Tara Aisha Willis: This special issue, Black Moves: New Research in Black Dance Studies, was your brainchild, one a few different publication projects coming out of the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD) consortium conference in 2014. I’m interested in hearing about the significance of having these pieces come out in this format, at this moment, and in TBS.
Thomas F. DeFrantz: First, let’s talk about collective action. I was trained at a time, back in the 90s, when we thought carefully about minoritarian action as being resistant and collective. I still abide by those ways of thinking. So, I don’t think of these projects as being initiated by me or coming from a single place. When we decided to form CADD, the idea at that moment was, “Let’s see what it could be.” Astonishingly, when the conference happened, it was clear that there were lots of ideas circulating that didn’t have a way to reach a larger public. We realized we should think about publication. The field could use more written documents, or different kinds of histories or theorizations, that can be circulated. These publications come from that abundance of new research that was emerging. So, this feels like a collective action. You and I are doing the editorial work here, but even that’s collective. We’re working together because we thought it would be an interesting thing to do across generations.
“Generations” always seems funny to me because, as we mature, we start to understand that it’s about differences. We start our conversations from different perspectives even though we’re currently sharing a journey. Where are you in your research and how do you feel it being mobilized by age, cycle of life, or your work as an artist? How does it work in a larger frame of black dance studies as you understand it?
TAW: I feel so thrilled to have your mentorship while I’m in the middle of my degree. I’m finishing my prospectus this week, and preparing to teach for the first time. Through this editorial process I’ve come of age, in terms of figuring out what I’m doing within my doctorate. Working at The Drama Review and being involved with Women & Performance I’ve gotten to see the other side of making a special issue. But having your guidance in how to be a guest editor—that more curatorial role of caring for the articles in a one-on-one way with authors—has been a really unique experience amongst my peers. I think it’s exemplary of the CADD community, which is at an intersection of two fields, dance studies and black studies, where we’re always the one in the room representing. CADD felt like an incredibly joyful reunion of family I’d never met before—even though I didn’t know many people at the conference, my research is really different from a lot of the scholars there, and I had many debates with people over the course of the weekend. It felt overwhelmingly like we’re in such a crucial position, being there in a room with the relatively small contingency of people doing the same kind of work, caring about the same ideas, people, and cultural forms.
I think that intergenerational work is exemplary of the black dance studies community. We have to stick together because so often, away from the conference, we have to stand alone in our departments. We can really support each other, bring up the next generation, and not be afraid to find mentorship where it exists.
TFD: For me it’s also about being willing to not know and to learn. These are actually pretty terrific feminist/womynist politics to engage. Working with researchers who are still in graduate school or just out, I learn so much about how the world feels in different keys. On the other side of getting a job, or on the other side of tenure, things keep changing. The river Styx keeps taking you and showing you new landscapes. If you stay on the route of an academic career—or you don’t, it doesn’t matter—as I did, you stay in this space that keeps changing. By working with you I get to hear about new or different questions, or rethink questions with more care and particularity. It’s an opportunity to work across differences.
Our issue is subtitled New Research in Black Dance Studies. This idea of “new” is something we tend to be skeptical of. What’s really new or current? What’s old? Maybe we don’t want to think in terms of linear time. That said, many of the pieces in this issue are by folx offering up an originary research manifesto to their larger projects.
TAW: They’re each bringing different pieces of black dance studies to the table, which is really significant because it’s very new for TBS to publish so much dance research. It was important for us to bring together pieces that are very different from each other, that are working in different methodologies. We have archival research, historic, ethnographic, the pedagogy piece, and dance and performance theory. All are looking at “black moves” in different places, cultural contexts, and times. I think we’re very conscious of creating a holistic issue that’s bringing the richness of the conference and the field to bear on the larger black studies conversation.
TFD: We also know as artists these various methodologies that we think of as separate are all present and constantly competing; all these things are happening at the same time in bits and pieces. When I dance, the variety of methods, starting places, or ways to think about analysis or creativity are all simultaneously present. So, I’m working through being born in Indianapolis but moving to San Francisco, in an ethnographic way. I’m working through theories of representation: who do I think is in the audience, and how do I think they’re seeing me, and what do I want to resist? I’m working through technique and what my teachers taught me or reminded me of, what I know about my body and what I can or can’t do, or how I can maybe stretch that. I’m working through family history. I’m working through my spiritual self—Christian or not—and how it relates to spiritual practice, whether that’s a memory of someone else’s spirit or my own sense of ecstasy or deliverance that I can manufacture or recycle through my body. I feel our issue tries to remind us not that you can work in these different directions, but that these different ways of being are constantly implicated in our creative lives.
TAW: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. The issue as a whole is illustrating—is performing, is dancing—what already exists in the moment of movement, of black movement in particular. My favorite word is reverence, instead of spiritual. I think of it in terms of scholarly work, this citational practice we’re always engaged in: looking back to produce something in the moment, and for others to use in the future. Again, to stay out of linear time, we can think of that in a circular way. Reverence allows us to revere things that already exist, but it refers to this present moment action. It has a physical manifestation, a spiritual manifestation, and intellectual and emotional ones as well. The conference these pieces come out of, the writing these researchers are doing, and the editorial project are all a kind of reverence for the field, the performances, and black moves.
I was just reading the “Blacking Queer Dance” piece you wrote in 2002, and you ask, “But what about dance studies and black studies? Why do these areas consistently disconnect?” (104). I think this special issue is an inroad into that question. In the introduction we wrote, “…the capacities of Black Studies to accommodate nuanced, careful discussions of dance as a site and symptom of historical, contemporary, and future modes of black life.” Black dance studies has the capacity to consider dance, corporeality, and movement in a nuanced way in order to get into black life more richly. That’s what the issue is performing, dancing.
TFD: This idea of “symptom” is interesting. With the three publications coming from that first conference—and CADD is having its next conference in February 2016—it seems to me that there’s a wealth of material now finding its way into different publics. By the time we get through editing—and anybody who’s edited knows it’s hard work—and are able to say, “Here’s what we made. We hope you’ll be able to engage it, that something else is possible because the information is available,” the information is already circulating. It’s in the dances, in the way these seven researchers are thinking through the people they’re working with. These essays represent a distillation of information and ideology, but those ideas are already moving. There’s a ton of research happening in artistic practice and historical archival research around black people in motion, but we’re trying to say, “It’s okay to publish that, too.” Not that publishing is the most important thing—it’s just another place where the information can circulate. It’s not that this stuff isn’t around, it’s that in this moment we’re finding ways to publish it that we didn’t have fifteen years ago.
TAW: Framing it together in anthologies or special issues brings things together that have been bubbling for decades, centuries even, but haven’t been recognized as a coherent field.
TFD: But it’s also in the dancing. That’s the thing about black performance. The theory, history, and practice are so deeply implicated in each other that the translation into literary text is something we’ve been rightfully suspicious of. Reverence doesn’t want to be fixed. It’s not adulation, it’s not cult-making. Reverence is movable and needs to be. Black moves are about response, reverence, remembering, imagining forward. Writing often wants to be fixed. That’s what I love about our issue. We’re not trying to fix but to offer strategies to engage.
TAW: That’s a great word, “strategy.” It comes up in a lot of the articles. They try to share with readers the ways that dance works for artists, performers, or practitioners as a strategy for black life.
TFD: In black studies, performance and dance are always referred to, but usually with this quick, passing motion. Those of us who are working in black dance especially, understand that there’s much more in that moment. Maybe what we’re trying to do collectively is inspire all of us to engage reverence for those moments when our embodied practices line up with our identities, aspirations, wonderings, desires, and intellects. Maybe that’s something that we’re sharing with each other.
TAW: So often when I’m reading black scholarship I think, “Wait, but right there. If you dug into that performance or that movement moment it would give you a whole other level of nuance.”
TFD: I hope our issue will encourage the process of reverence. We’re affirming, by digging into a moment, larger structure, or the entirety of a choreography, that any of these modes can open up and allow us to re-strategize how black lives matter—to use that urgent kind of rhetoric—and how we matter for ourselves as a group through our dances. It’s such a huge part of how we understand what it is to be black. So let’s keep moving.
Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and founding member of the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance. He is also director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. His books include Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (2002), Dancing Revelations Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2004), and Black Performance Theory, co-edited with Anita Gonzalez (2014).
Tara Aisha Willis is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies, NYU, an editor for TDR/The Drama Review and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and a summer Thesis Writing Mentor for Hollins University’s Dance MFA. She is Coordinator of Diversity Initiatives for Movement Research, an artist services organization for NYC experimental dance, and a choreographer, dancer, and dance writer, including publication in The Brooklyn Rail and the Movement Research Performance Journal.