Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) “This is America” is one of the most genius works of contemporary art in the history of music videos. The piece’s balance between ambiguity, clarity and entertainment throughout its historic commentary on blackness in the United States is unrivaled.
I have been seeing multiple responses to the video about how the dance is used to distract the audience from the “real issues” being portrayed. Claims have been as drastic as calling for an ignoring of the dance component altogether. Frankly, I have been perturbed by this separation of dance from serious issues. It shows the magnitude of disregard our society has towards the body’s capability to reflect and respond to these very issues that we face as a nation.
Even within the African-American community where dance is such a vibrant part of the culture, we have leaders minimizing dance by segregating it from issues in our society. An article from the Huffington Post  was recently published about David Pilgram, the owner of the Jim Crow museum, belittling dance through his interpretation of the “This Is America” music video, “You see children dying, parishioners dying, then we pause and go back to dancing,” as though dance is a lesser choice than any other response to the witnessing of death. Pilgram goes on to say, “…it seems to me that, from the minstrel period to the present, both the people being hurt and the people doing the hurting have often ignored the hurt by dancing.” The fact that we have an African-American historian dismissing the crucial intersectionality of hurt and dance is an exemplar of our society’s general lack of understanding when it comes to the body’s socio-political value.
There has been opposition to these commentaries from choreographers Sherrie Silver (This Is America) and Camille A. Brown (Jesus Christ Superstar). Silver, in a Pigeons and Planes  interview, has labeled the dance-as-distraction notion as “interesting,” suggesting that the dance was rather more of a contrast. Brown, in an interview with DANCE Magazine , has followed up by claiming, “If you ignore the movement, then you ignore the commentary in its entirety.” Both have spoken to the complexity of the viral dance phrases by offering an alternate suggestion that the movement was to foreground black joy in the midst of turmoil (I will provide my own suggestion in my next post, stay tuned).
I respect both of these ladies for showing opposition to the dance-is-distraction theory. I desire to add on to their analysis by using Gambino’s work to serve as a moment of education for all you people who don’t see dance beyond the 5-6-7-8 and Gwara Gwara. As an African-American-Latino male dance professional and hip-hop scholar, I continuously study the significance of dance within the black and brown communities of the United States. As such, I feel a yearning to discuss how “This is America” is a dance piece, maybe the greatest mainstream dance pieces of all time.
The discussion must begin with the question, what is dance? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, dance is to move one’s body rhythmically, usually to music. However, as a dance professional— choreographer, videographer, scholar, performer, teacher— I feel that the definition misses key elements. I took the liberty of restructuring it a bit- dance is the art of using one’s body to express oneself, many times in conversation with music. I believe Merriam-Webster’s definition is what we often see within a typical music video; however, my definition is what creates a dance piece— a work of art that foregrounds the moving body as the primary source of content to make claims about our world.
“This Is America” is human beings expressing themselves through their bodies in relation to music in order to frame the condition of blackness in America. Sometimes that looks like the viral dance move that we so often associate with the word “dance”. However, I encourage us to broaden our view and recognize, too, the dancing of the person who jumps off the balcony, the church choir, and the rioting individuals scattered throughout the piece. Gambino uses these people to kinesthetically and rhythmically emote with each other, the music, the concrete warehouse, the video camera, and more. Ultimately, this creates a cohesive portrayal of Gambino’s messages through an intersectionality of art forms with dance as the center. It is worth noting that the video fails to exist without the use of expressive moving bodies. The dance aids in the reenactment of American history while simultaneously commenting on that history, all without saying a word (watch the video in silence and the video loses very little cultural relevance). Therefore, even if dance-as-distraction is a part of the video’s narrative, it is simply a piece to a greater puzzle.
In the next post, I want to use the viral dance scenes that the dance-as-distraction theory is based upon to showcase how much deeper the dance goes beyond the fifteen 8-counts shared between Childish and the children. Thanks for reading!
1. Huffington Post Article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-glover-this-is-america-jim-crow-history_us_5af31588e4b00a3224efcc40?utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=hp_fb_pages&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000047&utm_source=bv_fb
2. Pigeons and Planes Interview: https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/05/childish-gambino-this-is-america-dance-choreographer-sherrie-silver-interview
3. DANCE Magazine Interview: https://www.dancemagazine.com/this-is-america-dance-2567663747.amp.html?__twitter_impression=true