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As the Flesh Moves: Lon Fontaine, Black Dance, and Strategies for Rendering Presence

  • Author(s): Brannum, Barry Ajani
  • Advisor(s): Foster, Susan L
  • et al.

My project surveys the work of Lon Fontaine, a dancer who performed, taught, and choreographed for many of the twentieth century’s most prominent black American entertainers. Though Fontaine collaborated with several important black social, commercial, and political institutions, his work has been largely overlooked—and was, in his opinion, underappreciated in his own day. I take Fontaine’s anxieties about (a lack of) representation seriously, especially because they resonated with similar concerns within Fontaine’s broader context of the Civil Rights era. To this end, Fontaine’s work helps me ask how the question of representation informed black cultural politics (specifically within the United States) during the Civil Rights movement. I center my investigation around the distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh,’ as theorized by black studies scholars like Hortense Spillers, that conditions black ontology in the wake of chattel enslavement. I argue that the former realm is the domain of subjecthood, agency, and representational politics (and a politics of representation), while the latter—which marks black being after chattel enslavement—eludes conventional understandings of these concepts. Importantly, I argue that distinctions between embodiment and enfleshment are not given, but produced through various means of ‘doing’ corporeality—a process I refer to as rendering presence. I therefore investigate the array of practices Fontaine and his peers adopted in the process of learning, making, performing, and teaching dance. Three case studies focus on a specific decade in Fontaine’s career, each asking how he and his projects (Larry’s Steele’s Smart Affairs, the NAACP, and the Temptations, respectively) addressed urgent concerns about sense-making, aesthetic production, sociocultural identity, and (black) being. This project’s core data is drawn from archival research, interviews, and choreographic analysis. My analytic framework is grounded in critical dance studies scholarship and is bolstered by insights from queer/black studies and critical race studies. These lenses expose the stakes of carving out space for oneself as a ‘legitimate’ black choreographer—whether of dance or social movement(s)—in a context where integration, representation, and legibility are not obvious or given political aims, as is commonly presumed in mainstream accounts of the Civil Rights movement. Such legitimacy is tenuous, not least because antiblackness’ operations extend well into the present day. I track more recent manifestations of the phenomenon by reflecting on my own dancing experience. In particular, I revisit my work with choreographer Deborah Hay, asking how her creative practices enact their own strategies for rendering presence. I conclude that, while the body/flesh distinction continues to hamper dancemaking, it also offers antidotes to the antiblackness deeply engrained in conventional doings of embodiment.

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