Dancing Race and Masculinity Across Midcentury Screens: The Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, and Elvis Presley on American Film and TV

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This dissertation explores the relationship between dance cultures and media cultures in the United States between the 1940s and the 1960s, when both were experiencing a period of multiplicity and flux in their forms. Bringing together theories and methodologies from dance studies, media studies, and cultural history, it considers how some of the era’s most prolific performers of dance on screen—the Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, and Elvis Presley—performed entangled and codetermining codes of masculinities and race. Through close analysis of these stars’ key performances in Hollywood films and on broadcast television, this project traces the ways in which blackness was sanitized, appropriated, adapted, and performed by variously privileged bodies. Additionally, it highlights how these performances of blackness were imbricated with notions of and anxieties around masculinity. It shows how the Nicholases were often presented as ever-youthful to neutralize their otherwise threatening black masculinity, while Kelly and Presley functioned as structured absences of blackness, possessing bodies that could access screen spaces and perform black dance—via a post-blackface practice the author terms “blackbodying”—in order to affirm their masculinity. This dissertation pays special attention to the performers’ transitions across and between media, as film and television each brought their own grammars to bear on the presentation of dance and the dancers’ shifting styles over time. By examining these performance negotiations, this project reveals the changing possibilities for how blackness and masculinity could be staged during a period of rapid social and cultural change in U.S. history.

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  • 03/30/2018
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