Screen/dance in the United States: engaging the moving bodies
in moving pictures

roundtable with Pamela Krayenbuhl, Hilary Bergen, Colleen Dunagan, Anthea Kraut, Brynn Shiovitz, Sylvie Vitaglione

This is an edited transcript of a roundtable that took place over Zoom at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Annual Conference on April 2, 2022. The roundtable was titled “Screendance in the U.S.: Body Politics in and Beyond Hollywood.”

Pamela: Hello! I am your host, Pamela Krayenbuhl. I'm an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. My research focuses on the history, aesthetics, and politics of dancing bodies in film, television, and new media. My recent article, “The Dance Company Film,” just came out in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of The Journal of Film and Video, and I'm working on a monograph about dance performances of race and/as masculinity in mid-century U.S. film and TV.

Dance has been a persistent interest of filmmakers since the medium’s very inception. And it was certainly crucial to both the Hollywood musical and avant-garde works, such as those of Maya Deren. In fact, Douglas Rosenberg’s introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies (2016) understands these two types of film—mainstream/commercial and avant-garde—to represent the “twin lineages” of screendance, an art form broadly defined by moving images and moving bodies that are actively engaged with one another choreographically. [1] [open endnotes in new window] Despite its parallel and intertwined lineages rooted firmly in film history, most scholarly work on screendance has emerged from dance studies, including our subfield’s primary journal, the International Journal of Screendance, so my main goal in organizing this roundtable is to take a first step toward increasing engagement with this subject in film and media studies.

In my own past decade of development as a dance media scholar, I was lucky to find a scattered group of film researchers who have done great work examining dance’s relation with screens. But in all my years presenting on dance at SCMS, I’ve never actually been in a panel where all of the papers were about dance. So let me briefly describe what goes on in our little subfield. Working at the intersection of these two art forms and fields of inquiry has allowed us to begin unpacking the unique ways that, on the one hand, dance has done crucial meaning-making in filmic texts, and on the other hand, the ways that film and its descendants have manipulated and enhanced the actor’s flesh and blood body to achieve impossible feats. As may become apparent, this critical work often requires mixed methods, using not only historiography, formal analysis, and an attentiveness to medium specificity, but also dance studies’ method of movement analysis.

So now I am thrilled to introduce you to this deeply interdisciplinary group who will be discussing one major avenue through which screendance helps us to better understand the politics of entertainment media writ large: the moving body. Specifically, our focus today is the always-already political re-production of dancing bodies via film, television, and new media, focusing on the U.S. context. We attend to these apparatuses’ exploitation of racialized and gendered dancing bodies, as well as to their reproduction of the white, heteropatriarchal status quo under neoliberal capitalism. Some of our animating questions include: Who gets to dance on commercial media screens? Who dances behind the screen? Who profits from that labor? What happens in the process of indexing some aspects (but not others) of a live dancer? How does the movement vocabulary, style, and tone of a dance obscure the offscreen realities that undergird it? In short, what is unique to screendance that nevertheless sheds light on larger structural issues?

Those and a few more questions probably undergird us today, so let me go ahead and introduce the first speaker.

Hilary Bergen is an SSHRC-funded PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal, where she studies screendance and media history. She has published work with PUBLICScreening the Past,Culture MachineThe Dance Current and Archée. Her interests include animated and digital embodiment, dance notation, motion capture technology and virality. Her dissertation is on a posthuman theory of dance. 

Patent drawing for Max Fleischer’s original rotoscope featuring a transparent easel onto which a single movie frame is projected so that the artist can trace the body in the frame. “METHOD OF PRODUCING MOVING-PICTURE CARTOONS,” patented 9 October 1917, USA.

Hilary: I research the relation between dance and animation methods such as rotoscoping and Mocap, where gestural data is extracted from a dancer’s body in order to enliven a cartoon character or digital avatar. Both these methods of animation, which abstract dancers into nonhuman figures and even lines and patterns in motion, rely on dance as a kind of life-force that can be drawn out of the individual dancer, whose sweat, breath and embodiment are erased in the process. These animation methods use different approaches to reach the same goal: to leave the referent human body behind while retaining traces of its liveliness.

Side by side comparison of animated Snow White, and the footage of Marge Champion that was rotoscoped to animate the sequence.

Panpan Yang writes about the “secret dancers” of early rotoscoping, many of whom animated cartoons using the motion of their own bodies.[1a] These dancers were secret because they were rarely acknowledged in the film’s final product yet they supplied something essential to its characters. It was their unique movements, traced frame by frame, that breathed life into inanimate drawings. Marge Champion who, at fourteen years old provided dance footage for Disney’s animated heroine Snow White, was never credited in the final film version and was asked by Disney to stay quiet about her involvement. By erasing Champion’s embodied presence—which lent an essential quality to the character—Disney worked to imbue the animation itself with virtuosic realism, illustrating the common disregard for dance as labor.

Side by side comparison: Cab Calloway with his band, left, and a still from Betty Boop: Snow White (1933), right. In this scene, Koko the Clown transforms into a ghost and sings St. James Infirmary Blues. His movements are rotoscoped from Cab Calloway’s body in performance.

African American Jazz bandleader Cab Calloway was another of these secret dancers. He provided his own highly recognizable movements to Koko the Clown, an animated character designed by Max Fleischer who danced in three episodes of the Betty Boop cartoon.

A collage of four different iterations of Cab Calloway: his dancing body in live performance (top left), a walrus (top right), a long-legged ghost (bottom left), and a beheaded creature whose head has become a bottle (bottom right). This sequence shows the expressive plasticity of Calloway’s animated form.

Rotoscoping eventually fell out of popularity as an animation technique, and was largely replaced by motion capture (mocap), a much more efficient method offering nearly real-time results. Mocap, which is used in military, sports and medical applications as well as in robotics, became an integral part of video game design in the 1990s.

An illustration of the motion capture (mocap) process in which data points are extracted from a moving human body and used to animate a digital avatar. (Wikicommons). Andy Serkis animates Gollum, a digital creature, via mocap in production stills from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001).

Filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson also used mocap to infuse the characters in Avatar and Lord of the Rings with human-like movement and liveliness. When an actor or dancer provides their gestural movements for a mocap animation, they often perform within a black box surrounded by cameras and wearing a mocap suit—a tight-fitting black leotard with sensors placed at specific points on the joints of the limbs, across the torso, and on the head. The sensors are registered by the cameras as coordinates in space or data points, and these coordinates can then be mapped onto a digital avatar, making it move. The technique of motion capture is highly technical and requires patience and precision.

Techniques like rotoscoping and mocap allow movement to spill over and beyond the bounds of moving bodies, and mocap in particular has a special relationship to plasticity. Drawn from data, mocap movement is not felt on the lively contours of the animated body but emanates from an unseen core, no matter what entity hosts the dance. Take, for example, the music video for Major Lazer’s song “Light it Up” (2016) by Method Studios and House of Moves, in which animated bodies made of typically inanimate objects (ribbons, feathers, cotton candy) perform anthropomorphic dance sequences and then explode and fall to pieces. The video begins with a series of shots of textured fabrics and materials in motion. As they ripple and pulsate, these shots, which take up the entire screen, illustrate the agency of non-human substances. When the first dancers appear on screen, it is not immediately clear whether they are humans wearing (digitally enhanced) costumes or very high-quality animations. Mocap makes so many different types and shapes of bodies possible in “Light it Up,” and the music video also presents a world in which gender and race are technically nonexistent.

Screenshots from the music video for “Light it Up” by Major Lazer, produced by Method Studios (2016) depicting dancing avatars most likely animated by Mocap.

I think these methods of animation–rotoscoping and mocap–speak to two (somewhat conflicting) desires. The first is to free dance from the singular and limited human form, and the second is to use extracted dance as a kind of “grain” or kernel of the body, to infuse the non-human form with a human-like essence or emotional quality, or some might even say soul.

I'm playing here with what Roland Barthes calls “the grain of the voice,” which he argues is produced by the materiality of the body:

“the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.”[2]

Similarly, the residue of the material, dancing body carries over to the animated form, producing a kind of soul in the nonhuman entity. This “grain” exists in tension with the malleable and virtuosic embodiments possible in animated works. In her book The Animatic Apparatus, Levitt argues that animation is an “increasingly powerful pop cultural form” that contributes to the way we perceive life today as “plastic, transformative and an-ontological,” or without being.[3] She writes,

“There is no death in animation, because there is no being—no existence—to begin with. There are no necessarily limiting features, no essential finitude—everything is shadowed by its possible metamorphosis, erasure, and resurrection—and there is thus no ontology.”[4]

In my research I explore the relationship between animated dance and ontology, asking: How does motion-captured dance both propose a fantasy of non-being and virtuosic abstraction and ground that fantasy in the material, embodied labor of the dancer?

In the larger project of my dissertation, I examine the relationship between dance and anima (the Latin word for soul), and I think about the ways that dance acts as a kind of immaterial substance that can travel between bodies (organic, digital, animated, screen-based, etc.). This follows Aristotle’s notion of soul or anima as a “mobile energy that is independent from the bodies it infuses” but nonetheless can traverse between bodies.[5] Here, kinesis (movement) is the “core of animation” and of life. I'm interested not only in the types of new “life” possible in this space, but the ways in which that “life” is contingent on the erasure of particular living, breathing, dancing bodies who labor to produce it.

I’m very excited to hear from the rest of the panelists, and I'll just sort of put a provocation out, which is that I'm very interested in dance as a labor that is at once hyper-visible and also, in many ways, invisible, especially within this animated sphere. But I think we’ll see this is true across many different mediums and practices as well.

Pamela: Our next speaker is Colleen Dunagan, who is a Professor in the Department of Dance at California State University, Long Beach, where currently she serves as Acting Associate Dean of the College of the Arts. Her publications include Consuming Dance: Choreography and Advertising (2018) and contributions to several edited collections. Her current work examines the reproduction of racialized and sexualized corporeal spectacle within media and consumer culture. 

Colleen: Hello. Thank you. I’m at the beginning of this project and at an early stage, so rather than present a finished product, I'm going to share the questions that I’m asking as I look at spectacle and dance as spectacle inside of various mass media forms.

One question I’ve been interested in since beginning to write about dance in television and online advertising is: Do we use the spectacle of song and dance to create awe as a way of minimizing the impact of meaning? In other words, does it nullify or dissipate the impact of the content? This question aligns with the historical tensions between “technique” and “narrative” within the development of ballet as a theatrical form, as well as historical debates surrounding the role of spectacle within the “narrative/number” distinction of film musicals, distinctions between the conceptual model of the cinema of attractions and narrative cinema, and Laura Mulvey’s initial conception of the male gaze. However, asking this question routinely returns me to questioning the value of the question.

In examining the role of dance in advertising, I found, as others have, that expression through music and dance taps into affect, potentially triggering a response in the audience and adding emotion, agency, and subjectivity to the point that the spectacle of dance (the excess it brings through its stylization of the body) can be empowering, even as it potentially produces an awe and an emphasis on surface appearance that possesses the ability to entertain without enabling meaning making.[6]

For me, advertising highlights the possibility that spectacle allows us to commodify diverse bodies and expressive cultures, even as it raises awareness, produces new representations, and materially and/or emotionally empowers individuals and communities. Correspondingly, I'm interested in the history of spectacle as a production of agency grounded in the production of self as object. I'm particularly interested in how this plays out in relationship to feminisms and the construction and maintenance of hegemonic concepts of femininity and female sexuality. Likewise, I'm interested in how this construction is racialized and tied to histories of colonialism, capitalism, and consumer culture, and how aggregate structures of film and television intersect with the aggregate structure of spectacle and consumption.

In looking at the role spectacle plays in constructions of the feminine, I'm asking how the history of spectacle as agency, as a strategy for asserting agency, is reliant on a construction of female sexuality grounded in the construction of whiteness as achieved through practices of orientalism and colonialism’s anti-blackness. And while I'm interested in examining the role of corporeal spectacle in contemporary popular culture through pop stars such as Madonna and Beyoncé, I'm drawn to looking at these pop stars’ relation to the larger history of celebrity culture and its theatrical lineages, such as the rise of burlesque in the United States and related historical social choreographies of female sexuality.

At the same time, I find my desire to trouble the empowerment that is a potential within gender spectacles problematic as I consider cultural forms such as voguing, given the role spectacle plays within the form. For example, Madison Moore argues,

“Within the world of queer performance being ‘that bitch’ is about having an exacting, unquestionable creative juice and asserting yourself through performance and style...[where] being ‘that bitch’ is about queer livelihood and ethical self-making...and [essentially about finding ways to] exist in a world with norms that were not created with you in mind in the first place.”[7]

If empowerment via self-definition lies in corporeal performances of gender within marginalized communities, such as ball culture and voguing, then what might be the significance of tracing constructions of white female sexuality-as-empowerment from white co-optations of Black and POC culture to Black/POC queerings of those representations? And how might my critiques of consumer culture's use of corporeal spectacles offer avenues for progressive change without disempowering those who rely on it for affirming their voice and the agency?

In this presentation I'm showing Madonna's Vogue because it borrows from a marginalized culture, but if one were unaware of voguing and ball culture when the video came out, one would have had no way of knowing what the history of the form was or from where the corporeal embodiment was derived. And thus, one might watch the video and have no sense of the role that the dance form played within queer Black and Latinx communities in New York.

Madonna vogues with backup dancers in “Vogue." Bird’s eye view of Madonna framed by backup dancers Donna De Lory, Niki Harris, Carlton Wilborn, José Gutierez Xtravaganza, Oliver Crumes, Luis Xtravaganza Camacho, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin and Salim (a.k.a. “Slam”) Gauwloosin in “Vogue.” Choreography by Karole Armitage.

Thus, through the spectacle of dancing bodies, the music video participates in a kind of disavowal of voguing’s history and the construction of Madonna’s white femininity through her difference in relationship to the backup dancers. Bodily spectacle both distracts from and activates meaning(s).

Ok, I'm going to stop right there.