by John Davis
Crossroads of Creativity
Texas Tech University’s ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ illustrates how European and African art cultures collided to create modern song and dance.
Dancing at the Crossroads: A Celebration of Anglo-Celtic and African-American Dance in the New World
Dancing at the Crossroads celebrates the meetings and transformations between European and African cultures, the roots of American popular music.
To the sounds of fiddles and banjos, eight couples stepped around in rhythm to a tune reminiscent of the Emerald Isle. As the story progresses, the music morphs and blends with African beats and culture to become a type of music unto itself. An American music.
American music contains more history lessons than the average listener realizes. Listen closely, said Christopher J. Smith, a music professor in the Texas Tech University School of Music, and the music represents centuries of cultures creating that proverbial melting pot—perhaps even more harmoniously than the actual human experience.
That cultural gumbo of sound, rhythm and dance served as the impetus for creating the original dance/theatrical show “Dancing at the Crossroads: A Celebration of Anglo-Celtic and African-American Dance in the New World.”
The show, which features local dancers and singers from Texas Tech, premiered in February at the Christine DeVitt Icehouse Theater in the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts.
Smith, also the director of the university’s Vernacular Music Center, said singers, players, dancers and storytellers presented an organic and fully staged dance/theater narrative relating the mythic history of the encounter of these two great vernacular performance traditions in the New World, which includes blues, jazz, hip-hop, New Orleans, Irish, English, Scottish and Caribbean music and dance.
“I’ve been a practitioner of these styles (Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean) for four decades, know them intimately and love them passionately,” Smith said. “As a scholar, I’m interested in the interplay of immigrant music in the Americas. I think the performance tells a story whose historical resonance many people won’t have previously recognized. Many folks of course know that immigrant traditions—especially Anglo-Celtic and African-American—played a key role in the synthesis that led to blues, jazz, vaudeville, tap-dance, hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll. However, I think fewer people recognize both the complexity and profundity of that synthesis and the historical depth of the story.”
Smith said the Crossroads Project develops educational and performance materials that explain the complex meetings and encounters—between people, cultures, belief systems and genres—that gave birth to American music. African, Caribbean, European and Native American expressive arts first blended in the 16th century and have created the endlessly inventive and popular music forms of the modern era.
Photos courtesy of Tif Holmes Photography, tifholmes.com.
These served as the foundations of music and dance such as Stephen Foster’s popular songs to the crossover hits of Eminem and Mary J. Blige, from Appalachian flat-foot dancing to African-American tap, from the contredanse of Haiti and Montserrat to the contras of Maine and the square-dances of Virginia.
Even the comedy of Abbott and Costello to the comic monologues of Sid Caesar and Red Skelton can be traced, in content and/or intent, to the meetings of Africa, Europe and the Caribbean in the New World, he said.
“This is a story about meetings, between cultures, peoples and dance traditions,” he said. “And not only the mythic meetings exemplified by the named characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Baron Samedi and the Demon Fiddler, but also actual, historical meetings which are the roots of American popular culture. The remarkable thing about this story is that it is, in essence, a true story—this meeting between Afro-Caribbean and Anglo-Celtic dance music traditions is actually where American popular music and dance originated.”
The show was presented through Lubbock Moonlight Musicals Winter Dinner Theatre, said Gerald Dolter, the company’s general director as well as chairman of the School of Music’s Vocal Division and director of Texas Tech’s Music Theatre.
He said the show’s themes and ideas encouraged him to join with Smith to bring the show to Lubbock audiences.
Meet the Creative Team
Genevieve Durham DeCesaro is an associate professor, head of dance and associate chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Gerald Dolter is an associate professor of music, director of TTU music theatre and chair of the vocal division in the TTU School of Music.
Bill Gelber is an associate professor and director of theatre in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Christopher Smith is an associate professor and chair of musicology/ethnomusicology, and director of the Vernacular Music Center at the TTU School of Music.
“I became aware of his project more than one year ago over coffee with Dr. Smith,” Dolter said. “His work with the Vernacular Music Center is outstanding, and that is how the conversation began. He needed to give his piece a first reading—complete with staging and technicals. Lubbock Moonlight Musicals was able to help him with that. The more we talked, the more we felt it was perfect for Moonlight Dinner Theatre. I can tell you this about Chris Smith: He understands the musical timeline from antiquity to the present. He knows about how music developed through intercultural exchange and sharing. If there is one man to help us understand a little of this process, it is Chris Smith. The dancing is energetic. The storyline is thought-provoking.”
Smith said he arranged songs from Ireland and England; tales of transformation and crossroads magic; blues and gospel from the Mississippi Delta; sean-nos (“old style”) song from Ireland’s Gaelic West; dances and dance music from Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton; ritual dances from the Welsh Borders; country dances from England and Appalachia; sea shanties from the North Atlantic; and an audience sing-along as finale.
This is more than just a performance, Smith said. Teachers can use this performance along with a body of materials—worksheets, slideshows, participatory classroom exercises, a dedicated website—developed by trained K-12 educators.
A New Form of Research
The show is part of a new type of research becoming popular in academia, he said.
“The fields of devised theater and engaged scholarship, new fields on university campuses across the country, both investigate the points where creative activity, such as composing and staging a dance show, and research, such as describing the historical, folkloric, and/or mythic sources of the music and dance, can come together,” he said. “These new fields recognize that research and creative activity—especially in the visual and performing arts—are not two different fields, but rather are related fields, which have the creative imagination in common. In 2013-14, Bill Gelber, who directs the show, and I will present solo or joint papers at conferences in Budapest, Brazil, Barcelona, Alabama, California and elsewhere. In addition, we are launching an online journal and symposium on Texas Tech’s campus: the Crossroads Project.”
Gelber, who is head of acting/directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance, said he directed and performed in the show as a narrator, and is using the experience for academic research. He said Smith’s creation will say much about how music has developed as a hybrid of different cultures coming together at the crossroads of two very different worlds.
“I’m looking at the piece as an example of devised theatre and how it uses multicultural collaboration in the same way that the story itself suggests,” Gelber said. “I’m listed in the capacity of ‘stage direction’ but I’m, in a sense, a consultant. It is largely imagined by Chris and the performers. It is a unique experience that the audience won’t have come across before.”
Currently, Smith and Gelber are writing papers on how the project evolved its wider implications.
“Historically, the melding of two cultures created something new and unique musically and in terms of performance,” Gelber said. “The process that he used seemed to mirror that. I don't know that this has been done in quite this way. I believe the work has been percolating for years, with elements of the Celtic festivals that Chris has presented and his teaching and study of vernacular music all blending over time to suggest the project. He is going to present in Brazil and Prague. I will be attending conferences in London and Barcelona. I enjoyed working with him, and I felt that ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ proved to be an experience for everyone concerned.”
Dancing at the Crossroads Cast and Crew
John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.