julia foulkes

Dance and the City

Festschrift for Rüdiger Kunow (2013)

All great art is born of the metropolis. — Ezra Pound

For some years now I have been pondering the ties between cities and the arts. This pondering began from one of those seemingly random questions in the oral defense of my dissertation on the development of modern dance in the United States in the 1930s. As I was articulating the Americanism of modern dance, a committee member asked, “But is New York American?” With a righteous New York manner, I defended the Americanism of my new home, contrasting its immigrant and ethnic pluralism with the homogeneity of the often valorized heartland. But I knew his question uncovered something I had not thought enough about: that the dancers I researched and wrote about almost all lived in New York, even if they toured the United States and sought national acclaim and nationalist meaning in their dance. I had moved to New York, in fact, to conduct my dissertation research but, even more, to walk the same streets as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, to imagine what diners they might have visited after long rehearsals in their studios. These dancers helped define my own sense of the city. And yet I had not thought thoroughly about how the city had defined them. How did this intertwining of arts and cities come about? And what are its consequences, for the arts and cities?

Looking for answers, I began to read and teach urban studies and saw the arts and cities as an intersection rather than a logical twinning or inevitability. I noted the ways in which certain cities at particular time became what I call “culture cities,” building on Lewis Mumford’s influential The Culture of Cities (1934) and Sharon Zukin’s important update to it, The Cultures of Cities (1995). In my rendering, “culture cities” are those cities whose arts gave them fame: Florence in the Italian Renaissance; Kyoto in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; Paris in the nineteenth century; New York in the twentieth. And when I looked around at the contemporary moment, in the first part of the twenty-first century, the mantle seemed to have moved to Berlin. Spending a year there in 2005-06, Berlin dazzled me: neighborhoods filled with artists from around the world flocking to the city for its big spaces and low rents; the half-demolished Palast der Republik featured a moving, strange exhibition on death in the carcass of the building; centuries-old museums undergoing monumental renovations; and graffiti everywhere, both that painted new and the vigorously protected old on the remnants of the Berlin wall.

From Berlin, back to New York, and various projects in between, I have come back to dance to think through larger questions about art and the city. Dance has an ambivalent place in the academy even though dance scholarship has been at the forefront of our understanding of embodiment, revealing the historically situated gender, sexual, and racial norms that cleave to bodies. Much dance scholarship, however, does not move beyond questions of identity. In a parallel myopia, most current research on arts and the cities focuses on the arts as economic drivers of development and the economic argument comes at the cost of narrowing our understanding of the range of the arts’ impact and entrenchment in urban life. I believe this narrowing also comes from often ignoring dance. Dance, ephemeral and marginal even in the realm of the arts, then, reveals elements in the intersection of arts and cities beyond the economic and, I would argue, beyond embodied notions of identity.

Five categories show the ways in which dance reveals the workings of cities and the ways in which cities impact dance: artistic genres borne of the city; spaces and districts of the city in which the arts dominate; municipal policy and politics that impact the arts; artistic representations of cities; and the art of urban life. Although I draw primarily from research about New York and the context of the arts in the U.S., I believe these categories are useful beyond them. Cities make up more and more of our world. Dance, I believe, helps us to understand that global reality.

Particular genres of art have often grown up in and because of cities. The tie between urbanization and photography is perhaps the most common example of an artistic genre borne of the city. Photography arose from increasing technical and scientific innovations that accompanied the industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century. It is not surprising, then, that city subjects and landscapes were often at the end of the lens of a camera. By the turn of the twentieth century, photography became intertwined with political movements wrought in urban settings, such as the attention to housing and poverty that Jacob Riis’s photographs inspired and the labor conditions that Lewis Hines exposed.

Genres of dance, too, have been formed in and because of cities. Numerous dance scholars, including myself, have demonstrated how modern dance developed as part of the intellectual and cultural life of New York in the first part of the twentieth century amid debates about feminism and modernism especially. A more obvious and recent example is breakdancing, which rose from the difficult conditions of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. African American and Latino young men melded together elements of Caribbean, African, and American moves to spin, pop, shuffle, twist, and pose on collapsed cardboard boxes on the street corners of the Bronx. In these new dance genres, the city stands not just as setting for an artistic ferment but as contributing conditions – whether intellectual debate or circumstances of poverty and injustice.

The physical and spatial factors so elemental in dance also reveal those characteristics of cities in a second category of intersection. Buildings, space, mobility, legibility, scale – these are key modes of analysis in urban studies, architecture, sociology, and geography. But they often remain abstract and theoretical. Dance enlivens these concepts, making material and visceral what it means to inhabit the city.

The development of Lincoln Center in Manhattan in the mid-20th century is a prime example of the multiple spatial factors embedded in the arts. As a grand performing arts center, Lincoln Center imposed a new arts district in a dense city by razing a large swath of older residential and commercial buildings. The superblock structure lifted off the grid and created an elite destination for music, opera, ballet, and theater. Lincoln Center affirmed the attendant class and racial exclusivity associated with the arts as the demographics of the neighborhood shifted to more white and affluent at a time when the city was becoming increasingly African American, Puerto Rican, and poor. But if these planning and infrastructural changes conformed to traditional expectations of the high arts, performances outside the theaters on the plaza confounded these traditions. These outdoor performances began in 1970, just after the complex was complete, and drew a variety of arts and audiences – and featured a great deal of dance. The outdoor plaza served as the stage for double-dutch jump rope competitions and a break-dancing contest in 1981 that made hip hop visible worldwide. This marking of space may be emblematic of the persistent and structural nature of racial discrimination – elite high arts inside the theaters and popular art forms outside them — but it also reveals the ambiguities and contradictions of the spatial workings of city centers. (Foulkes, “The Other West Side Story.”)

More explicit politics than spatial dynamics represent a third category of the intersection of dance and the city. Politics has also long been a concern of dance scholars who have conducted thorough investigations into the ideologies driving particular dance works and choreographers. Most of that scholarship has looked at how dancers applied political theory and beliefs to movement. What remains less covered is how the politics of cities impacted dance. This has occurred on the level of municipal funding or as a context from which political thought develops. On this latter perspective, Daniel Walkowitz’s insightful recent work on English country dance suggests ways in which this older folk form became an urban popular culture form in the U.S. in the 20th century, and, more important, in concert with changing notions of liberalism. He argues that folk dancing helped create the Anglo-American citizen in the modern city. White people – and, increasingly throughout the century, white ethnics such as Jews and Italians — created a cultural form in opposition to the growing dominance of African American cultural forms such as soul and hip hop.

More common, however, has been scholarship on government support for the arts. The New Deal programs and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities were consequential landmarks in support of the arts and had notable impact on dance. But, particularly since the 1960s, federal-level support has been miniscule compared to state and especially municipal support, and there is more to understand about this level of government support and interaction with the arts. Political wrangling over money, architecture, and dance resulted in the move of the New York City Ballet from City Center to Lincoln Center, for example, and involved the state’s governor but, perhaps more critical, the machinations of philanthropists such as Lincoln Kirstein and John D. Rockefeller III in battle with Mayor Robert Wagner and the master builder Robert Moses. Municipal politics created the context and many of the headaches involved in building a new home for the New York City Ballet.

Perhaps the most plentiful exploration of the intersection of dance and the city has been analyses of representations of cities in choreography, in film and on stage. The making and reception of Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) shows how much our understanding of cities is tied to such representations. Dancing, playful sailors enjoying the city portrayed the commonness of military men in uniform during World War II. But the dance reminded people of the joy and possibility in these sailors, rather than the harsh realities of wartime. Robbins, on tour with American Ballet Theatre while conceptualizing the ballet, witnessed sailors “jitterbuggin like crazy” in Philadelphia and sought to translate in the dance the liberation of leave from more intense duties. The photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt just a year later of the jubilant kiss between a sailor and a nurse in Times Square that has come to symbolize the Allied victory of World War II only confirmed the relevancy – and buoyancy – of Fancy Free.

At the same time as Robbins was witnessing and re-imagining jitterbugging sailors, he was noting darker aspects of the city. In the summer of 1943 as he began conceptualizing Fancy Free, he recorded a scene in the late night hours on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, watching a “group of negroes” and sailors watching a “drunk whore…stagger,” changing from “whore + doll to little girl + person.” (Robbins, [“August 25/43”], Notebooks.) He laid out sketches for ballets that were never created, most of which reflected the more somber side of his home. “My city lies between two rivers – on a small island,” began one sketch.

My city is tall and jagged – with gold + slated towers. My city is honeycombed with worm tunnels of roads. My city is cut + recut + slashed by hard car filled streets. My city chokes on its breath, and sparkles with its false lights – and sleeps restlessly at night. My city is a lone man walking at night down an empty street watching his shadow grow longer as he passes the last lamp post, seeing no comfort in the blank dark windows, and hearing his footsteps echo against the building + fade away –….Have you heard the voice of my city fighting + hitting + hurt. (Robbins, [“My city lies between two rivers…”].)

This image of the city throbs with loneliness, grief, alienation, and defiance. While the sexual pull between men and women found its way into Fancy Free, the desperation of these scenarios of the city would come out in West Side Story (musical 1957; film 1961).

And it is West Side Story that illustrates the last category I have suggested at the intersection of dance and the city, the art of urban life. Scholars and devotees of cities often try to identify fundamental elements of urban life that capture the special quality of city residence that goes beyond demographics, policy, even artistic representations. Jane Jacobs articulated one of the most compelling, describing the intricacy of the sidewalk ballet of her street in the West Village:

This order [of the city] is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations. (Jacobs, 50.)

Fluidity, spontaneity, action and reaction, unspoken but bonding interactions between people: Jacobs suggests that dance is the art of urban life. This conceit valorizes dance and the city at the same time, creating an ineluctable attachment between the two — so it is surprising that dance scholars have not been driven to tug, pull, embrace, even upend this concept. As urban scholars have noted, Jacobs’s street is fanciful in more ways than one. As much as the sidewalk ballet reveals about dependency and small parts of an intricate web, it also masks larger realities of poverty, discrimination, and injustice. Sidewalks themselves are not present in most cities of the world.

But Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet has had worldwide impact on ideas about how cities should operate. I would add another dance to that vision, though. Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities appeared the same year as the movie version of West Side Story, in 1961, and much of the musical and movie assert Jacobs’ claims about the centrality of the street to urban life. But it also added discrimination and harm. Gangs were the prominent example of the era of the threat to safety that propelled much of Jacobs’ argument against the imposition of superblock structures and housing projects. And yet the danced prologue of West Side Story asserts the importance of minute-by-minute living in the city – aware, reactive, assertive – that encompasses the aspirations of gangs and the feel of urban life on the ground. Not as harmonic as the sidewalk ballet that Jacobs describes, the gangs mark their space by big bold gestures: arms shooting upward topped by widened fingers, legs splayed sideways; swift glissades across stretches of street; walking in a pack, someone breaking into a stylized motion, then nonchalantly returning to walk again in the group. These scenes reveal an urban life that occurs not only as specific action on a street but as an orientation of being and moving in the world. West Side Story’s dance conveys the intractability of urban problems as matched by the dynamism and fullness of people and place.

Jacobs’ book and Robbins’ dance mark the growing awareness that we live in an increasingly urban world. According to the United Nations, over half the world’s population currently lives in cities, with Africa and Asia leading further dramatic urban population growth over the next few decades. The challenges of the twentieth-first century will largely be challenges lived through and resolved in cities. In response, I would like to arm more scholars with greater awareness of and attention to dance. It may be implausible to suggest that dance has a role in these challenges. But if dance is a lens by which we seek to understand cities, then I think we are prepared for changeability, for mobility, for a heightened awareness of interactions between people and between people and their environments, and for recognizing the possibilities and constraints of our bodies in the material world.

I think city residents are already more aware of these insights of dance than scholars. Two recent dance phenomena brought together these thoughts: the smashing worldwide success of Pina, Wim Wenders’ tribute to Pina Bausch, and the viral sensation Girl Walk//All Day, featuring the dance of Anne Marsen, the music of Girl Talk, and the filmmaking of Jacob Krupnick. Pina brings alive and close the labor and love of an esteemed choreographer, one known for her gripping theatrical dramas, rendered full in 3D by an esteemed filmmaker. Some of its most compelling moments are shot on the streets of Wuppertal. Girl Walk//All Day is an extended music video, borne of the internet and succeeding by its parameters, following a young woman breaking out from ballet class to the streets of New York and rousing the city to dance with her. They may be more different than they are alike. But both reveal the ties between dance and the city, not just using the streets of Wuppertal and New York as scene sets but revealing how dance emanates from cities themselves. In these films, dance becomes a language of the city, formalizing gesture and movement that make up the daily interaction of city residents. They render the ties between dance and the city structural and stylized.

The allure of Pina and Girl Walk//All Day suggest some of that awareness but pale in comparison to the widening popularity of flash mobs, which have garnered thousands of participants around the world and millions of viewers on the internet. Flash mobs take the density and randomness of the city and turn it into momentary harmony. They offer a surprised coordination that only reveals the chaotic, ambiguous, and uncertain underbelly of the city. Flash mobs such as the one to “Do Re Mi” in the Antwerp train station illustrate the intersections between dance and the city that I have described. They are borne of and depend on the city’s density and chaos; they expose the norms of space in their unusual and unexpected claiming of it; they confound municipal authorities, who are seeking to find ways to regulate such happenings; they offer representations of a place – Antwerp as an updated European city, making “Do Re Mi” funky; and they remind us of life in the city — of joy, of moving and being together in an alienating and strange world. As many times as I have watched the video of that particular flash mob in Antwerp, I am ever drawn to two women: an older white women in a hat, dashing and elegant, with mouth open in wonder, and a woman whose dress suggests that she is an immigrant from Africa who begins to mimic the dance steps of the mob. They reside in the same city but they are brought together, in wonder and momentary harmony, by dance.


Works Cited
Do Re Mi,” Antwerp train station, Accessed 2010.
Foulkes, Julia. “The Other West Side Story: Urbanization and the Arts Meet at Lincoln Center,” Amerikastudien v.52 #2 (2007): 227-47.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
Krupnick, Jacob, director. Girl Walk All Day, 2011.
Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938.
Robbins, Jerome. [“August 25/43”], Notebooks, n.d. [1943], Personal Papers, box 40, folder 3, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Robbins, Jerome, choreography; Leonard Bernstein, music. Fancy Free. New York City Ballet, 1944.
—-. [“My city lies between two rivers…”], n.d. [1940s], Personal Papers, box 25, folder 6, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Walkowitz, Daniel. City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
Wenders, Wim, director. Pina: dance, dance, otherwise we are lost. Neue Road Movies and Eurowide, producers, 2010.
Wise, Robert and Jerome Robbins, directors. West Side Story. Mirisch Brothers, 1961.
Zukin, Sharon. The Cultures of Cities. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.