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Race, Theft, and Embodied Theories of Dance as Property

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Abstract:

This paper investigates how African American performers in the first half of the twentieth century theorized notions of dance as property. Given the long history of white appropriation of black choreographic material, and given that black vernacular dance has traditionally been denied protection as intellectual property, how did African American performers seek to protect their creations from theft or mis-attribution? To what extent did they regard their expressive output as property – personal, cultural, or otherwise? How did black performing arts communities regulate the circulation and exchange of movement ideas and steps? This paper posits that ideas about property are embedded in the practices of performers, and that attending to the past practices of African American dancers yields important insights into the relationship between racialized bodies and constructions of property in the United States.

As a point of departure, I examine an incident that occurred during the 1934 Broadway debut of the “Congo operetta” Africana. In the middle of the first act, a well-dressed man made his way down the centre aisle and swung a chair at the orchestra leader, Donald Heywood, who was also the musical’s director, composer, and author. The mid-performance assault, it was later learned, was the man’s attempt to lodge an accusation of plagiarism against Heywood, with whom he had once collaborated on the operetta. Though both men were black, because white critics dismissed the mixed-race show, which featured an African setting and “Ju Ju” dancers, as hackneyed and indistinguishable from other black musical comedies, the entire affair highlights the ways race has both complicated and driven disputes over originality in the performing arts. As a particularly vivid example of how clashes over property claims can play out in a corporeal register, this (literally) show-stopping confrontation also serves as a useful jumping off place for considering embodied theories of intellectual property more broadly.

In order to explore how ideas about property have been theorized in past performance practices, my paper mines the intersection between what scholar Diana Taylor terms “the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” (2003, 19). Because I am interested in how claims of ownership and theft in dance and theatre have been adjudicated outside of official legal channels, that is to say, I will need to excavate and attend to the material traces such bodily wrangling over property rights left behind. This paper thus combines analysis of primary sources like newspaper reports and of secondary sources like Marshall and Jean Stearns’s Jazz Dance, which contains oral histories of a number of African American dancers, with scholarship on intellectual property in legal and cultural studies. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate that, as intellectual property debates heat up in our own time, we have much to learn from the ways African American dancers and performers in an earlier moment theorized property using embodied means.
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Kraut, Anthea. "Race, Theft, and Embodied Theories of Dance as Property" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185425_index.html>

APA Citation:

Kraut, A. , 2007-10-11 "Race, Theft, and Embodied Theories of Dance as Property" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185425_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: This paper investigates how African American performers in the first half of the twentieth century theorized notions of dance as property. Given the long history of white appropriation of black choreographic material, and given that black vernacular dance has traditionally been denied protection as intellectual property, how did African American performers seek to protect their creations from theft or mis-attribution? To what extent did they regard their expressive output as property – personal, cultural, or otherwise? How did black performing arts communities regulate the circulation and exchange of movement ideas and steps? This paper posits that ideas about property are embedded in the practices of performers, and that attending to the past practices of African American dancers yields important insights into the relationship between racialized bodies and constructions of property in the United States.

As a point of departure, I examine an incident that occurred during the 1934 Broadway debut of the “Congo operetta” Africana. In the middle of the first act, a well-dressed man made his way down the centre aisle and swung a chair at the orchestra leader, Donald Heywood, who was also the musical’s director, composer, and author. The mid-performance assault, it was later learned, was the man’s attempt to lodge an accusation of plagiarism against Heywood, with whom he had once collaborated on the operetta. Though both men were black, because white critics dismissed the mixed-race show, which featured an African setting and “Ju Ju” dancers, as hackneyed and indistinguishable from other black musical comedies, the entire affair highlights the ways race has both complicated and driven disputes over originality in the performing arts. As a particularly vivid example of how clashes over property claims can play out in a corporeal register, this (literally) show-stopping confrontation also serves as a useful jumping off place for considering embodied theories of intellectual property more broadly.

In order to explore how ideas about property have been theorized in past performance practices, my paper mines the intersection between what scholar Diana Taylor terms “the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” (2003, 19). Because I am interested in how claims of ownership and theft in dance and theatre have been adjudicated outside of official legal channels, that is to say, I will need to excavate and attend to the material traces such bodily wrangling over property rights left behind. This paper thus combines analysis of primary sources like newspaper reports and of secondary sources like Marshall and Jean Stearns’s Jazz Dance, which contains oral histories of a number of African American dancers, with scholarship on intellectual property in legal and cultural studies. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate that, as intellectual property debates heat up in our own time, we have much to learn from the ways African American dancers and performers in an earlier moment theorized property using embodied means.

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Similar Titles:
Race, Gender, and the Struggle for Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance

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