In her debut, a scholar and freelance critic transforms some key people and events into artful coat trees on which to hang the history of American popular dance.
Pugh is offering not a detailed, comprehensive history but a focused, intentionally limited account. Some readers may quibble with her choices—why chapters on Agnes de Mille and Michael Jackson and not Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly?—but as the text unfurls, most readers will be satisfied (Fosse does get significant mention in Jackson’s chapter). The author opens with a startling moment: the 1939 arrest of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Times Square for loitering while contemplating a neon sign of himself, and Robinson’s influence, as well as the influences of numerous other black dancers, glides through the text. Others meriting considerable attention include Fred Astaire and Paul Taylor, but Pugh is careful to include myriad other important figures, including Hermes Pan (who worked with Astaire) and Cholly Atkins (whose work Jackson studied closely). Some will find surprises here, as well. With his wife, Henry Ford wrote a manual for square dancers (Good Morning, 1926), and Michael Jackson learned the moonwalk from others, practicing for years before he presented it to the public. Although Pugh’s scholarship is considerable, she is writing not for a scholarly but for a general audience. Readers won’t get lost in any forest of arcane vocabulary or be confused by charts and diagrams. Her intent, instead, is to show dance’s sort of mockingbird origins: moves come from earlier moves and moments—evolution, not intelligent design. At times, the author has a dancer’s grace in the flow of her prose. She calls a piece by Paul Taylor “an exercise in delicious contrarianism.” Her tone is relentlessly positive, however, with seldom a discouraging word.
Pugh gracefully dances the fine line between critic and fan.