Mobilizing Bodies: Swing Dance and 1930s U.S. Mass Culture

Project by Simon Rienäcker, M.A.

In my project, I want to critically question the term ‘escapism’ as a description of practices that belong to mass culture and entertainment. I understand the term to be articulated from white middle-class notions of education and ‘high’ culture. As such ‘escapism’ gained prominence in the 1930s and appeared in line with a tradition of media criticism that is directed against new media. Practices that were described as ‘escapist’ are, for example, dancing, enjoying music, and going to the movies. In my analysis, I want to focus on dancing as a form of mobilizing the body which is structured by leisure and pleasure, as well as labor. Accordingly, my analysis will be concerned with media representations of dancing as a practice that is influenced by discourses of self-improvement, self-discipline, and self-realization. I believe that it is constitutive to such an analysis to discuss the body as a central lens through which individuals can be understood in the distinct ways that they appear as racialized, gendered, classed, sexualized, and dis/able. Moreover, my framework of bodies that are always both instruments of pleasure and instruments of labor attempts to show the entanglement as well as the asymmetry between Black and white dancing bodies in a historical situation that moves from (Black) creation/invention to (white) appropriation/effacement. In contrast to the conceptualization provided by escapist notions, bodies appear in my analysis as agents of the self that individuals use in order to realize their own ‘potentials’ through mass culture, entertainment, and leisure activities. These ‘potentials’, which were otherwise cut back by the effects of the Great Depression, brought people to experience their own agency as constitutive of their self and their surroundings. My project thus addresses cultures of self-help that are focused on social practices and built around notions of community, solidarity, and political agency. I finally want to retrace practical self-help cultures as they are represented in the films of Oscar Micheaux and Busby Berkeley from the perspective of Black and white dancing bodies as both instruments of pleasure and instruments of labor. Furthermore, I want to discuss to what extent these bodies are products and agents of mass culture and how they are distinctly marked as modern bodies which appear in automated, regimented, and machine-like formations, or explicitly contest entertainment’s conflation of pleasure and labor.