Thomas DeFrantz is a dance historian, a professor in the dance, theater studies, and women’s studies departments at Duke University, as well as the Chair of African and African American Studies Program. He is also one of the developers of the traveling exhibition The Art of American Dance, currently on view at Crystal Bridges. DeFrantz’s contribution to the exhibition is part of what makes it so unique. DeFrantz put together the dance videos that are seen throughout the show.
The Art of American Dance is divided into several focus areas, each looking at a different aspect of dance and American art, from Native American traditions to ballet and jazz dances of the mid-twentieth century. Each area features a video of contemporary dancers demonstrating dance related to that focus area.
“It’s great to be able see those videos and see actual dancers moving as you’re looking at a work of art, DeFrantz said. “It makes such a difference to see a dance artist who is living now engaged in their craft next to an object that was created maybe 120 years ago and thinking about that connection between American people dancing a long time ago and dancers who are still practicing today. I makes a huge difference.”
As you go through the exhibition, it’s evident how much dance has inspired American artists through the years. The show also offers an interesting perspective on the influence of visual art on the art of dance, especially in regards to costume design.
“There’s a way that visual art and costumes do influence dance in really particular ways,” DeFrantz said. There are many visual artists who create costumes without necessarily thinking about how they’ll feel to wear and try to perform in. We have a ballerina from the Joffrey ballet in the videos who talks about wearing costumes, and what the tutu does, and how it’s very odd to walk around and perform with this sort of table right at your waist.”
The artworks in the exhibition also serve as historical documents: capturing impressions of dance through the decades that can tell us something about social customs of the time. “In my own research as a dance historian, I’m trying to understand dances that Americans, African Americans in particular, did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To understand how dance operated in historical eras before there was film.”
You can view a short video conversation with Thomas DeFrantz below. And you can see him perform in one of the many dance videos waiting for you in The Art of American Dance. Be sure to catch this unique exhibition before it closes on January 16!