“The Land on Which We Dance: Reclaiming the Spaces of Black Dance in St. Louis”
“The Land on Which We Dance: Reclaiming the Spaces of Black Dance in St. Louis” is a project inspired by the legacy of world-famous dancer Josephine Baker, who was born in St. Louis in 1906 and had a lengthy, multifaceted career as a performer and social justice activist. Ms. Baker grew up absorbing the culture of the vibrant nightclubs and dance halls of the Chestnut Valley and Mill Creek Valley neighborhoods.
Ms. Baker became one of the main ambassadors of jazz & jazz-dance to the world – born, nurtured and developed in St. Louis. After her departure in 1920, however, the city demolished these African American neighborhoods and replaced them with highways, parking lots, and utility plants.
The memory of the demolished buildings of the Chestnut Valley and Mill Creek Valley neighborhoods has begun to fade. Evidence of the history of these neighborhoods and its inhabitants has been lost. We all must refuse the erasure of our history.
“The Land on Which We Dance” project has formed a Research Working Group. We are spearheading an initiative to preserve the history and celebrate the Black communities of Chestnut Valley/Mill Creek Valley and their cultural contributions to Josephine Baker and jazz dance. We advocate Baker’s legacy both for Black dance and racial justice activism in St. Louis and America.
Members of the Research Working Group include: Heather Beal, choreographer and associate at the Black Repertory Theater of St. Louis; Kirven Douthit-Boyd, choreographer and Director of Dance at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA); Michael Allen, architectural historian; Joanna Dee Das, assistant professor of dance at Washington University in St Louis (WUSTL); and Denise Ward-Brown, professor of art at WUSTL.
The idea for a “living dance monument” originated when J. D. Das and D. Ward-Brown created a twenty-minute dance film for Washington University Dance Theatre’s December 2020 virtual concert. Our film, Seeking Josephine Baker: Dancing on the Land, featured students dancing at two St. Louis sites connected to Ms. Baker, but which in the twenty-first century bear no markings of that history: the Ameren Electric storage facility on the block where she was born, and in a parking lot at the corner of 14th Street and Locust St., where her mother Carrie McDonald danced at the Gayety Theater, torn down in 1934.
To build upon this idea, our Research Working Group will focus on the trajectory and intersectional context of Ms. Baker’s life and career: looking both backward and forward. Who are the people of St. Louis whom we don’t yet know who created this vibrant early jazz culture before and during Ms. Baker’s childhood? And how did this cultural world continue, even after the demolition of Chestnut Valley and Mill Creek Valley?
Through this process, we propose to dislodge ingrained and intersecting hierarchies of value that often discredit the body as a way of knowing – alongside discrediting Black life and experience. As several scholars have documented, jazz music and dance developed together, with dancers often shaping the direction of the music. While scholars note St. Louis’ contributions to jazz music, particularly through innovations in ragtime and the blues, the historical record falls silent when it comes to dancing bodies. By combining historical research, choreography, and film, and by bringing together people from multiple St. Louis institutions, our Research Working Group will create a vibrant plan for a living monument that honors and recognizes those who danced before us on this land.
Funding has come from The Divided City an Urban Humanities Initiative at Washington University in St Louis. http://thedividedcity.com/about/