Thursday, January 21, 2016

Megan Pugh's "America Dancing"

Megan Pugh is a critic and poet living in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches at Lewis and Clark College. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, The Oxford American, and many other magazines.

Pugh applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk, and reported the following:
If you open America Dancing to page 99, you won't get a sense of my prose. Instead, you'll find a photograph—a man and a woman, dancing. Here's the caption: "Vernon and Irene Castle, ca. 1914 (Library of Congress)." The Castles' movements look simultaneously intimate and large. They hold hands, their bodies just a few inches apart, yet each kicks a leg—Vernon's goes forward, Irene's back—and their arms stretch out to the sides.

In the years before World War I, the Castles helped spread and popularize ragtime dance across the nation. They presided over an empire of clubs, cabarets, and consumer goods: you could watch them dance at Castles in the Air, the Castle Club, Castles by the Sea, and the Castle House, where you could also sign up for lessons. You could buy Castle corsets, Castle hats, or Castle bands to keep your Castle-style bobbed hair in place while dancing. The Castles' success came not just because of their skill, but also their savvy: ragtime dance was associated with the black and working-class dancers who'd pioneered it, but the Castles sanitized it—just enough—to appease middle- and upper-class white anxieties.

The Castles don't have starring roles in America Dancing—those go to the chief subjects of each chapter: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Agnes de Mille, Paul Taylor, and Michael Jackson. Yet each chapter includes a large supporting cast: the Castles, for example, were models for Astaire and Rogers. And their career helps us see a recurring pattern in American dance history, and one that's central to my book: though people don't always want to acknowledge it, dance moves are forever crossing lines of race and class.

In the architecture of the Castle House, the Castles seemed to provide their white patrons a choice between recognizing black artistry or ignoring it: the building had two long staircases, each leading to a separate realm. Here's how I describe it, just a little after page 99: "Up one set of stairs was the masterful band of James Reese Europe, who, a few years later, accompanied the 369th Regiment to France, helped buoy the spirits of World War I soldiers with music, and became a hero for black America. Up the other set of stairs reigned white pianist Henry Lodge, composer of turkey trot spin-off "Oh! You Turkey."
Learn more about the book and author at Megan Pugh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue