Attempting to write about the legacy of anthropologist, choreographer, and dancer Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) in the Caribbean is a daunting task. She seems to embody so many of the tensions inherent in diaspora formation in a way that feels dazzlingly complex and larger than life. Inspired by her ethnographic fieldwork in Haiti, Martinique, Trinidad, and Jamaica in the 1930s, the Illinois-born dancer is known for her iconic vignettes on the concert stage, Broadway, and Hollywood films that represented the continuities and variances in Black diaspora dance cultures as a spectrum of spectacular virtuosity. Beyond her contributions to Black dance history, Dunham helped to craft the aesthetics of tropical modernity in the mid-twentieth-century popular American imaginary. She has also loomed large in the remembrances of her dance contemporaries in Africa and the Caribbean, in perhaps more complicated and ambivalent ways. Dunham was revered, but also at times resented, for being an American who intervened into local affairs, and for fashioning herself as the global Black cultural ambassador for Caribbean spaces where she was a mere visitor.1

Still, Dunham's grand staged narratives of Black New World cultures represent only one of several stories that can be mined from her archive. Attention to smaller, quieter moments helps craft a story of diasporic longings and connections on a more intimate scale, one that lets formerly submerged Caribbean perspectives rise to the surface.

One of my favorite moments that Dunham's ethnographic work captures belongs to a compilation of short silent films that she created at the beginning of her first trip to the Caribbean in 1935. Alongside scenes from Afro-Diasporic religious dancing—visuals she referenced in her writing and choreography—Dunham documented natural landscapes, as well as scenes from urban daily life in Jamaica and Martinique. The video below, referenced in the opening vignette of my Theatre Journal essay, features a couple demonstrating the transnational Black urban partner dances (that I identify as "shay-shays" in the essay) for the cameraperson (likely Dunham) in an indoor domestic setting. It is a rare look at private Black Jamaican life in the early twentieth century, remarkable precisely because of the quietness and subtlety of the spectacle. A couple shuffles back and forth on their small makeshift dancefloor. Their steps are simple compared to the flashy footwork often associated with Black urban social dance, and their kinetic energy is consistent and easy. Several times, performers break from the dance to laugh with each other or even to address the filmmaker, radiating warmth, rest, and a gentle sense of delight (0:28). At one point, the female dancer—as her male partner grabs her waist and playfully draw her perhaps a little too close—checks his cheekiness by doubling over with a laugh. She pulls her pelvis away from his—perhaps in jest, or perhaps in a gesture of self-protection—as he laughs directly at the camera (1:36). These unruly shifts in energy disturb a traditionally straightforward understanding of ethnographic films as objective historical documents, allowing us to imagine a more creative and collaborative exchange between filmmaker and subject. They point to Dunham's interlocutors' conscious self-presentation and small choices about what they wished to display or withhold from the world (fig. 1).

Another video in the same series reminds us of the wider social context of the shay-shays, often lost in translation from dance floor to stage. This film was shot in a public dance square in Kingston. Given the outdoor venue and casual nature of the participant's dress, we might guess that this is what cultural historian Lara Putnam describes in Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age as a "practice dance," or a weekly dance held in an informal space, open to working-class people.2 

Figure 1: Screenshot from Urban Social Dance, Jamaica Fieldwork (Clip #21). Video, 1936, Library of Congress, available at https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003828/.

 

In my essay, I analyze the dancers' production of sensuous and spectacular movement as a means of imagining the social dance scene at Marcus Garvey's Edelweiss Park nightclub. However, this film also reveals how the dancers might have elicited or responded to a series of relational performances at the edges of the dancefloor, from the full live jazz band to the active participation of the spectators. For instance, there are two women standing behind the dancers who compete for our attention (00:57), marking steps in place as they wait for their turn with a partner or perhaps to catch their breath between sets. A group of men at the edges of the frame smile and laugh with one another while their eyes remain fixated on the couples, sharing in the conviviality of the scene (0:40). By imagining sonic elements and taking note of the reactions of spectators, we bear witness to how the shay-shay's contagious energy spread across a communal gathering, extending far beyond the camera's view (fig. 2). 

Examining the boundaries of what was revealed or hidden in these dance films opened a space of possibility for me to speculate about a broader range of emotions than are usually ascribed to poor Black Caribbean subjects. In both videos, moments of startling intimacy (a hand on a partner's lower back or a shared giggle) exist alongside gestures of expert showmanship that seem to be directed to the audience or filmmaker. My essay argues that Black social dance was integral to the politics of labor and leisure in interwar Jamaica. At the same time, these visuals also challenged my impulse to ascribe political use-value to what I read as expressions of Black joy, judgment, bashfulness, disavowal, waiting, concentration, enthusiasm, and rest. As Kevin Quashie reminds us, there is sovereignty in quiet and tender moments—not just in purposefully public acts of resistance.3 Black social dance was potentially liberatory not only because it intersected with formal political spaces, but because it allowed participants to manifest and explore private desires, shifting internally their perception of self and their place in the world. 

Figure 2: Screenshot from Urban Social Dance, Jamaica Fieldwork (Clip #22). Video, 1936, Library of Congress, available at https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003829.

 

Footnotes

1. See, for instance, Joanna Dee Das's analysis of Dunham's involvement in West African postcolonial cultural development and her politically fraught attempts at building cultural centers in Haiti and Jamaica: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

2. Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

3. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).