In a world of ensemble acts and performances, the principal cast, band, costume and wardrobe team, and a host of others, all work together to put on a magical performance. These practices are pretty much standard in today’s performance. However, the camaraderie among cast and crew often experienced in modern productions didn’t always exist. In the documentary film Plenty of Good Women Dancers, African American women tap dancers and personalities from the 1920s to the 1950s chronicled their experiences in an industry that celebrated their dance but didn’t always celebrate them professionally or individually. Most often, these women went anonymous within the industry and within their communities.
Directed and produced by Barry Dornfeld, Debora Kodish, and Germaine Ingram, the documentary provided an exciting look in the past at some of Philadelphia’s most influential and talented African American women tap dancers. During the height of the Harlem Renaissance and other artistic explosions in the United States among African American community, tap dancers with the unique close to the floor tapping style of Philadelphia often toured and starred in some of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s most famous and popular race films and productions during the era. As mentioned and highlighted in the documentary, many of the dancers were self-taught and learned the art of tap dancing through trial performance and sheer passion and drive to cultivate the creativity they possessed naturally.
During the fanciful swing dancing and tap dancing, the dancers were affectionately referred to as “hoofers” to the viewers back in time. Dancers Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt, Libby Spencer, and Hortense Allen Jordan showcased that despite the years removed from the era they dominated, each dancer had the same passion and tenacity of yesteryear’s swing era. Besides the sheer excitement that I often experience in African American history, film, and productions, I was thrilled to have shared this documentary. Some of the most valuable and strategic film devices were utilized during this informative and insightful documentary.
With the inclusion of archival footage, photographic accounts, and personal artifacts from the dancers, Plenty of Good Women Dancers moved beyond the realm of excellent qualitative interviewing. The real star of the documentary wasn’t entirely in the performance of the dancers themselves. The real star was in the feeling and emotion that the era of swing tap dance impressed upon the viewer. Much like the dancers expressed how the audience was often warmed up to the evening’s mood, the feeling of specialness functioned much like their opening act warm-ups. As the film progressed, the showmanship and skill became more technical and stylized, which would cause any viewer to jump into the mood of dancing.
Plenty of Good Women Dancers did an excellent job at incorporating and including members’ meaninga concept mentioned by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw in their book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Although I don’t come from a dancer’s background, the documentary commentary was featured so that their language and jargon could be understood and followed quickly. This documentary, mainly expressing the first person point of view, allowed the story to flow accurately and efficiently without aiding in confusion and creating historical misrepresentations.
Though the film featured audible and visual accounts of the swing era of Philadelphia, the documentary also supported this point of view tactic well because one of the film’s producers was also a part of the documentary performance piece. As Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw expressed in their book, by having the first-person point of view narrative, “it allows the ethnographer to present the natural unfolding of experience as seen from the participant’s vantage point,” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, 2011, 95).
Another fieldwork device that was explored in this documentary was the Glassie concept of structural functionalism. Given that this documentary featured the works and talents of local Philadelphian dancers, Plenty of Good Women Dancers took a localized construct. They applied it to a genre of expressive artistic culture within the world of swing dance. This particular technique is also helpful. It provides an opportunity for the viewer to explore more independently and in-depth about the subject matter and its juxtaposition with other related topics within the field.
For 53 minutes, the talented women of the swing era of tap featured in the documentary showcased how they continued to shine bright even after having to acquiesce behind the likes of their male counterparts. Yet, it’s the spirit of their story and their triumph that truly makes Plenty of Good Women Dancers an exciting and insightful piece. Whether young or old, this film will resonate with anyone who watches its magic.
To watch the documentary in it’s entirety check it out here: http://www.folkstreams.net/film-detail.php?id=293
Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. 2011. Writing Ethnographic
Fieldnotes, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 13
 Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 95.