Leslie Cunningham’s project sheds light on an under-explored aspect of black popular culture in the United States, the traveling “jig show” or performing variety show/ human circus of the twentieth century. These traveling shows brought forward crucial possibilities of social engagement in their presentation of specialized music, dance, and burlesque-style performance. Bridging the shift from live performance and vaudeville to the ubiquity of television in the first half of the 1900s, these midway shows stand as demonstration of American popular culture shaped by a pressing need to share music and dance from other geographic locations, standards of musicality prevalent in other places, and, of course, definitions of femininity and female beauty demonstrated by the showgirls always featured in the revue.
(Photos: In the Spring of 2022 Defrantz invited Leslie to screen her film
to students at the annual Slippage@Duke event.)
Indeed, Leon Claxton’s successful show built upon a well-established arrangement of specialized dance, including tap dance and Latin dance; specialized music, including big band Latin sounds; and burlesque performance, including “showgirls” and strip-tease artists. Cunningham narrates an expansive social impact of these formations of a popular black and Latino cultures in the context of the segregated United States. Indeed, Cunningham’s project holds enormous potential to ignite discourse surrounding instances of Black American and Cuban collaboration, a woefully under-resourced area of inquiry.
Leon Claxton’s show confirmed a willingness of Cuban and Black American alignment, a formation easily denied or forgotten as many twenty-first century Cubans claim proximity to ‘whiteness’ rather than ‘blackness.’ Popular cultures always reveal fault lines and tensions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and their circulations among people; this film Jig Show will bring these tensions into sharp relief while providing an invaluable document of myriad routes of circulation for black music and dance.
From Thomas F. DeFrantz, Chair, Duke University African & African American Studies
Professor, Duke Dance|Theater Studies, Director, SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, President, Society of Dance History Scholars