You have to take the title of tonight's 60-minute public TV special on black dance -- "Watch Me Move!," on Channel 26 at 10 -- quite literally. Watch it flit by, and enjoy it moment to moment, because it never stops long enough for breath or reflection. What you see is what you get, but you've got to catch it on the run.
There's a tremendous amount of worthwhile documentary footage in this show, and also the germ of an idea for an extremely valuable program. There's the rub, however. The archival stuff is great in itself, and intrinsically important historically. But the surrounding framework -- introductions, voice-overs, interview segments, connective tissue of various sorts -- is so fleeting and flimsy as to be ineffectual.
The program purports to scan the evolution of pop and social dance of black American origin from the late 19th century to the present, and to set all this against the background of contemporaneous historical and cultural tides. This is more than a large topic -- it's a central chapter in the history of all 20th-century dance, and a fitting treatment could easily occupy a season-long series. But "Watch Me Move!," produced in 1986 by Arthur Cromwell in association with KCET in Los Angeles, brings us no closer to a realization of such a project than a bountiful platter of raw material.
The program proceeds more or less chronologically by decades, starting with the cakewalk and ending up with the breakdance phenomenon. There's onscreen commentary by a slew of people who know a great deal about the subject, ranging from Charles (Honi) Coles and his former partner, Cholly Atkins, to dance historians Sally Sommer and Robert Faris Thompson, to "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius, to music video choreographer Michael Peters. But with a few exceptions, appearances by these and other experts are so brief and their remarks so insubstantial -- like the program itself -- that their presence serves more as window dressing than as illumination. Under other circumstances, any one of the program's guests could be counted upon for a veritable gold mine of information and insight. This show, however, just whizzes past the possibilities.
A lot of diligent combing and culling of resources went into the making of the program, and among the bases touched were such major repositories of historical materials as the late Mura Dehn's awesome jazz film anthology "The Spirit Moves," the unique private collection of Ernie Smith, and archives at the Schomberg Collection and the Library of Congress. It's typical of the haphazard character of the results, however, that despite the inclusion of Coles and Atkins as interviewees, the whole subject of jazz tap dance -- a major, ceaselessly influential domain of black creativity -- gets barely a nod throughout the hour.
This probably sounds like a lot of dyspeptic crabbing about a show that's easy and often exciting to watch, and puts in front of us so much thrilling dancing that otherwise can't easily be seen. It's just that one can't help thinking about what might have been. The program's aspirations were on the right track -- unfortunately, the train never left the station.