I am at least as passionate about danceas I am about books and history–happy to be either participant or observer.* As a child, I worked hard on my turnout and devoured every book about the history of dance that came my way. Just ask me about Fanny Gessler, Maria Tallchief, or Isadora Duncan–all heroines of books aimed at dance-crazed little girls.
I still love a good book about dance history, though my standards for the history itself are somewhat higher. Megan Pugh’s America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk more than makes the grade. Pugh uses the history of dance in America as a way to explore larger questions about race, class, and ultimately, American identity.
Dance is a continually evolving hybrid in Pugh’s account. Black slaves borrow from the French quadrille and Irish step dancing to create the cakewalk and tap dancing. White teenagers adopt and adapt dances from black culture in the 1920s and again in the 1950s and 1960s. Agnes de Mille and other choreographers use steps from tap dancing and square dances to transform the ballet into an American form. The borrowing is not always innocent: the blackface of the minstrel show is only the most obvious point at which racism is a driving element in the story. The dance floor becomes an arena in which divergent strands of American culture meet, meld, separate, and meet again—creating a recognizably American dance vocabulary in the process.
Pugh handles dance as an art form and its historical context with equal deftness. She builds her book around the personal stories of some of the biggest names in American dance: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Castles, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, choreographers Agnes De Mille and Paul Taylor, Michael Jackson.** She not only draws the sometimes-unexpected connections between them and places them within her larger story. She also describes their dancing so vividly that readers will want to see the dances themselves—something she anticipates with a detailed list of dance films and videos. (Though I am sad to say that few of them are available on Netflicks or Amazon Prime. I am now on a quest.)
*And I have the torn up knees to prove it.
**Not to mention Henry Ford. Who knew he was a big fan of square dancing?
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awarenesss for Readers.