History, the truism has it, is written by the winners. But the growth of dance history as a discipline has produced a crop of books by women that break new ground, applying contemporary cultural theory to eras past, uncovering stories we have not yet heard about people who rarely made headlines.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild, professor emeritus of dance studies at Temple University and a former dancer and actor, has spent more than two decades collecting information about Marjorie Smith, who grew up in Harlem in its heyday, was seduced by ballet and other “Europeanist” genres, dropped out of Hunter College, and wore herself out building a career as an adagio dancer in vaudeville between the late 1920s and the mid ’40s. In 1933, using the stage name Margot Webb, she formed a partnership with Harold Norton, and the team of “Norton and Margot” was born. Struggling for years on the touring circuit, finding doors closed to her and her partner at every turn, she finally became a physical education teacher. (Norton, who may still be alive, has dropped out of sight.) Dixon Gottschild, also a Harlem native and one who entertained similar dreams, uses Webb’s story as the armature for Waltzing in the Dark, a study of race prejudice in show business. Dealing with a volatile period of world history—from the depths of the Depression to the end of World War II—she is able to illuminate Nazi attitudes toward black dance and music as well as analyze the “invisibilizing” of black performers here and abroad.
The author holds a Ph.D. in performance studies, and views her material through the lens of a contemporary cultural theorist. One closes the book awash in sadness and a sense of loss for the hundreds of artists forced to operate under repressive racial codes, for the careers derailed. The country would not tolerate integrated chorus lines, so many gifted African American dancers could not get work. The homogenization of American mass media shut black dancers out of live venues, clubs which shrank as people stayed home in front of their television sets. That black culture won in the end, nearly swallowing whole the American pop-music establishment, does not make this history any less devastating.
The cumulative power of Dixon Gottschild’s work is undeniable, its scholarship original and thorough, and its value to young performers and general readers—who may have been lulled into believing everyone has equal access to theatrical success—substantial.
In Dancing Class, Linda Tomko, a dance historian at the University of California, Riverside, attributes a boom in dance’s visibility around the turn of the last century to its use as a tool for “assimilating” immigrants. Representatives of the dominant culture—middle-class people with Northern and Western European roots whose families had been in America for decades—sought, through the institution of the settlement house, to socialize young immigrant women in the manners and mores of their adopted country.
Focusing on “Progressive-era America,” Tomko engages two simultaneous pressures on the culture: the hordes of immigrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe, and the increasing demand by women for a wider sphere than merely housework and motherhood. Her voice is less passionate here than Dixon Gottschild’s in Waltzing in the Dark, and even more awash in jargon, but the stories she uncovers are equally compelling, examining the ways women put their bodies on the line to demand suffrage and better working conditions. She explores the predominance of women leaders in the early era of American modern dance.
But mainly she analyzes what happened in and around woman-run institutions like Chicago’s Hull-House and New York’s Henry Street Settlement, places where the arts, and the immigrant populations drawn to them, were given respect and shelter. Doris Humphrey, one of modern dance’s founding mothers, met and studied with her major mentor at Hull-House. Henry Street, still situated at 466 Grand Street, was home to the Neighborhood Playhouse, where gifted young dance artists like Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, and Helen Tamiris used the arts to express and mediate the dislocations they felt as immigrants, and their outrage as exploited workers.
From the settlements issued seasonal festivals. These festivals, and the park folk-dance fetes that were part of girls’ public-school education in the early years of the 20th century, allowed young women to “fashion in bodily terms notions of connection and linkage, forgetfulness of self, and spontaneity and engagement,” integrating “arts practices into everyday American life.” They also tried to give working-class girls a sense of dignity, of pleasure in their bodies apart from the seductions of the dance hall and the honky-tonk, where, clearly, danger awaited. In our own era where women are pushed to develop megamuscles in gyms alongside men, Tomko’s portrait of their “separate sphere” and its consequences is definitely fodder for thought.
Dance writers outside of academe are likely to venture beyond dance history in search of book projects. Elizabeth Kendall, whose journalism has appeared in Vogue and the Voice and who has published books on Hollywood romantic comedy and America’s art-dance pioneers, recently released An American Daughter: Discovering My Mother, a memoir of growing up in Missouri after World War II, the eldest of six children in an upper-class family struggling to maintain its social position. The book begins with a car crash in 1969: Kendall, 22, is at the wheel, and her mother is killed. The ensuing period of turmoil—personal as well as cultural—leads her into dance.
Decades later, Kendall, a sophisticated intellectual with a degree from Radcliffe, heals herself by fleshing out the life of the person who made her, and who lived barely long enough to taste the feminist changes in women’s lot.
“I have made a life that is in every way the opposite of hers. I’m not a daughter . . . and I’m not a mother. I live alone in the city of Manhattan, which is as far from my mother’s version of a community as there can be in this country. I am as much an extreme example of my generation as she was of hers.”
In another season, without the high-octane competition of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Kendall’s carefully researched, lovingly assembled book might have garnered more attention. Her chronicle of her family’s life, and of her evolving place in it and in the larger world, makes riveting reading.
Tobi Tobias, a former Voice critic who covers dance for New York magazine and writes books for children, brings us Obsessed by Dress, a compendium of quotations about fashion. Her sources range from Virgil to Lillie Langtry, from former Voice columnist Cynthia Heimel to Marcel Proust, the Bible, and various folk sayings. Tobias, who is as attracted to the visual arts as to dance, has found a subject that fuses elements of both. She must have had a field day researching this compact volume, which contains the expected (Robert Herrick’s 17th-century verse extolling “a sweet disorder in the dress”) and the startling (Cocteau’s remark that “mirrors should think longer before they reflect”). Illustrated with Chesley McLaren’s soigné cartoons, it is both permissive and prescriptive. In this season of political gassing, I’m encouraged to encounter a former president who does not fear to tell us exactly how to behave. “Some ladies think they may, under the privileges of the déshabillé, be loose and negligent of their dress in the morning. But be you, from the moment you rise till you go to bed, as cleanly and properly dressed as at the hours of dinner or tea.”
No casual Fridays for Thomas Jefferson.