Lyndsey Winship reported for The Guardian of 22 Sep 2020:
“Jazz dance. It’s Broadway and the West End, Liza Minnelli draped over a chair in Cabaret, the gold top hats of A Chorus Line, the clicking fingers of West Side Story. Or is it? Khadifa Wong’s new documentary, Uprooted, reveals that the popular image of jazz obscures the true history of a dance form of African descent, born of slavery and enmeshed with the African American experience – from cakewalk to Charleston to Lindy hop – but then dominated by a series of white men (Bob Fosse being the most famous) who codified the steps and put their name to them.
Uprooted is a fascinating piece of social history – whether or not you think you’re interested in jazz dance – that questions cultural hierarchies and why it matters when dance and any other art form is shorn of its history. In making the film, “I realised I hadn’t had a rounded dance education,” says Wong, who trained as a dancer in London. In one scene, an interviewee pulls her up on a list of the “six founding fathers” of jazz dance, who apart from pioneering African American dancer Katherine Dunham are all white men. “It’s an incomplete list,” she’s told by teacher and choreographer Melanie George. “It is a list that has a colonist mindset.”
Uprooted’s story moves through Juba dance on southern plantations to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, one of the first integrated public spaces in the US, where the dancing was so extreme the floor had to be replaced every three years. It covers Marilyn Monroe’s choreographer Jack Cole and Fame’s Debbie Allen being taught by Patrick Swayze’s mum, Patsy, the only teacher in Texas who took black students alongside white. Wong highlights lesser-known black choreographers, including JoJo Smith, who was John Travolta’s dance consultant on Saturday Night Fever. And she profiles the leading figures who came from ballet and modern dance to define jazz on stage: Cole, Fosse, Matt Mattox, Eugene Louis Faccuito (AKA Luigi) and Gus Giordano – all charismatic, idiosyncratic men with ardent followings.
The film raises interesting questions about ownership, such as the idea that the early dancers didn’t codify the form not because they hadn’t thought it out, but because that was against the communal and improvisatory spirit of the dance itself. And it leaves you considering cultural appropriation. Wong isn’t saying white dancers shouldn’t learn to Lindy hop: “But are they acknowledging the history? Are they standing up for Black Lives Matter? You have to look at how they operate on a social level rather than an artistic level,” she suggests.
As a young dancer, Wong, 42, was never particularly interested in jazz. Growing up in Kensal Rise, north-west London, she was “a ballet bunhead” from the age of three, and later trained in contemporary dance. She found her professional career stilted by lack of opportunity. “Contemporary companies weren’t really taking black dancers,” she says. “I couldn’t find a home.”
Injury forced her to give up on dance and, after studying acting in New York and London, Wong decided she could make more impact behind the scenes. “I’d always been fascinated by the people on the panel when you audition. The person with the clipboard. I thought, I can make some real change here. I can be the one that hires people.” She set up a production company with a friend and learned as she went along, finding her place as a director, and Uprooted is her first feature-length film. (She’s also directed a play, Black Women Dating White Men, recently performed over Zoom for the Edinburgh fringe.)
For Wong, making the film has filled in those gaps in her education. “I wasn’t expecting to go on such a journey,” she says. “It taught me stuff about myself. Moncell Durden, who teaches hip-hop at the University of Southern California, spoke about black people having an internalised bias, so they don’t consider hip-hop or jazz true dance, but they value ballet and contemporary, which of course at the beginning was me! That was my dance training. To have someone make you confront the bias you have about your own culture, that got me.”
Wong’s confidence in telling her story got an unexpected boost when during the edit she took a job as a dresser on The Lion King, “and it was the first time in British theatre that I’d been surrounded by other black people”, she says. “I found my voice and had the confidence to speak up. I didn’t realise that I missed that, or needed it, but when you finally get it, it’s a strange revelation.”
Her intention with the film is to have a conversation about the value of jazz dance – which she says is not seen as serious art, especially in the UK – and about the respect afforded to black dance forms. “The conversations don’t need to be hard and heavy,” she says. “They just need to be had.” She likes a quote in the film from Thomas DeFrantz. “He says, jazz is political because it imagines a future we can all share. That’s what I’m hoping will come across. Jazz is a metaphor for what America should be, which is everybody from different backgrounds coming together to make one sound.”
Uprooted was shown at San Francisco Dance film festival, 18-25 October; and at Raindance, from 28 October to 7 November, 2020.