Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space and Sound in American Cultural History, by Christopher J. Smith. Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. xii, 255 pp.
Christopher J. Smith's Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space and Sound in American Cultural History examines the historical and political dimensions of publicly performed dance. Across the book's nine chapters, a range of historical moments and dance practices take center stage. Popular musical forms have been more widely engaged by cultural theorists and scholars of expressive culture, Smith contends, while popular dance has yet to receive equivalent critical attention. He writes, "Less commonly remarked or explored has been the role of vernacular dance. Yet from the colonial period onward, participator)' ways of moving the body in relation to musical sound have often been experienced as confrontational, subversive, immoral, or even revolutionary" (p. 1).
The capacity of dance to be critical, if not insurgent and transformational, is Dancing Revolution's, guiding thesis. Using a case study approach, the author considers moments of resistive dance in histories of American public life in order to explore "the ways bodies moving in public space were intended or perceived to contest social and political hierarchies" (p. 47). The book's subjects and sites include street dancing, marches, open-air revival meetings, theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs. Radier than focus on the politics of one single community, historical moment, or dance context, Smith draws on a number of different examples to argue that public dance has been revolutionary--a means through which marginalized communities resist normative ideological control and articulate their own ways of seeing and being. Throughout the book, attention is also given to the ways in which subaltern movement practices have elicited both anxiety and a desire to appropriate (often through parody) by colonizing, white, and/or hegemonic groups.
A trained historian and multifaceted musician, Smith relies on a vast methodological toolkit that includes, but is not limited to, ethnomusicology, cultural geography, iconography, historical performance practice, and what the author describes as "kinesics and the psychology of group performance" (p. 8) in order to consider public dance "as a form of subaltern resistance" (p. 153). The interdisciplinary aspirations of Dancing Revolution--which deploys these approaches in nine chapters covering three centuries--make tidy descriptions elusive. Although the book's unifying end point is dance's revolutionary potential, the avenues that lead toward it are multiple and diverse.
"Sacred Bodies in the Great Awakenings," the first chapter, explores "transgressive body vocabularies associated with Pentecostal Protestantism" (p. 14) and evangelical Great Awakening preachers in the late eighteenth century. Dance and movement were part and parcel of ecstatic evangelical preaching. Smith charts how, over time, a "creole synthesis" emerged through Afro-Caribbean and Anglo-Celtic/North European contact.
The second chapter, "A Tale of Two Cities I: Akimbo Bodies and the English Caribbean," considers Jamaica, New York City, England, and the shaping of Creole cultures formed in part through maritime circuits of travel and migration. Smith analyzes the manifestation of "creolization's revolutionary impulse through theatricalized performances of Afro-Caribbean street ritual" (p. 10), including Jamaican...