Current Issue, Vol. 31 No.3

Collective Choreography for Weathering Black Experience: Janelle Monáe and The Memphis “Tightrope” Dance

by Dana Venerable
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2019)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

During a 2010 tour of the United Kingdom, artist and musician Janelle Monáe visited the BBC Radio 1Xtra show with MistaJam to promote her 2010 album The ArchAndroid and its first single “Tightrope.” Dressed in black riding boots and a military jacket reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s 1980s fashion, she gave MistaJam a dance lesson. What Monáe calls the “Tightrope” dance—choreographed by Ladia Yates in collaboration with Lil Buck and Dr. Rico[1], but formally credited to “Janelle Monáe and the Memphis Jookin’ Community”[2]—involves mostly footwork reminiscent of West-African Juba dance, the Cakewalk social dance from the nineteenth century,[3] and Jackson’s 1983 Moonwalk dance. The Tightrope dance’s main influence is jookin,’ a social dance style rooted in Memphis, Tennessee, that emphasizes smooth footwork and steps. It concludes with Monáe lifting one foot in the air and moving it in a zigzag or S-like motion, keeping her other foot on the ground while switching her ankle from left to right. Another person behind the scenes recorded her teaching the dance and the show uploaded the footage to YouTube. Despite the video’s low quality, it captures Monáe’s bodily and verbal explanations of the dance. The recording may be just one of many Tightrope dance lessons given by Monáe, perhaps during similar promotional interviews. Here, Monáe presents the dance verbally over the airways and visually through a video that has amassed about 30,000 views. Through this private yet very public performance of movement, she expands the radio space’s potentiality for cultural production.

I argue that the Tightrope dance acknowledges in its name and choreography the physical risk of black embodiment in the U.S. and offers emotional stability, physical balance, spontaneity, and support as navigational tactics. In reading Monáe’s explanation of the dance as a choreography of healing, I place her historically and theoretically in a lineage of black women performers and performance theorists, specifically Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham. In so doing, I archive the Tightrope as a dance as well as an account of human experience that indexes the pain and trauma of black life in the U.S. while proposing motion as a conduit for healing. Monáe’s contributions within the lineage reflect contemporary concerns about racialized embodiment emblematized by the Obama presidency. The Tightrope dance involves citational combinations of small steps from several performers, which encourages and helps to inscribe a collective social choreography of past, present and future black bodies navigating America .[4] Monáe expands the movement to include herself (as well as bodies and identities like hers[5]) within popular culture—alongside black women vocalists who are also skilled dancers, such as Beyoncé, Ciara, and Janet Jackson—but with a focus on highlighting Memphis’s signature move(s) as ones that, through embodiment, enact survival and triumph. Additionally, I contextualize Monáe’s choreography of black embodiment through racism’s ongoing effects on black women’s bodies and futures. Arline Geronimus’s “weathering” hypothesis proposes that black women’s health in the US deteriorates early and continues to decline due to struggling socioeconomic environments.[6] Geronimus notes an urgent need for collectivity (one of her proposals is the use of black doulas) to combat this deterioration.[7] I integrate this concept with Christina Sharpe’s recent theorization of “the weather” as the climate of antiblackness to establish the atmosphere that Monáe navigates. [8] A close reading of Monáe’s radio show appearance reveals potential sites where the Tightrope dance functions as a healing ritual, a mode of survival, and a collective citational practice, all of which foreground the contributions of black women.

Tightroping Terrains
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