Book Review: “Why Dance Matters” — Slip Sliding Away
By Debra Cash
Because Mindy Aloff is so deeply personal and idiosyncratic — and so dependent on what was programmed by certain theaters, in certain years — her book distorts the very topic it is intended to illuminate.
Why Dance Matters by Mindy Aloff. Yale University Press 280 pp, $26.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the title can definitely get you off on the wrong foot.
Why X Matters is a trademarked series of books by the Yale University Press, with titles including Why Arendt Matters, Why the Constitution Matters and Why Trilling Matters (Adam Kirsch will have to convince me about that one). Why Dance Matters slipped into the alphabetical lineup lickety split when according to her acknowledgements, critic and dance anthologist Mindy Aloff was invited to add her 200+ pages.
Aloff isn’t a novice to the allure and power of book titles — her text on the dancing in Disney animation is wonderfully entitled Hippo in a Tutu, a reference that immediately calls to mind indelible images from Fantasia.
But Why Dance Matters isn’t about Why Dance Matters. Not even close. It is, instead a meandering memoir of how certain dances had certain effects on a certain writer in mid-and late-20th century New York (with a few happy travels elsewhere). By being so deeply personal and idiosyncratic — and so dependent on what was programmed by certain theaters, in certain years — it distorts the very topic it is intended to illuminate.
In the academy and in American culture at large, dance has often had to defend its legitimacy. Blame Puritanism or even the unconscious evocation of suffering, “dancing” plague victims in medieval Europe, something Mindy Aloff alludes to in an amusingly dialogic discussion of Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In the United States, social and concert dance, not to mention the spiritual and ritual dancing of some communities, have often been labeled obscene or blasphemous. Polyrhythmic Black dance forms have been typified — even as they were denigrated and appropriated — as “natural” (read: unskilled) and as “mere” entertainment undeserving of serious interrogation and analysis.
Overcoming those suspicions has required quite a bit of conceptual heaving lifting. Strategies have ranged from the anthropological (every culture has included some form of dancing), to the neurological (our telomeres are strengthened and enlarged by energetic movement) to the formally aesthetic (as in discussions of dance’s alignment with values and experiments in visual art, architecture, and musical structures) and the ever-popular category of self-improvement (lose weight! Keep youthful!). If you need a justification for enjoying dance, go ahead and adopt the one you prefer.
But Aloff is on a different track. She tips her scholarly hat to some of these arguments in passing, but what is really interesting to her is not why dance matters, but how it manages to convey certain ideas and ideals — that is, how it works as an embodied language.
Aloff offers her own deeply informed — yet very partial — associations. She begins with a shrewd gendered/racial/psychological reading of Helen Levitt’s wonderful 1940 photo of two children dancing in East Harlem, and goes on to memories of the mismatch between her changing adolescent body and her dreams of being a classical ballet dancer and hours spent in theatres and rewinding the films at Lincoln Center’s performing arts library. Her descriptions are fresh and often beautiful. She has a gift for conveying the vicarious experience of an audience member, a point of view that isn’t always explicit in dance writing of any era.
Describing the tiny children running out from Mother Ginger’s skirts during a Nutcracker performance she writes
on the children, aiming to do the steps just right, [their] simple action offers the kind of breath-holding suspense that even an adult can feel when having to carry a goblet filled a little too high and only the surface tension of the liquid keeps the wine from spilling over the rim.
In a description of the slow-motion solos of Eiko Otake
she can alter an onlooker’s internal clock and expectations so as to call attention to larger forces—time as measured by light or temperature change, space as measured by whether it is filled with or absent a body and since Eiko’s is a tragic art, dark deterioration as measured by the foreclosure of possibility.
Aloff presents unusual juxtapositions. Her comparison of Fred Astaire’s for-the-masses illusory feat of dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding and Trisha Brown’s esoteric postmodern actual Man Walking Down the Side of a Building has this sizzling payoff:
And that is what Fred Astaire and Trisha Brown had in common – the dream of telling Newton to take a hike, a taste for working out the logistics to realize it, and the perseverance to realize it so that’s it’s interesting to observe.
Sadly, the majority of Aloff’s free associations do not line up as provocatively. There’s very little rhyme or reason to her segues from one period or one genre to another, no overall argument she seems to be piecing together as she thumbs through her personal memory scrapbook.
Why Dance Matters is not a volume that will age well, and not only because of its up-to-the-moment references to Tik Tok, pandemic closures, and the invasion of Ukraine. That many of today’s most challenging movement artists are not included here is something that can be forgiven: the author had to draw her finish line somewhere.
No, the problem is more fundamental. Why Dance Matters is locked into a fundamentally Eurocentric concert dance repertory with, arguably, Balanchine as its apotheosis. Clearly, this is a reflection of the proportions of what, over a long career, Aloff (and I) saw and wrote about. Yet when a non-western dancer such as the Myanamar experimental artist Aye Ko slips into the narrative, his work is not contextualized by any history of Southeast Asian dance or even the history of international dance exchange: it is described in terms of what it offers to the Western, postmodern discourse of what dance is or is not. Similarly, Aloff’s description of the trauma faced by classical Cambodian dancers who survived the killing fields (1975-79) quickly turns to a discussion of how Rodin drew their unusual arm and body positions in 1906, and his ideas about the difference between anatomical correctness and poetic truth about motion.
Even as she cites the leading scholars of Black dance forms, Aloff’s discussions of Black artists and Black vernacular dance forms is truncated, and arguably misleading for anyone other than a specialist. A number of readers might frown at her decision to spend most of her discussion of choreographer and ethnographer Katherine Dunham contemplating the latter’s relation with Balanchine, comparing the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky with Concerto Barocco instead of investigating what it meant to Dunham to bring elements of Caribbean and Haitian dance to film and the concert stage, and what it meant to her students that she codified a technique that could transmit that form of dancing across borders. There’s almost no hip hop in Why Dance Matters — the one scene where it is described is, curiously enough, a youth workshop that happens under the “high culture” auspices of the Metropolitan Museum. Reading this book, you’d never know that Bronx-born hip hop is the foundation for the 21st century’s most cherished and globally distributed dance language. Aloff doesn’t even seem interested in investigating how that happened, or why that might be so.
Why does dance matter? It’s a mystery like anything that has to do with humans’ apparently hardwired need to communicate or create beauty. Dance is made of the irreducible bodies in which we find ourselves – no special equipment required. Dancing together synchronizes groups in shared celebration, as at a wedding, and shared protest as the toyi toyi of South African rebellion. Virtuosity in the body demonstrates what is possible; movement amplifies our presence. Regrettably, in Why Dance Matters, Mindy Aloff’s prose flickers as if her text were as evanescent as the dancing to which it refers.
Debra Cash is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance and serves on the Board of the Arts Fuse.