Aurally, Visually, Virally: Choreographing Race From Fosse to Beyoncé
Priscilla Peña Ovalle / University of Oregon

Beyonce\'s \"Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)\"

Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”

In 2007, a Los Angeles-based design company called Diamond Creative entered the viral video hall of fame when they merged a clip of American choreographer Bob Fosse‘s “Mexican Breakfast” (( (1969) with an audio track of Unk’s hip-hop hit and debut single “Walk it Out” (2006). The unadulterated “Mexican Breakfast” ((The meaning of this title is ambiguous, but begs for its own critical exploration.)) clip featured Gwen Verdon performing on the Ed Sullivan show with a pair of backup dancers; the clip had its own YouTube presence before Diamond Creative replaced the clip’s original soundtrack, an upbeat instrumental, with the hip-hop beat. Dubbed “Walk It Out, Fosse,” (( a Diamond Creative employee posted the remix on YouTube in June 2007. (( After a month of submitting the video to blogs, the clip gained momentum when Perez Hilton mentions the clip; soon USA Today’s blog mentions the video and NPR interviews its creator. ((ibid))

Cut to October 2008: One year after “Walk It Out, Fosse” emerged – and nearly forty years after the original piece aired on CBS – Beyoncé debuted her own Fosse-inspired music video for her single release, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” The video, shot in black and white and cut to appear as a singular shot of an energetic dance performance, featured Beyoncé dancing with two female performers and quoting choreography from the Fosse piece. ((Since its debut, Youtube responses have layered “Single Ladies” on the original “Mexican Breakfast” footage: 6 Beyoncé had previously featured Fosse material in her videos, the most obvious example being her video for “Get Me Bodied” (2007), modeled on “The Rich Man’s Frug” from the film version of Sweet Charity (Fosse 1969). (( Unlike “Get Me Bodied,” however, “Single Ladies” was widely circulated and reached the height of its popularity when it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Beyoncé, Andy Samburg, and Justin Timberlake (November 2008).

The popularity of “Walk It Out, Fosse” is dependent on the schism between the hip-hop soundtrack and the historical image of white female bodies performing to that sound. While contemporary music videos often feature white female performers in hip-hop motion, the 1969 dancers’ bodies – clad in polyester pinks, whites, and yellows – do not match the visual assumptions of hip-hop culture in terms of race or costuming. And when the dancers begin the isolated leg and hip gestures of Fosse’s choreography, their movements challenge and disturb what the viewer might assume to be white female bodily vocabulary from the 1960s time period.



“Walk It Out, Fosse” highlights the social construction of racialized female mobility, in this case exemplifying what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls the “sonic color-line,” an “interpretive site where racial difference is echoed, produced, and policed through the ear.” ((Stoever, Jennifer. “The Contours of the Sonic Color-Line: Slavery, Segregation, and the Cultural Politics of Listening.” Dissertation. University of Southern California, 2006: 4.)) Though the movements do not change from “Mexican Breakfast” to “Walk It Out, Fosse,” the choreography’s pelvic tilts, leg shakes, and head rolls read very differently when accompanied by Unk‘s track. Because these movements synchronize so well with the tempo of the song, generational assumptions about bodily movements are easily disturbed: when I played the two clips for my film studies class (“Mexican Breakfast” first, then “Walk It Out, Fosse”), students were surprised at how much more “sexual” the second clip seemed as a result of the sonic shift. Indeed, the hard bass line of the second track accentuates the Fosse/Verdon movements, but the aural connotations evoked from the hip-hop soundtrack do even more to enhance the meaning.

While it is no surprise that the white female body of Gwen Verdon and the black female body of Beyoncé would be read differently despite a shared vocabulary of movement, these three videos highlight how such visual-aural shifts have evolved. Returning to “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé’s homage to “Mexican Breakfast” seems more indebted to “Walk It Out, Fosse”; in one interview, she cites the viral video as the inspiration for “Single Ladies.” ((Beyoncé, interview with Rocsi and Terrence J, 106 & Park, Black Entertainment Television (BET), New York, 14 Oct. 2008.)) Choreographed by JaQuel Knight and Frank Gatson, the updated movements of Beyoncé’s video accelerate the tempo to enunciate the hip and pelvic thrusts; where Verdon’s pelvic isolations seem almost quiet, the Beyoncé version hits each count quite hard. The impact and focus of these movements are accentuated by the contemporary cut of the costumes. Where Verdon and company were covered from ankle to wrist in slacks, blouses, and vests, Beyoncé’s crew appear in black leotards that accentuate the hips; the dancers’ legs and arms are bare while the black and white photography draws attention to the point where leotard and leg meet.


Of course, “Single Ladies” is not the first music video to utilize Fosse material (see Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake,” (( based on Fosse’s 1979 film All That Jazz). And Fosse’s style is similarly indebted to the influence of jazz, tap, and ballet masters before him. But “Walk It Out, Fosse” and “Single Ladies” illustrate how our conceptions of race are still dependent upon a specific intersection of sound and vision. Seeing – and hearing – these three interpretations of Fosse’s choreography provides a useful case study for exploring the racialized and sexualized narratives that linger in popular culture…however remixed or revised they may be.

Image Credits:

1. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”

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Head & Shoulders Gives Good Hair: Dance, Hair, and Latina Representation
Priscilla Peña Ovalle / University of Oregon

Head and Shoulders Product Line

Head and Shoulders Product Line

In my last column for Flow, I analyzed a series of Viagra commercials (Viva Viagra!) to show how dance operated as a euphemism for sex and a signifier of racialized sexuality. Here, I look to another commercial to show how the media Latina is once again ambiguously racialized through representations of hair and dance.

As Jennifer Fuller argued in her column “Dreadful Locks: Shear Genius and the Limits of Multiculturalism”, black women and black hair have often been represented as unattractive or unruly within U.S. media culture. My argument similarly navigates the black-white binary of representation through hair; in this case, however, I argue that the Latina’s body and hairstyle must simultaneously represent signifiers of sameness and difference (or whiteness and blackness) within the media frame.

Most successful Latinas in mainstream media (from Rita Hayworth to Jennifer Lopez) have had to change their hair to more closely conform to white standards of cosmetic beauty; usually, this translates into long, straight/ened, and light brown hair. Meanwhile, the Latina’s physical body is both racialized and sexualized through her ambiguously ethnicized or racialized difference. Within the media frame, the ambiguity of this simultaneity is further magnified through the Latina’s seemingly compulsive action of dance.

One Head & Shoulders television commercial exemplifies the ubiquitous relationship between hair, dance, and Latina representation. In 2007, the drugstore dandruff shampoo Head & Shoulders re-launched itself as a salon-quality product through a series of commercials, print advertisements, and promotional spots (Ellen, etc) that announced “millions of people” had recently discovered “a secret to truly healthy hair.” The thirty-second television spot that caught my attention ran during a Lifetime syndicated airing of Will and Grace in December of 2007, but the commercial has since run on various networks.

Secret to Beautiful Hair Logo

What’s the secret to beautiful hair?

The commercial offers a racialized spectrum of women and hair in order to advertise its product through a series of “testimonials” that offer a predictable series of remarks. “It actually changed my hair.” “It feels healthy.” “My scalp feels…really moisturized.” And, “It’s got movement…like salsa.” Each statement is uttered by a multicultural list of characters (or impossibly beautiful so-called average blind-test subjects) and it should take no real time to imagine which two statements come from the black and Latina figures. Healthy, moisturized hair rewards the auburn-, dark brown- and red-haired (white) women while the women who laud their hair’s ability to change or be in constant movement are nonwhite.

The commercial begins with the black silhouette of a large crowd against a white background. The camera’s movement reveals that the computer-generated crowd stands in the shape of a Head & Shoulders logo with a question mark at the center. We enter the conversation of two silhouetted female figures as they gesture a whisper and a female voiceover offers to let us in on the secret to healthy hair. The commercial then wipe-transitions into a series of interviews with purportedly real women.

The interviews, primarily shot in close-ups, feature a range of women across a racialized spectrum of shampoo users. In order, we are introduced to a black woman with medium-length curly black hair; a white woman with longer straight auburn hair; a (presumably) Latina woman with long, straight medium or light brown hair; a white woman with long, dark brown hair; and a very fair-complected white woman with long, straight, and bright red hair. Visually, the testimonials provide the range of hair types that might be associated with female hair care product consumers. The women gesture towards, touch, and swing their hair to indicate the “health” and “moisture” bestowed by the product.



Multicultural Hair, From Sameness to Difference

For the black and brown women in the commercial, Head and Shoulders proclaims to offer two key elements: “change” and “movement.” The black woman’s proclamation that the product has “actually changed [her] hair” brings forth a history of racialization and cosmetic manipulation tied to oppression, assimilation, identity negotiation, etc. For the Latina, the concept of “movement” identifies her as Latina and confirms her cultural, racial, and/or ethnic authenticity.

Though the camera is constantly moving, subtly reframing the women to make the commercial more visually dynamic, the Latina is the only character/subject granted a frame wider than the aforementioned close-up. In her testimonial, Julianna (identified by name on the Head and Shoulders website) says, in slightly accented English, that her hair’s “got movement.” The close-up testimonial immediately cuts to a medium shot as her voiceover continues, “Like salsa.” The camera’s reframing for this cut is jarring in its form (it is the only medium shot among the testimonials), but fluid in its ideological transition. On cue, we see the Latina perform a brief salsa step: her body rocks from side to side, suggesting that her legs are shifting her balance, as her bent arms move like pistons. Though we only see her body from the waist up, Julianna’s smile and movement tell us that she loves dance and her mobile hair.

Where the black woman is cast to immediately signify difference, the Latina visually operates as an ambiguously racialized body that is crucially nonwhite — but not black. The black woman, identified as Tia on the Head and Shoulders website, is marked as different through skin color, her use of the word “change,” and the fact that she is the only woman in the commercial who does not have straight hair. Because the commercial’s Latina is cast as a light-skinned woman with lighter, straight hair, it is possible to visually classify her as similar to the white women featured in the commercial. However, Julianna’s accented English and her seemingly compulsive desire to dance salsa marks her as unmistakably Latina. Because the history of Latina representation in mainstream media dictates that she must look different enough, but not too different, and that she must dance, I wonder whether a black Latina, a Latina without an identifiable accent, or a static Latina would have worked for this role?

Image Credits:

1. Head and Shoulders Product Line
2. What’s the secret to beautiful hair?
3. Multicultural Hair, From Sameness to Difference (all the pictures of the women)
4. Front Page Image

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Viva Viagra! Or, How Race Dances Around Erectile Dysfunction
Priscilla Peña Ovalle / University of Oregon

Viva Viagra Commercial

Still from “Tango” Viagra Commercial

Mad Men is the only television show that my Tivo can’t completely record before I begin to watch. This urgency often requires me to pause commercials so I can zip through them. Normally, nothing can delay my fervid appreciation of the dazzling DSF-ing (drinking, smoking and…fornicating) that Mad Men delivers. But this season, I have found myself watching for that blur of perky Viagra-blue lettering during commercial breaks. I am not beckoned by the irony of an all-too appropriate Viagra commercial sandwiched between Mad Men’s hot and heavy scenes. No, I watch the commercials because the brand name medication for erectile dysfunction has yet again returned to that ever-present euphemistic gesture for sex: dancing.

The equation dance=sex has long existed in film and media culture, and most Hollywood musicals feature some form of dance-as-sexual-awakening number between the hero and heroine. These mainstream roles, often white by default and invariably heterosexual, have helped reify dance as a collapsed signifier of racialized sexuality in visual culture: where the white heroine learns to dance, the nonwhite female always already knows how. For one character, dance is a romantic prelude to sex; for the other, dance is a given of her supposed hyper-sexuality. The fabricated white-by-default world of Viagra and its dance/sex equation are also racialized, a fact obscured by Mad Men’s own whiteness.

Viagra commercials make the ubiquitous dance=sex equation quite plain. While drug ads occasionally depict dance to represent vitality, Viagra commercials have long used dance as a metaphor for sex. A decade ago, the first Viagra campaign featured the tag line “Let the Dance Begin” for both television and static print advertisements. (( See Loe, Meika. 2004. The rise of Viagra: how the little blue pill changed sex in America / Meika Loe. New York: New York University Press.)) The current campaign — entitled “Viva Viagra” — brings racialized sexuality to the foreground through language, movement and music even as it visually dissociates this connection through its general casting and narrative. Though now a part of the English lexicon, “Viva!” recalls the Mexican /Spanish-language rallying cry as well as the Elvis film Viva Las Vegas! (1964). Both of these references are racialized and sexualized signifiers that evoke the US Southwest and the so-called sin-city of Vegas. If Elvis seems like a stretch as a racial figure, consider how he helped bring rock-n-roll into the mainstream, not to mention his role as the Native American son of Dolores Del Rio’s character in Flaming Star (1960).

The “Viva Viagra” campaign is composed of five one-minute commercials. This long-play format provides ample time to relay both narrative and pharmaceutical information. While three of these commercials (available at feature dance as a prelude to sex, I am particularly interested in the ways that two of these spots — “Tango” and “Dance Lesson” —collapse racial codes and movement into sexualized metaphor. This collapse is particularly troubling because the commercials depict an otherwise white world, begging the question: do men of color not suffer from erectile dysfunction?

Dancing Couple from \"Tango\" Viagra Commercial

Dancing Couple from “Tango” Viagra Commercial — Dance as Foreplay

The commercial that initially caught my eye during Mad Men is entitled “Tango”; this commercial is the campaign’s centerpiece and its imagery appears as the interactive opener of the Viagra web site. In “Tango”, an older and attractively fit heterosexual couple sits on a couch; the wife, wedding ring barely visible, flips through magazines while her husband channel surfs. The couple quickly begins a mutual challenge to throw their distractions out the window. One by one, the gender-specific TV remote, magazine pile, golf club and telephone receiver fly onto the perfectly manicured lawn. The couple finally reconnects by dancing a tame tango that evolves into a sort of slow salsa step. This dance is foreplay, literally moving the couple across their spacious living room, through their pristine kitchen and (eventually) safely behind their bedroom door. In the kitchen, the camera lingers on a close-up of their dancing feet: her manicured toes slide through a turn in kicky sandals while his sensible brown shoes anchor her movement…and the announcer catalogues a list of potential side effects (“headaches, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision”). The camera captures their moving feet at a soothingly slower frame rate, a technique repeated throughout the campaign to simultaneously enunciate the commercial’s action and distract us from the disclaimers accompanying the seduction scene.

In “Dance Lesson”, a grey-haired gentleman takes classes at a dance school. His dance teacher, an ambiguously ethnic woman with dark hair and big earrings (the Rita Moreno/Rosie Perez costume kit), strongly corrects his movements and posture. The man’s uncertainty is plain and he stumbles about…until a cut replaces the dance teacher with a blonde woman. The man, now a confident dancer, guides and swings his partner across the dance floor. At this moment, the commercial pauses and the phrase “Viva La Surprise” appears in a cursive typeface against the static, blue-tinted image of the dancing couple. Yet again, the commercial’s pace slows as the announcer delivers the details, this time letting the camera linger on a shot of the woman’s diamond wedding ring — a visual confirmation that Viagra is for committed partners and not one-night-stands.

\"Dance\" Viagra Commercial

Make Way For the Real Partner! — The “Dance” Viagra Commercial

Viva La Surprise

Viva La Surprise!

Because “Viva Viagra” is an overwhelmingly white ad campaign, the use of tango/salsa and the inclusion of an ambiguously ethnic dance instructor suggest that the symbolic interplay between nonwhiteness, dance and sexuality is a significant component of the campaign’s message. Use of the word “Viva” and the Spanish preposition “La” underscore these connections. Like the dance=sex equation, “Viva Viagra” reminds us that dance is also frequently and easily used to evoke race and racialized sexuality — and vice versa. The flirty and fun message of the “Viva Viagra” campaign works so well because US visual culture has repeatedly tangled its racialized and sexualized signifiers, especially in depictions of dance. Representations of dance, race and sexuality have so commonly intersected that audiences can effortlessly access the meaning of a Viagra commercial without recognizing the discrete symbols that compose the equation.

Both Mad Men and “Viva Viagra” seduce the viewer. It is easy to believe that one critiques patriarchal and institutionally racist practices while the other reinstates them, but “Viva Viagra” has actually made me rethink my Mad Men pleasure. I was already becoming uneasy with my simultaneous adoration of and disdain for the characters in this pre-dominantly white prime-time drama. This concern remains tempered by my deep appreciation for the exquisite thematic subtlety and cynical nostalgia of the show’s writers and performers; in other words, I recognize that my unease is designed by this excellent television drama. But as Viagra becomes a fixture of Mad Men’s season two commercial breaks, I am aggravated by the fact that the attractive older husband in “Tango” could very well be replaced by any of the senior Mad Men engaged in lustful trysts at the Sterling Cooper ad agency.

“Viva Viagra” reminds me that, as a thirty-something Chicana, I am not the target demographic for Viagra — or, perhaps, Mad Men. At the collision point between program and commercial, I am forced to recognize my status as a temporary partner on the floor of the US imaginary and — mid-step — I find that we are dancing around more than erectile dysfunction here. Neither Madison Avenue’s dazzle nor an appropriated Elvis song will convince me otherwise.

Image Credits:

1. Still from “Tango” Viagra Commercial

2. Dancing Couple from “Tango” Viagra Commercial — Dance as Foreplay

3. Make Way For the Real Partner! — The “Dance” Viagra Commercial

4. Viva La Surprise!

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