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Footwork! Improvised Dance as Dissenting Mobility in the New Orleans Second Line


On most Sundays in New Orleans, you can find a second line parade. Since the late-nineteenth century, these processions have gathered thousands of people to dance through African American neighborhoods, improvising footwork in time with the brass band’s rhythms. This dissertation documents and analyzes the role of dance within the second line tradition, and in so doing, brings scholarly attention to a central yet under-studied aspect of New Orleans’s black expressive cultures. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, I combine a close study of historical materials (archival footage, print media, and oral histories) with ethnographic data (participation in the second line community and in-depth interviews with dozens of individuals) to provide a history of second line dancing and a detailed account of its contemporary practice. Building upon previous literature, which understands second line parades as performative critiques of racism and capitalism, I show how dancers physically articulate counter-hegemonic histories and ideologies during each procession. I argue that second lining is a bodily discourse of dissenting mobility that has been deployed by disenfranchised peoples for centuries to maneuver within and against the structural and physical violence of racial capitalism. Chapters one and two track how second lining’s form and meanings have changed in response to shifting manifestations of racial capitalism, from dancing at Congo Square in the antebellum era, when the chattel slave trade flourished in New Orleans, to buck jumping in the post-Katrina city under the reign of colorblind neoliberalism. Chapters three and four explore second liners’ motivations to dance, which include the formation of collectives, spiritual transcendence, and the reclaiming of their neighborhoods. I argue that, in addition to achieving these goals, second liners give shape to a discourse of dissenting citizenship through their bodily postures and pathways through the cityscape. This analysis of second line dancing and its social implications not only contributes to academic inquiries within Dance Studies and related humanities disciplines, but also engages current discussions regarding state violence in black communities across the United States, speaking to questions pertinent to multi-disciplinary studies of race and ethnicity, bodily performance, and political economy in the urban sphere.

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