The pandemic, whatever grief and chaos it may have wrought in other spheres, was a boon to writers of dance books, providing sequestered time to finish projects long in preparation while awaiting the return of live performance. Nearly a dozen such tomes have landed on my desk this year. I’ve recently read three that have in common Jewish women writers, all also mothers, two in early middle age and the third, like me, a senior citizen (as well as a longtime contributor to the Village Voice). Their books advance from intensely personal to heavily academic and theoretical; each is, in its own way and for its own reasons, worthy of attention. All three have had decade-long periods of gestation and I’m happy to have them in my world.
Kara Tatelbaum’s Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream … and a day job falls into the burgeoning category of memoirs by dance artists. A quick, easy, often entertaining read, it illuminates the pressures on dancers in New York City who face spiraling expenses and the need to earn a living. Tatelbaum, a doctor’s daughter who came of age upstate and moved into Manhattan to attend college, is now married and the mother of two. She worked on this manuscript for a dozen years; Motina Books finally brought it out in 2022.
Tatelbaum is, by her own description, short, with tight Achilles tendons. Though she began taking ballet classes as a child, her teachers ultimately counseled her into modern dance and she wound up, after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a gifted choreographer/comedian. She taught Pilates to support herself, contending, as she describes, with the personalities of entitled women who poison the atmosphere of her classes and waste her time during “privates”:
“Manhattan’s filled with struggling dancers/instructors running a marathon merry-go-round of rehearsals, gyms, private homes. Our Unlimited Metrocards are swiped up to twenty times a day. We’re expected to arrive for sessions early for small talk, leave late while you go through your schedule … play with your pets, and … tailor choreographed sessions targeting your weaknesses and strengths all while remembering previous injuries, allergies, and family history. But we nod and smile because we need you to like us the best so we don’t get stood up.”
In her early 30s, Tatelbaum discovered that she’d passed her sell-by date in the Pilates marketplace. She got her master’s degree in choreography at SUNY Purchase, landed a prestigious international gig that turned into a disaster, and got married. Other crises ensued. Hip surgeries were required. Therapy was undergone. She had kids, wrote and found a publisher for her memoir, flogged it eagerly on Facebook and at residencies, and built a second career writing about … wait for it … Pilates! Those who dream of a career in dance owe it to themselves to read this book and contemplate her realistic, depressing, but often hilarious picture of what might lie before them.
Yale University Press harbors a series, now composed of nearly a score of volumes, colloquially referred to as Why X Matters, to which Mindy Aloff recently contributed a lyrical excursion into her lifelong passion for dance. Other books in the series address acting, food, poetry, and baseball, as well as more academic and philosophical subjects. Readers who come to 2022’s Why Dance Matters expecting a simple answer will find themselves drawn into a wide-ranging, seven-essay adventure into the past, present, and future of the form.
Aloff, a native of Philadelphia, has attended to dance in New York City since the late 1970s. Before that she studied and worked at Vassar, and wrote poetry and arts journalism in Oregon. She’s taught at Barnard, edited several books, including an anthology of dance anecdotes, and written Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. Her enthusiasm for dance, her perceptiveness, and her fluency in the English language would lead me to follow her anywhere.
And follow I do, as she tells “a personal story … cobbled together of dance, a sometime human activity and a niche art.” Aloff begins with a disquisition on a classic photograph by Helen Levitt of a couple of kids at play in an East Harlem street 40 years ago, which evolves into a study of children on dance stages — of “childhood in the theater.” Later, she engages walking on the dance stage, the process of reconstructing historic dances, choreography that floats in the air, and a collection of works that use “walking to illuminate dancing.” Her chapter on dance as a battleground explores struggles both external and internal, the latter as addressed by the program at the Mark Morris Dance Center that reaches out to people with Parkinson’s disease. She turns her voracious spotlight on Rodin’s dance sculptures, on Merce Cunningham’s solos, on how dancing civilizes and centers people, on the relation between live performance and film.
Critics are often constrained by tight deadlines and word counts; Aloff acknowledges that she’s never before “written anything this long and unpredictable.” In an era of disappearing dance writing, it’s a pleasure to spend days immersed in tales of a romance with the art form. In her epilogue, she notes the radically transforming times in which we’re presently living, “insidious, and possibly irreversible, with the very ground we tread and the very air we breathe and the very water that we guzzle to replenish our cells deteriorating and poisoned in conditions our species has devised.” She is a genuine public intellectual, with wide-ranging interests and allusions to fields far beyond dance; she thanks hundreds of people, living and dead, for facilitating her accomplishment. Give Why Dance Matters to any young person contemplating a life in the art form, but before you do, read it yourself.
Brynn Shiovitz’s 2023 Behind the Screen, subtitled Tap Dance, Race, and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age, is a dense volume from Oxford University Press; it originated as Shiovitz’s dissertation. She has spent this summer traveling the country on a book-signing tour, appearing in old vaudeville houses, and lecturing on the book’s nominal subject, “a theory of covert minstrelsy.” That rubric barely does justice to the material it covers. Shiovitz’s actual subject is racism, and the way race was handled, or mishandled, from the earliest days of sound films until the mid-1950s in American popular culture. A relatively small proportion of her material actually engages tap dancing, and most of that revolves around the figure of Bill Robinson, who managed a long career on stage and screen without donning blackface, by dint of agreeing to play second fiddle to a pretty little white girl, Shirley Temple.
Isabel Wilkerson’s blockbuster 2020 volume, Caste, demonstrated that writing about racism can capture a mass audience. Shiovitz’s book is much more specialized, anatomizing the phenomenon of blackface as it migrated from the stage to the screen and from live performance to animated cartoons. She points out that the original “minstrels” were white men in blackface; Black people, often forced to “black up” by theatrical promoters, got into it to make money. Shiovitz shows how blackface is associated with nostalgia, which gets infused with patriotism and damages African Americans. Stephen Foster’s melodies, closely associated with Black or black-faced bodies, “could carry racial implications without directly referring to Black people or Black behavior.” So, for an Eleanor Powell film in which the tap dancer appears in brownface, “MGM commissioned a score devoid of lyrics, a pattern we will see repeated throughout the Production Code’s reign, especially in animated sequences.”
The author grew up tap dancing, studied at NYU and UCLA, and currently teaches in Southern California. She spent years screening 230 films from the first half of the 20th century, as well as more than a hundred cartoons, in order to demonstrate, among other things, the way that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire coasted to fame, replacing the true Black masters of the Africanist esthetic. Also under her microscope are brownface, yellowface, redface, and Jewface, all strategies Hollywood used to “other” immigrant groups (as well as Native Americans) during the interwar period of great social change. Central to her thesis is the Hays Code, formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code, adopted by Hollywood and New York producers in 1930 and designed to regulate the moral tone of popular entertainment, eliminating suggestive elements. The denigrating aspects of blackface, which reduced an entire group of people to caricature, slipped under the radar of the Code, turning up in sequences set, for instance, in Hawaii, and exacerbating racial conflict in the country.
Shiovitz’s opus is both virtue-signaling and virtue rewarded. Combing through it will educate you thoroughly in the ways that the Catholic church, the engine behind the Code, demonized Black art forms like jazz and swing, creating environments in which white people got work ripping off the Africanist esthetic while Blacks were often deprived of credit, even when they appeared onscreen. The Production Code asserted, “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Jazz music was frequently painted as a slippery slide in the direction of sin — Blacks incarnated these things, were “tricksters,” and needed to be kept strictly separate from the white wives and daughters.
Writes Shiovitz, “Multimodal racial and ethnic caricature were also used to avert White audiences from acknowledging the presence of a swing aesthetic, since swing was classified as “hot” and dangerous due [to] its ties to sexuality and Blackness.… Thus, covert minstrelsy refers not only to a particular type of masking but also requires that the masking itself mask the mask(s) at play.” Both the visual and the sonic — and the animated as well as the “real” — were environments to be carefully monitored for implications of racial mixing and the approval of occasions for sin. As Shiovitz notes, this rendered white performers “the celebrated ventriloquists of an Africanist esthetic,” providing American audiences with a “close but safe encounter with the Other.” It also suppressed any representation of gayness (“pansy flavor”) and much female sexuality, but gave a pass to figures like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, Jewish men who made vast fortunes and accrued great fame pretending to be Black. Dance and film scholars and the portion of the general audience awake to the dangers and damage of racism will find much value in Shiovitz’s endeavor. Those of us who escaped graduate school before the theory bomb exploded might find the proportion of her analysis devoted to tap dance a bit wanting, but younger readers might appreciate her deep dive into Bugs Bunny’s “techno-dialogic feats for the animated bestiary.” Animation technology, she asserts, replaces blackface in live action films of the early ‘40s: “Much of what the [Hays] Code deemed unacceptable in live action film for the censors was excused when the representation was not ‘real.’”
These three books carry us from the intensely personal (Tatelbaum’s memoir) through the wide-ranging, enthusiastic critical gaze (Aloff’s essay collection) to the densest contemporary scholarship. Shiovitz’s flaying of the racist content of American popular art forms in the 1930s and ’40s will change the way these works are viewed in the next millennium. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.