Thomas DeFrantz: All About Rhythm

New performance studies scholar researches the African aesthetic of dance

Meet the New Faculty
Thomas DeFrantz has brought his own dance company Slippage to Durham. Photo by Megan Morr

Name a decade and there's a social dance craze that goes with it. At the turn of the century, it was the Cakewalk, soon after, the Charleston, Lindy Hop and later the Twist, the Monkey and the Football. And now we have the Dougie and the Wobble.

All of these dances originated in small pockets of the African American community and went mainstream, inspiring others, says Thomas DeFrantz, a performance studies scholar, and the newest member of both Duke's African and African American studies department and Dance Program.

"When I talk about performance, I mean the performance of identity with African aesthetics," says DeFrantz, a dancer, writer and historian, who arrived at Duke this fall from MIT. "It's about how we embody or manifest the shape of the blues, the outrageousness of someone like Kanye West, the spiritual sensibilities of gospel." 

His research focuses on how African Americans use their bodies to perform various identities: gender, regional location, sexual identities, race and class, among others. 

"As a leading scholar of contemporary dance and an innovative creative artist, Tommy literally embodies the Duke Dance Program's viewpoint that dance develops a total union of our physical, intellectual, and expressive capabilities," Keval Khalsa, chair of Duke's Dance Program, said.

DeFrantz is particularly interested in how this embodiment of performance can tilt from the sway of every day movement toward the theatrical. He says there is a set of markers that set the African aesthetic apart from that of European or Eastern movement. 

"In African aesthetics we talk about the percussive attack. It has to have a snap or a pop to it," says DeFrantz, snapping his fingers. "We need to understand the pulse. So a strut, or a swagger, will have a beat to it. The rhythm is crucial -- so we can ride it, hang behind it, get in front of it or go around it."

Another marker of the African aesthetic is in the cadence of speech which many public speakers rely on to help transmit messages. Think of the oratorical style of Martin Luther King Jr. This cadence, DeFrantz says, is rooted in the African-American cultural tradition of call-and-response. 

"There has be to be an affirmation" when speaking to one another, says DeFrantz. "It's not polite to sit in stone-faced silence. We need to respond, to call out, to clap, to somehow animate the energy. It's a communal exchange."

Author of "Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture," DeFrantz says aspects of these aesthetics appear in cultures around the world. 

"You can see these practices in countries such as Norway, South Africa, Brazil and of course China," DeFrantz says. 

"Dance is experiencing a renaissance and receiving a lot of public attention right now," says DeFrantz.  He believes this is a response and reaction to an increasingly technological world that limits our ability to use our bodies.

"We're finding innovative and imaginative ways to express ourselves. Dance is a place to connect your imagination, desire, physical capacity -- and your intellect. It's not simply a body pursuit."

Yet, DeFrantz says there are few scholars focused on the aesthetic principles of movement. He runs two research groups comprised of artists exploring similar notions of aesthetics and performance. His dance company, Slippage, is concerned with constructing alternative histories.  "The idea is to look at things that get forgotten over time," says DeFrantz whose project on the life of Thelonious Monk was developed with Slippage. "Monk's Mood" is a solo tap dance using digital technology and theatrical storytelling.

The other group, Black Performance Theory, meets every two years to share theoretical ideas. DeFrantz hopes to convene the next meeting in Durham.

DeFrantz is also affiliated with the American Dance Festival, teaching in its joint MFA program with Hollins University.

This fall he is teaching a dance practice course, "Performance and Technology," in which students design technological interfaces for performance. For example, a juggler proposed a device that will monitor his vital signs and produce sounds as he juggles. Another student hopes to use technology to capture her shadow and will create a performance by dancing with versions of her shadow. The course has attracted a broad array of students including engineers, computer science, pre-med and dance majors. 

"The class is definitely run as a lab," DeFrantz says. "I'm a fan of letting things take time and percolate. I don't want to add pressure to the learning experience."

The interdisciplinary foundation of the work -- and the opportunity to work with faculty across the university -- is important to DeFrantz and one of the reasons why he's excited to be at Duke.  

"Duke has an outstanding opportunity to be a leader in the intersection of the arts, science and technology, and undergraduate education," DeFrantz says. "Our peer institutions are all asking the same questions about how to invigorate the study of dance and the study of the humanities. The opportunity is delicious."

Pictured below, DeFrantz teaches students at the Hull Street Dance Studio on Central Campus. Photo by Megan Morr

Thomas Defranz