Imagining Kitty O'Neil: Transmission, somatic memory, and communion in American percussive dance




Grotewohl, Jean Denny

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This dissertation focuses on how ten contemporary practitioners of various American percussive dance and music traditions discuss somatic and aesthetic experiences of performance. Participant experiences are then used as primary data for historical dance inquiry. Participants provide examples of how living traditions remain constant yet provoke change to dance forms over time and across traditions and therefore, link past practice to contemporary practice. Specifically, this study investigates Kitty O'Neil (1852-1893) and connects her "extinct" dancing to contemporary practice of Irish step dancing, Irish sean-nós dancing, Tap dancing, Clogging, and Flatfooting in the U.S. The connection between O'Neil and present dance practice becomes clear as participants share experiences of inherited repertoire that reflect dance practices of the past. This study investigates how to research dance practices of the past when limited textual or visually recorded documentation exists. Participants describe living tradition as a paradoxical process in which dancers transmit historical and consistent elements of dance and music repertoire while simultaneously changing that same repertoire through improvisation and innovation. The imaginative and somatic experiences of practice allow contemporary artists to manifest both continuity and change within his/her individual practice. The research suggests that past dance enactments are brought into the present through these unique transmission and performance processes. The archive provides one significant artifact about O'Neil's dancing, an anonymous tune penned in her honor. While the recorded archive contains fixed and limited moments about dance and dancers, dancing repertoire provides dynamic information about past practice. Enfolded into the repertoire of multiple, contemporary American percussive dance forms is useful data about the genealogies and legacies of dancers like O'Neil. Repertoire is transmitted through time within the social context of these dance traditions as a part of how dancers learn to participate in the form. The ethnographic data from the dissertation's participants provides examples of how and when dance and music enactments connect to each tradition's past and have been embodied within each dancer's personal practice. By examining transmission, the research also examines the possibility that O'Neil's repertoire continues to live somatically and aesthetically within the contemporary practice of diverse American percussive dance traditions.



Social sciences, Communication and the arts, American dance, Dance ethnogrphay, Dance history, Oral transmission, Percussive dance, Somaesthetics