How Dance Reflected Change in 20th Century America | Rebekah Kowal’s "How to Do Things with Dance"

When I asked Rebekah Kowal about the audience for her book, How To Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America, she summoned up an image one could imagine encountering on a stage full of dancers.

“I try to think of these concentric circles of readers,” the University of Iowa associate professor of dance told me.

(Speaking of circles, let me say at the outset that Kowal and I run in the same circles at the university. I work for Hancher, a major presenter of dance, and we often collaborate with our friends in the Department of Dance.)

As one might expect, she was careful to cover her “scholarly bases.” She also imagines the book as useful to choreographers as it demonstrates that “we don’t have to act out the changes, but we can actually become the change we seek.” Next come the dance lovers for whom the book might offer the opportunity to reflect on familiar works in new ways, to “look again,” as Kowal put it. And finally, there’s the broader audience made up of readers with an interest in the post-World War II period in American society.

I hope you fall into one or more of those categories, because if you do, I’m confident you’ll enjoy this book.

How To Do Things with Dance is a fascinating survey of the ways in which major modern dance choreographers—Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor (who, during an interview with Kowal, suggested the photo of himself that ended up on the book’s cover), Katherine Dunham, and Anna Halprin among them—were responding to the prevailing cultural norms of their day.

Kowal takes the reader through a progression in which these choreographers  moved their art form from one that tended to reflect (and sometimes subvert) normative values to one in which new and alternative ideas were embodied in the dance itself.

“I want to change people’s minds about dance and dancers,” she said, suggesting that many people might incorrectly believe that dance either presents an idealized reality or is too abstract. Kowal believes it does more. “Dance can serve as an agent of social and political change and can illuminate areas of our lives that have not been considered. . . . Dance ideas are embodied and no less important than ideas expressed in other media.”

She sets forth this thesis with a passage that gives a good sense of the rhythm of her prose:

Throughout this book, my goal will be to show how modern dance artists participated alongside other Americans in the postwar cultural work of “world-making.” At stake for them, as for other Americans, were prevailing conceptions and practices of lived experience. Suggesting that doing something on stage was tantamount to, or at least a rehearsal for, doing it in the world, their dances substantiated the emerging body politic in unexpected and transformative ways. Against long odds, dance makers used their work to actualize unusual possibilities for being by “doing” them in dance, deploying action to blur boundaries between the theatrical and the real so as to engage audiences . . . in a shared endeavor to make meaning of their individual and collective experiences.

Dance is, of course, Kowal’s central subject, but she doesn’t consider it in a vacuum. Rather, she delves deeply into the larger American culture—its expectations concerning gender, its fear of communism, its shifting housing landscape, and more. She also explores issues of race, a subject that wasn’t originally a major part of this project when it began as her doctoral dissertation in American Studies at New York University.

As she shared her work with scholars in the field, however, she was encouraged to more fully integrate questions of race into her study. The fruits of that effort include an absorbing chapter focused on Pearl Primus, an African-American who spent time in Africa engaging with the tribal and traditional dance of various groups. Kowal delineates the liminal space in which Pearl found herself—an outsider in both America and Africa—and how she sought to negotiate that space in her writing and her choreography.

While researching this book, Kowal amassed so much material that she’s already planned another one, whose working title is The World Dances Through Manhattan: Dance Imports in a Globalizing World, 1943-1961. It’s still a couple of years away, but based on the success of How To Do Things with Dance, I’m eager for it already.   

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