“D”-cyphering the Jit: Dancing Detroit history and culture
Van Allen, Melanie Anastacia
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This dissertation maps the development of a largely unknown Detroit cultural product, the street dance Jit, which emerged at the same time Detroit was losing its champion auto industry in the early 1970s. The scope of this history begins with the dance collective the Jitterbugs and their invention of the original Jit and traces other subsequent dance groups, such as the Funkateers, and the infamous street gang the Errol Flynns, who are credited for influencing the contemporary style Jit, created by the Mad Dancers in the early 1980s. Throughout these danced histories this dissertation demonstrates how Detroit, its manufacturing methods, and cultural production are inextricably intertwined, producing the city’s distinctive identity. This dissertation comes out of ethnographic research at a particular practice cypher in Detroit, focusing on people who are continuing the Jit culture in the city and beyond. The theoretical framework of this dissertation draws on the work of Cynthia Novack and her method of ethnohistory, providing a means to address the interrelated nature between Jit’s culture and history, considering its history as of a way of life and a technique of dancing as part of a culture. I also utilize Clifford Geertz’s concept of culture and webs of significance, Keith Jenkins’ notion that history is a social discourse that is always partial due to inherent gaps in knowledge, and Deidre Sklar’s consideration of dance as a form of cultural knowledge. Over the course of one year, I conducted fieldwork in Detroit, beginning in February 2018. Primary data-collection methods included conducting interviews with dancers and music producers/DJs from the Jit community, participant observation including learning how to Jit, choreographic analysis of video recordings of the Jit, and the examination of archival materials and scant literature on the Jit, revealing a substantial gap in the scholarly literature. Within this small amount of scholarship, the cultural and historical contexts surrounding the emergence of the Jit has largely been ignored. This research fills a gap in the dance studies literature on street dance and contributes to a growing body of literature on Detroit’s cultural productions.