CHAIN BREAKER, TREND MAKER, MIND WAKER: Falling in Love with La Baker
Updated: Sep 20
MAKING OF AN 8-WEEK WONDER: How I Lost My 1st Belly Dance Teachers
BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, SILLY, SAVVY - Unearthing Missing Black Muses
In our last post, we delved back into the dance styles that influenced my earliest belly dancing and filled in the gaps when I couldn't find instruction or source materials. I had originally begun writing about this last spring, but was interrupted by a slight social hiccup. Ahem. Seeing as how the topics of this dance series are all rife with the magma that erupted, I took a pause and a detour before diving into the cross-pollination threads connecting Vaudeville, the Roaring 20s, the Shimmy, and belly dance.
While falling down this rabbit hole last month, I discovered Josephine Baker, one of my dance great-great-great-grandmothers and a performer who should have been one of my Muses all along. But, you know...she was Black, so I'd grown into my dance chops without ever knowing how amazing she is.
As I geeked out about her, I discovered that this quality went far beyond dance.
If you're short on time, here's a brief overview:
Or the full documentary - totally worth spending an hour along her path.
That documentary left me in awe. So did this video - such raw, passionate, unrestrained expression that I resonate with so deeply. This scene reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Cesar A. Cruz:
"Art should comfort the disturbed
and disturb the comfortable."
In the words of Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Author of The Black Dancing Body:
“It was like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It just set people crazy. Some people thought this was, like, the end of European civilization as we know it, you know? And the battlefield being Josephine Baker’s bum.”
“That black dancing body stood in stark contrast to the monarchical, hierarchical, vertically aligned body of European ballet. She disrupted that picture with all of the movements that actually go right back to minstrelsy: the Shimmy, the Mooch, the Mess Around, the Charleston. All of these things that, in the European mode would be considered awkward, become beautiful, sexy, silly, and savvy all at the same time.”
Regarding the (in)famous banana girdle:
“…and with her doing all those kind of movements that I’m describing, you can imagine that banana girdle going all over the place and it’s like, phalluses stimulated by female agency. You can look at it from the outside and think, ‘Oh, this is just a shake dancer,’ but if you look at it from the inside, again it’s this incredible female personality that is in possession of the male.”
While compiling links for this post, I stumbled upon a phenomenal gem by Sharon Ndi, a neuroscience and psychology student speaking about what Josephine Baker means to her - that yes, she was absolutely "a pretty dancer in a banana skirt" who represented the iconic "Jezebel" stereotype we covered lat time. (2-4)
But to truly appreciate her, we have to look past the beautiful, the silly, and the sexy. We have to look into the savvy.
"Josephine Baker loved to play into the Jezebel stereotype. She was making fun of it. And so she would do full dances where she was the 'sexy African woman running away from the white man's gun.' She knew what people saw her as and she played upon it. The issue is that, when history was written, they forgot the fact that she PLAYED upon the role. She was not the role."
Beyond the savvy, there is the powerful, the driven, the inspirational.
As I've mentioned, I have known the name Mata Hari since I was young, and we'll definitely be coming back to her. But Josephine Baker had a longevity on--and beyond--the Parisian stage that her Dutch counterpart did not. She also was a fully successful spy which earned her wartime decorations, instead of being demonized as a traitor and executed as a scapegoat like we're beginning to understand that Mata Hari was. (1, 7)
After the war, Josephine Baker did so much for desegregation and civil rights in the US - so why am I only hearing about her now?
For the same reasons that, last April and May, when I first started compiling the gobs of research and videos for this blog series, she didn't come up in my search results.
But she did this time!
Now when I watch her dance, I see the way she and her dance-grandchildren have traveled down through the ages into the styles that have molded me. Boldness, audacity, sensuality, unfettered passion, unique personal expression, storytelling, humor, sexual power, goofiness, playfulness, and astounding skill outside the rigors and strictures of formal training. Her legacy branches in a number of different directions, too often delineated by color and race.
But she, her predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants are here within us, whether we're aware of it or not.
On this side of the pond, an even more direct influence comes from all those dancers who remained here in the early 20th Century, shimmying, shaking, innovating, and messing around, even though they were the "wrong" skin color to be given places onscreen and on prestigious stages. So we shall have to revel in the few who were able to be seen, like La Baker.
True, there are aspects we can find to criticize in this tale. Even amidst her triumph as a Black female who rose to the top of acclaim and wealth at a time when Jim Crow was the norm, there is still Blackface and stereotypical exotification in her Paris shows. But it's a step in the right direction. If we look at it from the 1920s-30s lens, not our own, it's more than a step. It's multiple milestones beyond having to bow and scrape through back doors and use separate fucking toilets.
Also true, with her Rainbow Tribe of twelve adopted children from numerous nationalities and skin hues, the question has been raised around child exploitation, because she charged admission for people to come see this social experiment--she wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." (7) But sheesh, somebody was supporting an idealistic vision of harmony between all peoples decades ago.
If she hadn't been so swept under the carpet--both as one of those "dastardly exotic dancers" and as a Black, interracially married, bisexual female--more people like me could have been inspired by her examples so long ago. Who knows where we'd be now?
I sure don't. All I know is that, in the wake of yet more racially-driven travesty and atrocity, I'm glad this entire dance series got interrupted by the long-overdue explosion that has fostered the sharp change of trajectory our country has taken with regard to these matters.
Because these posts about the influences that shaped the styles of dancing I've melded together into this thing I do - these revolutionary dancers who broke the ballet mold...the unapologetically sensual and sexually awakened women who paved the way for me...the boundary defiers, the chain breakers, the brave visionaries who not only dreamed of equality and harmony but used their skills and resources to affect change in a positive direction...
These posts would not be complete without Josephine Baker.
Don't let the skit throw you. Seriously. Stick with this thoughtful young woman all the way through if you want to understand why I have a new she-ro, besides what Josephine Baker did for dance and entertainment.
IF YOU MISSED ANY OF THESE LINKS LAST TIME:
--Black Women's Sexuality: Dance & Sex, Shame & Celebration, Sexual Ignorance & Self-Love, Religion & Respect, Owning Power & the Abuse of It. Good advice no matter who you are.
5) The Wikis to scratch surfaces:
Extra Bonus for y'all: A dancer of our own time who continues this tradition of breaking the old boundaries, mindsets, and ballet molds--by BEING a ballerina at a time when she still has to personally tint her pointe shoes from "European Pink" to match her skin tone.
Such an inspiring course, even (especially) for those of us who suck at ballet, or don't even dance.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: FROM SHIM-SHAM TO SHIMMY: More forms that had a great influence on me while I was first learning belly dance: Tap & Swing Dance.
--OR if you'd like to head more into female sexuality, slut shame, trauma, and reclaiming power, you can find all that over HERE.