Dance, Racial Identity, and
Cultural Appropriation in
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time
Written by the incomparable Zadie Smith, Swing Time is the fifth novel in her complete body of work, which includes White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) On Beauty (2005), and NW (2012). This, of course, does not include her two works of non-fiction, Changing My Mind (2009) and Feel Free (2018), and Smith’s recent collection of short stories, Grand Union (2019).
Swing Time depicts the experiences of two North West London childhood friends who bond in dance class in the early 1980s. On the surface, the story is about a fractured friendship between the anonymous narrator and her best friend Tracey. The two girls also have similar backgrounds as both are mixed race with one white parent and one black parent and reside in lower-middle class northwest London families. They initially bond as the sole dark-skinned dancers among a childhood class of white Londoners.
While dance sets the stage for the friendship, the book is actually about racial identity, the art world (mediums of dance and singing), and cultural appropriation. Racial identity proves to be both limiting for Tracey and limitless for the unnamed narrator. Tracey will forge a dance career that is circumscribed by her race and in the meantime, the narrator submerges her own racial identity to carve out a successful career as a personal assistant to a rising pop star.
As the two girls come of age, they spend countless hours in front of the television watching dance-heavy musicals such as Swing Time (1936). That famous film, which is one performed by the graceful duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, serves as a metaphor for the two main characters in the novel. Despite both characters becoming fully enamored with the film and Astaire’s dancing, neither homes in on one pivotal act. In one scene in the film, which begins in the shadowy backdrop of the dance stage, Astaire pays tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the well-known black tap dancer, by mimicking the dancer’s style while donning blackface. Thus, Tracey’s career—as a dancer in small background roles in musical productions—could be said to parallel that of Robinson’s career, as both are circumscribed by their race. She is a phenomenal dancer but plays stereotypical, small chorus roles in Broadway shows. Thus, Tracey is relegated to stereotype similar to the way in which Astaire plays Bojangles in stereotypic fashion in blackface and heavy footed with the Robinson dance style.
Meanwhile, the narrator who is forging a successful career as the personal assistant to an Australian super star, Aimee, completely submerges her own racial identity. Aimee, a wealthy white pop music sensation has reached a point in her career where her deep purse strings make anything possible. She becomes fully enamored of African cultures deciding that her latest philanthropic mission is to open a girls’ school in Gambia. Under the guise of philanthropy, Aimee culturally appropriates Gambian dance traditions for use in her music videos. The narrator, however, become equally culpable to her boss’s cultural appropriation as she is at Aimee’s beck and call 24 hours a day. And in this regard, the narrator is also reflected in Astaire’s blackfaced rendition of Robinson as she has no compunction about the appropriation of Gambian culture because she herself had muted her own cultural identity. This action is similar to the way in which she has missed Astaire’s blackface when viewing the film in her youth, and thus, has also missed the cultural appropriating done numerous times by her boss, Aimee.
Unsurprisingly, while the narrator is growing her own wealth as a result of her own cooptation, Tracey has sunk deep into poverty. And, as if hinting at the survival skills necessary to function with few resources, Smith captures the two eventual lives well, quipping:
“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”
Until the narrator awakens her slumbering cultural identity, her actions are, indeed, thoughtless.
Like Smith’s other novels, racial identity, and this time, notions of cultural appropriation and racial circumspection, are centered. The use of the Swing Time film scene as the metaphor is deft storytelling and Smith at her best. Some have quibbled with her about the use of first-person narration; however, I appreciated the way the ending of the story set the stage for the rest of the narrative. Moreover, the shifting sands of identity, of race, and of the confining nature of the dance world in the 1990s-2000s is brilliantly rendered.
By Zadie Smith
340 pages. 2016.
Buy it here.