Zadie Smith Pens a Piece About How Dancers — From Beyoncé to Prince to David Byrne — Can Influence Writing


Zadie Smith’s next novel, Swing Time (the follow up to NW), is set for release in November 15, 2016, and follows two girls with aspirations in dance — though one of them is technically gifted and the other more ideologically so (per the official description: she’s got exciting thoughts “about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free.”) The Guardian has, in conjunction with the upcoming release, published a piece by Zadie Smith about the “connection between dancing and writing” — not just writing about dancing as her subject matter, but about a deeper connection between the forms, which she emphasizes feels “a little neglected — compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose.” In this piece, she endeavors to mine what “an art of words [can] take from the art that needs none.”

From her introduction/statement of purpose, she delves into a very loose study of some of the most influential dancers, beginning more historically with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, then Harold and Fayard Nicholas — discussing, for them, the burdens of having been black dancers also appreciated by white audiences, with those audience’s bounty of stereotyping perceptions and reservations: “You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your “best self”? A representation? A symbol?” she asks.

She then discusses Michael Jackson and Prince in contrast, not in an attempt to weigh their talents against each other, but rather to express how Jackson relates to “legibility,” how he became a “monument” through dance, while Prince she equates more with “temporality,” a “mirage”:

Prince’s moves, no matter how many times you may have observed them, have no firm inscription in memory; they never seem quite fixed or preserved. If someone asks you to dance like Prince, what will you do? Spin, possibly, and do the splits, if you’re able. But there won’t appear to be anything especially Prince-like about that. It’s mysterious…And from Prince a writer might take the lesson that elusiveness can possess a deeper beauty than the legible.

She moves, from there, on to Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Beyoncé, taking off from her discussion of Michael Jackson’s imitably iconic moves to say that “these three don’t just invite copies – they demand them. They go further than legibility into proscription. They lead armies, and we join them.” She discusses how at a recent Beyoncé concert, many people she saw weren’t even watching the performer, but rather:

Our queen was up there somewhere dancing – but the idea of her had already been internalised. Friends from the gym stood in circles and pumped their fists, girlfriends from hen nights turned inwards and did “Beyoncé” to each other, and boys from the Beyhive screamed every word into each other’s faces. They could have done the same at home, but this was a public display of allegiance.

She compares these three pop-stars to Muriel Spark, Joan Didion, and Jane Austen, authors who she claims exert “total control.” And then we get to the sentence: “Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad,” and of course this section is about David Byrne.

Read the whole piece here, particularly if you’ve more than once sought good writing on the affinities between physicality, performance and prose, but haven’t known where to turn. It’s fantastic.