbed by queer, trans and non-binary youth, used perreo, reggaeton’s dance style, to create a sensuous and liberated communal space that generated political power.”8

This queer, non-patriarchal space housed a breakdown of timelines: the Afro-Taíno rhythms, expressions of Black and working class communities on the island, shook the Spanish colonial buildings and cobblestone streets; the musical and physical loops cut against the capitalist progress signified by international stores and cruise ships. The ingrained timeline of the election cycle was broken as protestors forced an official to resign before his “term” had ended.

*

Bailey and Lobenstine also emphasize a break in normalized time, in this case the disruption caused by COVID-19. In “Social Justice in a Time of Social Distancing,” they suggest that we “deepen and prolong this time shift”:


One opportunity we have with COVID-19 is to build our capacity to jump out of our everyday routines when faced with crisis. Although this temporal shift is happening to us vertically (being imposed on us by our government, jobs, schools, or larger logistical operations like airlines, trains and the like), it is shifting us out of our daily routines. Now we have the opportunity to horizontally—collectively … stop and address the arrangements of our current social order. What if instead of going back to our lives when COVID-19 wanes, we decide to sit out our daily lives until we get serious traction on climate, state-sanctioned violence, stealing Indigenous lands, immigrant detention centers and the like?9

When normalized time, as experienced in “our everyday routines,” has become complicit with social and environmental crises, then it’s necessary to step out of time if we want to shift the arrangements that produce those crises.

*

Dormeshia in <em>And Still You Must Swing</em> at The Joyce Theater. Photo: AK47 Division.
Dormeshia in And Still You Must Swing at The Joyce Theater. Photo: AK47 Division.

As normalized time breaks, the non-human is permitted to step out. Only weeks into COVID-19, the air over industrial cities became the clearest it’s been in decades; unlikely animals were seen walking down city streets.

I think that this kind of break in Time offers an opportunity to rearrange our ideas about the human.

*

Conflicts over the land rights of Indigenous people expose fundamentally different relationships not only with land, but with time. In a 1997 interview, Deloria talks about the geological formation known as Devils Tower, a sacred site for a number of Native American tribes—and a favorite challenge for white rock climbers:

Humans, particularly in industrial society, [have] no sense of self-discipline. They allow themselves to do anything in the world. But the Indian thing was, if you don’t really, totally understand it, you better not make the total commitment to the thing, you better leave it as partially mysterious. And I think a lot of people don’t understand, that it’s not that Indians should have exclusive rights there; it’s that that location is sacred enough, it should have time of its own. And that once it has time of its own, then the people who know how to do ceremonies should come and minister to it. See, and that’s so hard to get across to people.

Through the pandemic, talking to my partner, my family, and my friends, trying to understand our confusion and loss, I’ve sensed that we do not have a cultural fabric that can cradle our absences.

*

Yesterday, on January 5, 2021, the district attorney of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Michael Gravely, announced that there would be no charges brought against Rusten Sheskey, the white police officer who shot Jacob Blake. Sheskey shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back at point-blank range as he tried to get into his car, with his children watching. Blake was left partly paralyzed and has been in a spinal-injury rehabilitation center.

*

I began this essay in June 2020. Since then, the state’s reimposition of normalcy, completely driven by profit, has rattled against and exacerbated realities of the pandemic, environmental crises, and racist violence.

Though the collective consciousness has shifted somewhat, the aperture has closed. I was probably naïve to hope we could live in it.

*

As Democrats come into power at the end of January, with a new majority in the Senate—certainly good news—I wonder how to push against the seemingly inevitable narrative of resuming: life resuming after COVID, democracy resuming after Trump. Can we keep some of the drive toward reordering meaning that such a dramatic break in routine afforded us, rather than fit our horizons of potential change into the same tired channel?

*

One of the greatest privileges of my life was getting to know the master tap dancer Bunny Briggs. When I was a teenager, and he was in his 80s, I went to visit him several times in the nursing home where he lived in the suburbs of Las Vegas. We would also talk on the phone. The generosity and beauty that radiated through his voice and presence are things I will carry with me for my entire life.

Bunny called his approach to dancing continuation. He said that when he discovered it, he discovered his key. Continuation means phrasing that keeps going; it extends over the bar or the container that you’re counting in.

When we’d say goodbye, Bunny would tell me that I’d be in his prayers and ask that I say a prayer for him.

*

There’s one video that exists, from 1932, of Bill Robinson’s famous “Stair Dance.” To a staccato version of Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks at Home,” Robinson climbs up and down a two-sided wooden staircase, placed in the center of a stage, five steps on each side leading to a small platform at the top.

The staircase doesn’t lead to anything beyond itself; it stands alone. When he dances at the top, what has he reached?

His swing is like the clock of every US city combined.

We watch him move up and down the steps more and more quickly, playing with, breaking down the difference between dancing and walking.

In mock-hurry, he runs down the steps a final time, crosses the stage, and exits into the wings.

  1. Hughes, Langston. (1957). Famous Negro Music Makers. NY: Dodd and Mead.
  2. Deloria, V. (2003). God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Fulcrum Publishing. All further quotations from Deloria, except for the interview, come from this book.
  3. Sechrest, L. L., Ramírez-Johnson, J., Yong, A., & Jennings, W. J. (2018). Can "white" people be saved?: Triangulating race, theology, and mission. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. Locke, Alain. (1936). The Negro and His Music. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education.
  5. I’m reminded of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”: “While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs…”
  6. Bailey, K., & Lobenstine, L. (2020). The Work after Our Rage. https://www.ds4si.org/writings.
  7. Two books provided me with information about Bill Robinson and this incident: Stearns, M., & Stearns, J. (1994). Jazz dance: The story of American vernacular dance. S.l.: Da Capo press.
  8. Dávila, V., & LeBrón, M. (2019, August 01). How music took down Puerto Rico's governor. The Washington Post.
  9. Bailey, K., & Lobenstine, L. (2020). Social Justice in a time of Social Distancing. https://www.ds4si.org/writings.
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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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