Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941)

Four Black Dances Trouble Film! Rhythm Tap, Lindy Hop, Breakdance and Voguing

Lecture by Jonathan David Jackson
Thursday, May 22, 2003 - 4:00pm

Visionary black gangster and impresario John Whitey's legendary lindy hopping dance group appears in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin' as janitors and are billed on film posters as Congaroos. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson-the rhythm tap dancer who most advanced the dance form to the technical standards that we knew of in the 20th century-appears in the 1935 film Little Colonel; in the story his character is the child star Shirley Temple's house-slave and protector in the war-ravaged south of the Civil War. A seminal Black and Latin male breakdancer named Crazy Legs appears in drag as the dance-double for Jennifer Beale in the 1983 film Flashdance. One of the most important voguers of his generation, Willi Ninja dances in a 1987 film called Vogue Is the Message at a staged ritual sponsored not by the community that originated voguing but by a white fashion designer named Patricia Field. Some years later, another great voguer, José Guitterez Xtravaganza, never gets a chance to actually vogue in the 1991 concert film for Madonna's "Blond Ambition" tour, an event build in part around her hit song "Vogue."

Jonathan David Jackson examines these and other troubling instances of black-originated dances' representation in Hollywood and independent cinema. What lessons can a comparative analysis of filmic and choreographic representation teach us about race, gender, and the sociopolitics of visual narratives? What tensions arise between black dancers' agency (and the opportunities bestowed on them to perform) and their complex denigration on film? Jackson examines the way dancing is positioned in each visual narrative. He historicizes the films and dance traditions within the sociopolitical movements of the times. And he analyzes the actual movement in each tradition to build evidence to discuss that movement's complex pictorial distortion.

Jonathan David Jackson is a dance historian, ethnographer, teacher, and choreographer.