Relationship of labor organization and dance explored in new book

Consider this recent New York Times headline: "Radio City and the Rockettes Reach Labor Agreement." While the juxtaposition of high kicks and labor actions might appear odd, a new book by Mark Franko, professor of theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows the relationship has roots going back 70 years.

In The Work of Dance, Franko argues that dance and labor were profoundly interrelated in 1930s America, when the economy was stalled by depression, political emotions ran strong, and the Federal Dance and Theater Projects brought more and more Americans to dance both as performers and audience members. Workers began to take on dance as their expressive idiom.

"The 1930s was a period of ideological strife, and the dance world was also divided up," said Franko. "The way that dance genres and choreographic forms were being developed at that time had everything to do with the ideological concepts of groups of people."

The Work of Dance extends the study of dance beyond the "high art" of ballet to include the genres of chorus dancing and modern dance. Franko's research shows the development of modern dance in the 1930s went hand-in-hand with the development of a collective, and also individually oriented, expression of emotion. This expression paralleled some of the feeling behind contemporary political movements, particularly American communism.

"A close analysis of dances in terms of the emotional expression," said Franko, "allows us to get a more historically scrupulous analysis of the political intent behind the dances."

Franko also found relationships between the development of choreographic structures--organizing people in dance performances--and the administrative structures of politics--organizing people in social acts. "If you could get people to do dance performances, they could also do social acts. And the courage to strike did not differ greatly from the 'guts' required to dance in front of an audience," said Franko.

A dancer and choreographer himself, Franko cites a memory which inspired his research for The Work of Dance. As a teenager studying dance, he took classes at a studio on the second floor of a building in New York City's garment district. The room had one wall of windows overlooking the street.

"Sweating through my dance class I was keenly aware that dance was indeed hard work and took tremendous labor," said Franko. "And every time I was in class at 5:00, I'd see all these workers, en masse, flooding out onto the street after finishing their day's work. It made a connection in my mind, the connection between dance and work."