From the Guest Editor of this Special Edition on Dance on the Popular Screen/Popular Screendance, December 2019
Why should we pay attention to popular screendance? What kind of pleasure and critique can dance on the popular screen generate in viewers? These are the kinds of questions that came to my mind when proposing this special issue for Peephole Journal. These questions drive my research and are constantly present when I watch any kind of screen text on any kind of screen. Dance on the popular screen inevitably finds me, even if I am not looking for it.
This phenomenon is, in a way, historical. Dance and the popular screen have been in a pretty tightly knitted relationship since the inception of the moving picture medium at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, as film scholar and philosopher Noel Carroll has pointed out,"Almost since the inception of moving pictures, those pictures have often featured dance. The obvious reason for this is that the natural subject of moving pictures is movement."1 As far as the dance on the popular screen narrative goes, it usually starts with the birth of the moving picture medium and its relation to and featuring of dance and dancers from its early stages onwards. Dance scholar Erin Brannigan has observed that there are numerous examples of short dance films from the early days of the moving picture medium, which display dancers from vaudeville, burlesque and the music hall tradition, tracing a direct link to popular dance performances,2 locating the roots of the classic Hollywood musical format with its song-and-dance production numbers as an extension of the experiments of early cinema. The connection between dance and screen technologies also comes up in Tom Gunning's work on the cinema of attractions. The cinema of attractions is, as Gunning argues, a cinema that has the "ability to show something,"3 which means it is based on a demonstration of what cinema can do through the technologies of the new medium. And, indeed, Gunning himself states that with the increasing importance of narrative films after 1906/7, the cinema of attractions went "underground" and influenced the aesthetics of the song-and-dance numbers in musical films.4 This in turn impacted the aesthetics of early 1980s music videos that feature dance as well as the dance and musical films of the 1980s, which in turn came to bear on dance on the popular screen in the new millennium, where dance was not just increasingly visible again in the movies and on TV, but also came to find new sites for moving on digital screens.
At the end of this year, but also at the end of a decade that has seen more and more dance on screen texts come to life across an even bigger range of media – cinema, television, YouTube, Instagram, Vine (RIP), TikTok, you name it – there will probably be some dance content being seen and/or going viral at any given moment. This resonates with screendance scholar and practitioner Douglas Rosenberg's note that "the screen has expanded—or shrunk—into a site-specific space with an infinite horizon, a landscape of potential that has converted the body to a reference point, a theory, a visual metaphor, or even an absent space of contemplation."5 I want to add to Rosenberg's list of what the body and/or dance on screen can be. As a landscape of potential, popular screendance has also expanded the potential of what the popular screendance body can become, stand for and resist, since the popular screen is not just an empty void of entertainment to be shrugged off but has the potential to, in line with the cinema of attractions, show something and, by showing something, doing something. As popular dance and performance scholar Melissa Blanco Borelli observes, "Popular culture [including popular screendance] spills out into our everyday interactions and it is perhaps the most important site from which one might engage in dynamic discussions . . . about politics, class, sexuality, or consumer capitalism."6
Thinking through the meanings, places, affects, critiques, and experiences of dance on the popular screen, this issue of Peephole features seven essays from scholars/writers aligned with and/or committed to dance on the popular screen in varying degrees: some always, some sometimes, some for this special issue and some because there is this film dance moment that they can't seem to shake off.
The first four essays of this special issue investigate what kinds of critical viewing pleasures dance on the popular screen generates. Russell Manning explores his fascination and excitement for the big dance number in 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) by using Nietzsche and Marx to make a case for this dance number working as a kind of short-lived but nevertheless potent remedy against alienation. Wesley Lim, expanding the world of screendance to include figure skating, looks at the affect, excitement and attachment that was generated by the "wildness" of Tonya Harding's first triple axle on live television, the video of which made it on to the YouTube archive of pre-Internet, pre-YouTube television moments. Alex Harlig, sticking with the YouTube theme, explores how wordplay combinations, metaphor and mimesis in YouTube viral choreographer Janelle Ginestra's dance video to Ariana Grande's song "7 Rings" (2019) establish a connection between the choreography and the song and, as an extension between the choreographer, the musician and fan-spectators. My own essay muses about David Rose's dancey lip sync to Tina Turner's song "Simply the Best" in the television show Schitt's Creek (CBS, 2015–) to contemplate notions of queer tenderness as they are expressed through the dancing body in a very casual and non-choreographed moment of screendance.
The remaining three essays turn to questions of what happens when popular screendance challenges the norms of race, gender and otherness. Dara Milovanović explores the choreographic male authorship of Bob Fosse and how the corporeality of his female dancer-collaborators can challenge the masculinist notion of authorship in dance through an analysis of Michelle Williams performance as Gwen Verdon in the FX mini-series Fosse/Verdon (2019). Kelly Bowker concentrates on Lil Buck's performance in the car commercial for the Lexus LC 500 to critique the spectacularization of black bodies, and Sumedha Bhattacharyya and Beatriz Herrera Corado engage in an open-ended conversation, located in their perspectives as Global South dance practitioners, about how to read and think through the way that dancing is used in DC's new film Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) to denote "otherness."
I am particularly thrilled about the range of voices from a range of places that are featured in this end-of-year, end-of-decade issue and hope there will be more writers and thinkers and movers and emoters, thinking-moving through the folds and celluloid of popular screendance.