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Jamison Curcio

Professor Robinson

Final Paper

17 May 2018

Slave Auctions and Dance Auditions and Performance : Comparing the Exploitation of Black

Bodies in Dance

It is always nerve racking auditioning for a dance work. From the moment one steps into

the room, the body is examined not only for execution but for the facility and how usable it is to

complete phrase work. When a director is looking at the dancers, they notice their musicality,

technique, and determination to stand out. Wishing this was all the same for every director, the

directors sometimes look at bodies and judge them before seeing them take up space. This

examining of the body aligns with the ideals of what the dance world believes is an ideal dancer

body. Bodies that do not fit this description are cast aside and often told they did not even have a

chance, to begin with, because of their figure. These bodies that are not allowed to carve the

space are often black bodies. Black bodies struggle to get the recognition they deserve because

the structures and way their bodies are presented. Analyzing the excuses as to why black bodies

are judged, one can look at how the bodies were similar targeted and exposed in slave auctions.

The dehumanizing descriptions used for consideration for labor is currently embedded into the

dance audition process when selecting dancers for works. In both cases, the body has been

described as a means to benefit, benefiting the ones in charge and not the people inhabiting the
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bodies. Making the connection between slave auctions and dance auditions in regards to the

black body adds generates the conversation around slave auction practices still being prevalent in

the modern day. Two foundational primary sources bridging this connection are Olaudah

Equiano’s ​The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano,​ and Frederick Douglass’s ​Narrative.

Equiano, and Douglass’ autobiographies were subjected to the horrors of slave auctions and

establish concrete and vivid images that recount the ways in which the black body is persecuted.

Like dance auditions, the three authors illustrate how black bodies were inspected and

scrutinized. Depicting the historical view, one is able to track how the legacy of slave auctions

translates into dance auditions through these three sources. To provide context as to how this

claim plays out in real life, this paper will investigate the Goucher Dance Department, and

“Roots” the West African piece performed at the Fall concert in 2017. Through further research,

one can ask how do slave auctions and dance auditions compare for black bodies?

To start, slave auctions, were an economic factor and benefit for slave owners. However,

slave auctions held a crucial role at the beginning efforts to strip Africans of their culture,

identity, and humanity. During slave auctions, people simply became bodies and selling objects.

In the autobiography Narrative, Douglass describes having to participant in something like a

slave auction was on his list of worsts. Douglass states, “We were all ranked together at the

valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep,

and swine” (Douglass, 133). This description in which Douglass is depicting is dehumanizing in

the sense that people were lined up to be evaluated, and were compared to animals. The lining up

to be evaluated in this manner connects to the ideas that when the bodies are lumped together,

they are in a space waiting to judge them, no matter the background of who they are, just like in
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a dance audition. Douglass later goes on the say, “There were horses and men, cattle and

women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected

to the same narrow examination” (Douglass, 133). Slaves were stripped of their humanity,

though they were never called or treated as human beings by slave owners, to being treated and

categorized with animals. Slave owners saw slaves as property and animals, making slaves more

easy to control because, by participating in the selling and buying of slaves, they were stripping

them of their humanity. In the faction Roots, Kunta Kinte states, “he wondered how many of

these strange black ones there were in all of the touboo lands, those who didn’t seem to know or

care who or what they were” (Haley, 273). Kunta is observing as Africans are have been

intentional far removed from their culture, that they have lost sight of how they were before

being kidnapped. By slave owners being more invested in claiming slaves as property versus as

individual was apparent in Douglass’ narrative, and the stripping of culture from ​Roots​ created

the first step to rejecting black bodies in white spaces.

While the dehumanization of the black body was visible, slave owners also caught an

attraction with black bodies, seeing that they could use them. Once Africans were mentally,

emotionally, and physically dismissed of their identity and culture, it made it more accessible to

control and want to design a system for profit. In the narrative The Interesting Life of Olaudah

Equiano, Equiano provides context to the slave owners and their positions ton African bodies as

economic profits. Just like Douglass, Equiano insinuates, by classification, that the African

bodies are only taken seriously and hold such significance because the African bodies generate

profit for slave owners. The purpose of auctioning slaves was to sell them in exchange for money

and to purchase a slave stood to increase labor for a developing plantation. Only when the black
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bodies are taken seriously, did the slave owners “care” and were invested in them. Equiano

enunciates, “On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard

where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best” (Equiano, 180).

Equiano very critically expresses the eagerness of the slave owners. Suddenly, the slave owners

take attention and recognition of the fact that there are individuals who can do what they want

them to do. Inherently, slave owners are supporting that there is value in black bodies, and

appreciate them because they have the capacity to dominate them.

Feeding of the idea of dehumanizing black bodies, in the dance world, the

dehumanization of the black body has to do with fear of that body becoming superior and the

white body in predominantly white spaces feeling inferior. Everyone has a different idea of what

it means to have a black body and where those bodies should be in space. The major stereotype

that is coined for black bodies is that they are particularly strong and muscular. This stereotype

can make some black bodies tokens, but most have a hard time navigating the dance world

knowing when someone takes one look at their body, they are negatively judged. In the book The

Black Dancing Body by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, black ballerina Francesca Harper strongly

expresses, “I think it’s hard for black women...you have a double-edged sword: to be a strong

woman is not necessarily what people want all the time” (Dixon-Gottschild, 29). In addition to

her comment, how can a black dancer move through the dance world when they are naturally

built strong? What if, as Francesca Harper was saying, they do not want a strong dancer? The

minute a black body is spotted, stereotypes are reinforced. Interviewee Rennie Harris listed

statements he has received about his body, before even getting a chance to dance. “They kind of

stereotype our things and, on another level, the warm-up. I can always hear someone say, “‘Well
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you’re not made up for this,’ or ‘You don’t really warm up,’ or ‘You’re too muscular to do this,’

or ‘You need to do this, do that” (Dixon-Gottschild, 61). Inherently, Rennie Harris is making the

connection between being in class and having these comments mentioned to him and when

Africans are in an auction and slave owners are shouting various statements about their body. In

both cases, the comments made are usually negative and have nothing to do with who the

individual is as a person, but on their appearance. One can infer that there is a sense of

aggression and fear and push to silence and dehumanize these bodies in the spaces so they do not

have a voice or ever feel as though they will.

On the flip side, when we see black bodies being utilized in a dance setting, there are

often so few, that it reads that the black bodies are there to meet a quota, and are tokenized.

When coming across a black dancer body, white spaces will then fetishize these black bodies,

wanting nothing more than to be obsessed with it, but also appropriate it and take advantage of it.

When white spaces fetishize black bodies, there is an underlying power dynamic. This power

dynamic in white spaces relates to slave owners using slaves for their own benefit by either

selling them for money or buying them to work on their plantation. Both correlations are driven

by the desire to benefit white spaces and not the black body involved. A white woman dancer

Merian Soto, when interviewed by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, proudly claimed “I think I wanted

to be black. I was really attracted to blackness--I wanted to be black...There was a sense of just

loving blackness” (Dixon-Gottschild, 40). Merian Soto later continues by admitting that she can

not really define what consists of African movement enough though she is eager to take on her
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own “blackness”. Merian Soto is a great example of the exploitation of black bodies and loving

them only when they intrigue someone for their own benefit or exploration.

In November 2017, the Goucher Dance Department presented a West African work

called “Roots” choreographed by Stephanie Powell. The piece was the last piece in the concert, a

piece that a number of individuals were excited about. The portrayal of African culture on stage

was a tremendous deal, that led to an abundance of audience members. The piece started out with

the cast in the center of the stage with lowlights and moving in a ripple. However, once the lights

got brighter, the dispute began. The stage was loaded with dancers, but there were only two

black dancers on each end of the stage, and the middle was spread with white people.

Conversations of cultural appropriation spread throughout the department, but conclusively, the

legacy of slave auctions and intention can be studied through this particular work and understand

why it got the reception it did. The method in which slave owners dismantled Africans of their

identity and culture, triggered comparisons to the West African work. “Hello, Dancers! The wait

is over! The 2017 Early Arrival Guest Artist is the amazing Stephanie Powell! Her photo and bio

are attached. She will be auditioning, teaching, and rehearsing during early arrival week to set a

West African/Contemporary work for the November concert. You must be a registered program

participant to audition” (Garofalo). This email blurb was sent out to all the dancers and seem as

though the department does not recognize that West African is a separate culture from

contemporary dance. To advance this claim, in a reflection of Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s book

Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance, reviewer John O. Perpener

emphasizes the significance of supporting one’s culture rather than putting one on a pedestal and

not endorsing the other. “As Brenda Dixon-Gottschild points out those who have been lulled into
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a Eurocentric point of view, give little thought to the African American contributions that are

woven into this fabric; they fail to see the elaborately contrived patterns of denial that have

minimized the significance of those contributions; and they do not recognize the coaster threads

of racial discrimination and exploitation that have affected the overall texture of America’s

cultural tapestry” (Perpener, 90-92). This is a fitting statement of the importance of identifying

when a system is stripping one’s culture away and not see the overlapping with another. Perpener

perfectly articulates the impact and how racial discrimination stems from the absence of being

equitable and transparent about how cultures converge with one another. Noticing the

combination of West African and Contemporary and the connection in relation to the tactics and

intentions behind slave auctions and the stripping beyond of one’s identity allows room for

additional conversations about the amalgamation of cultures.

The incentive to put out a West African piece also created a stir. The highlighting of a cultural

work was brought forth through the interest of the dance department, a proidently white

leadership. Why bring in a cultural work when highlighting black bodies has not been part of

your criteria? A perfect sentence that captures this by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is, “The idea that

skin-black skin-can be a costume is an extension of the idea that white skin is the norm and other

skins are deviations. For some white people, having a tan is the equivalent of putting on a

costume” (Dixon-Gottschild, 42). Dixon-Gottschild explains in a professional matter what it

means to highlight black bodies for a quota in today’s era, but also relating to slave auctions and

the recognizing the benefits of using black bodies for slave owners’ desire. To say that one was

able to do a West African, just because, as a white student, you were allowed to wear a lapa,

does not mean one knows anything about the culture, or what it means to be in a black body. The
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connection between slave auctions and dance auditions and performances is apparent in the

execution and the ways in which white spaces choose to interact with black bodies.