Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat may truly be the first musical to unify script and song, with the musical numbers driving the narrative. Dance, however, does not find its equal footing in storytelling on Broadway until Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the first integrated book musical. Though Sammy Lee’s original choreography for Show Boat did not withstand the test of time, dance still serves a purpose in furthering plot and character in the musical.
The first dance break in Show Boat comes during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a black folk song that mixed-race leading lady Julie sings to Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy. Magnolia confesses her first crush to Julie, but Julie warns Magnolia to tread cautiously out of fear that she will fall too quickly and too deeply in love. Magnolia has heard Julie sing this song many times before, but this is the first time she personally relates to the song. In this moment of sexual awakening, Magnolia embodies her new self-awareness and sexual desires by dancing the shuffle with the African-American dockworkers.
The shuffle originates from enslaved West Africans living in colonial North America. Lacking a common language, slaves used music and dance to communicate with each other and preserve their histories. Many plantation owners outlawed dancing. Since dancing was defined as lifting one’s foot off the ground, some slave communities circumvented this rule by shuffling their feet. Many traditional African-American dances feature the shuffle along with other movements.
Though the human body is not limited to specific movements based on race, the body and its movements are racialized. The shuffle and other dances became one identifier of what white Europeans considered “African primitivism.” As Colleen Dunagan and Roxane Fenton write, “Reaching back to the period of slavery, Euro-Americans both distanced themselves from and were fascinated with African American music and dance. The trope of the primitive identified particular characteristics that were in conflict with middle- and upper-class European social and religious norms, and associated them with Africans, African Americans, and their cultural forms.” Euro-Americans considered blacks to be libidinous and sexually promiscuous, therefore not as “evolved” or “refined” as whites. White people continuously used this idea of the African primitive to justify racism and oppress black people for years.
The shuffle held associations of hyper-sexuality ascribed to the black bodies that performed it. As Magnolia begins to mature into womanhood, she finds her footing in the shuffle, mapping that sexuality – and its corresponding blackness – onto her body. Unlike the black dockworkers also reveling in song and dance, Magnolia can cast off her assumed blackness and its oppressed state; once the dance ends, she resumes her whiteness and its privileges.
But for a brief moment, racial differences between Magnolia and the dockworkers are elided through dance. Such is the paradox of social dance: its ability to both build community and erase the boundaries that differentiate groups, as Camille A. Brown explains. In social dance, a strong potential exists for greater cultural empathy. Magnolia may use the shuffle to safely explore and embody her gender and sexuality, but the dance also brings her closer to Julie and the black workers. Magnolia later begs her father to keep Julie on the boat despite Julie’s mixed race posing a legal threat to his business. Though the musical may employ the African primitive trope, Magnolia’s act of advocacy must have been radical at Show Boat’s premiere in 1927 and still resonates in our racially-charged America today.