Marsalis on Dance—The 'Big Sister of Music'

Divya Kishore

Wynton L. Marsalis looks on as performers demonstrate popular dances from the 1930s during his lecture, “The Double Crossing of a Pair of Heels”, in Sanders Theater on Thursday.

Wynton Marsalis refuses to let the history of American musical culture remain history. Through his lectures, concerts, compositions, and extensive discography as a jazz leader, Marsalis communicates a sense of contemporary America’s deep musical heritage, which he wants to make sure we will never forget. In a lecture last Thursday night at Sanders Theatre, entitled “The Double Crossing of a Pair of Heels: The Dynamics of Social Dance and American Popular Musics,” Marsalis shifted the focus of his musical discourse to the development of American dance. “Dance is the big sister of music,” Marsalis said early in his performance. “We musicians accept that dancers came first.” Infused with miniature dance performances and overflowing with historical detail, personality, and rhetorical rhythm, Marsalis’s four and a half–hour lecture characterized American dance as one of the most fundamental expressions of freedom: despite racism, Prohibition, and McCarthy-era repression, America just can’t stop dancing.

“As a trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis is without peer,” said Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music Ingrid T. Monson in her introduction to Marsalis’s lecture. “Those of you who attended his first lecture know what I mean,” she continued. That lecture, which filled Sanders Theatre in April, dealt with the history of American popular music, allowing Marsalis to pick up his horn and wax virtuosic in all of 70 musical examples. However, for last Thursday’s lecture—the second in a series of five Marsalis is expected to give at Harvard over the next two years—he left his horn at home to ensure that the dancers were the audience’s main focus.

The dancers, each with a lengthy laundry list of accolades, easily filled the space left by Marsalis’s absent trumpet. Whether the stage featured Jared Grimes tapping machine-gunned 32nd notes, Nelida Tirado and Eddie Torres Jr. doing the triple tango, or Lou Brockman and Heather Gehring ballroom dancing like they were alone together in an empty room, the dance interludes continually garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience. At one point, dancer Sheron Wray explained the way she approaches the Charleston, concluding with a line that united the exuberance of the dancers with the essence of Marsalis’s lecture: “You’ve got to put it all in a swing and do your thing!”

Throughout his lecture, Marsalis tracked a constantly evolving narrative of American dance from the early hints of ragtime through the development of jazz and rock and roll--his tale grounded in concrete historical landmarks along the way. For example, in his descriptions of dance at the turn of the 20th century, he emphasized the importance of the dense melting pot engendered by a growing urbanite population—a phenomenon he described as “the collision of universes.” To Marsalis, American dance is the perfect index of American identity since it is imitative, competitive, and accessible to everyone. “If you were talented or lucky, maybe you could become known or inspire the next dance craze,” he said. Dance is the physical reification of the American soul, and through it, Marsalis reasons, we can understand who we are.

By the end of the lecture, however, this roiling force of American culture seemed to lose most of its momentum—to the extent that the last third of the lecture seemed little but a requiem to the dead soul of American dance. “By [the seventies], we had lost our grip on the value of social dance,” he said. This point in the lecture was punctuated by one of the weakest dance performances, in which tap virtuoso Jared Grimes lumbered around stage to Jimi Hendrix in a tedious parody of an acid tripper. The lecture concluded soon after with an open-ended suggestion that American dance continues on, despite a general lapse in the public’s appreciation of its cultural and social value. In a sense, this is the thesis of all of Marsalis’ work in cultural history, and the root of his legitimacy in today’s culture. American culture has lost touch with its roots, he argues, and he is simply trying to dig them back up to remind us.

Ultimately, the lecture communicated a positive, even empowering message: the human body still moves, music still moves us, and the American cultural identity is rusty, not broken. According to Marsalis, America can renew its dance culture; it can resurface the tradition that has lain latent for decades. University President Drew G. Faust, who invited Marsalis to Harvard in the first place, would be pleased with this conclusion. “This lecture series ties to President Faust’s idea that the arts should be more central to the Harvard experience,” said Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts. “Recently, through President Faust’s initiative, there’s been this flowering of activities in art-making at Harvard.” For Marsalis, as long as art is still in production, neither the American body nor the American soul can keep from moving.

—Staff writer Patrick W. Lauppe can be reached at plauppe@college.harvard.edu.

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