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American Movement: In the Steps of a National Style of Dance


"American Movement" is an investigation of national identity in dance. "Americanness" may be an impossible conceit, but it's also a way people have made sense of the nation. It's a mantle artists claim for themselves, and a quality audiences recognize. I focus on a cast of performers who have been celebrated for embodying an American style of movement, and who were ambitious enough to try to create one: tap dance virtuoso "Bojangles" Bill Robinson, silver screen idols Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and ballet-to-Broadway choreographer Agnes de Mille. What made their claims of Americanness convincing? Sometimes, it was explicit: plots that dealt with national myths, stances these artists and their fans took against Europe, or publicity materials that trumpeted their patriotism. But at other times, a sense of Americanness emerged from their movements. Tracing the hidden histories of particular dance steps and styles across lines of race and class, I show how artists of wildly different cultural milieus have learned from, imitated, admired and parodied one another. Chiefly, this is a project about artists who set out to embody the nation, and about the nation that produced them. But "American Movement" is also an argument, by example, for how we might study dance: as both an artistic creation of its own right, and as an embodiment of histories that are often more varied than a single performance, at surface level, can accommodate.

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