"Black Americans have made enormous contributions to what is known worldwide as "American culture"—in the arts, music, literature, sciences, cuisine, and style. One of those social arts is black dance:
Africans brought their dances to North and South America, and the Caribbean Islands as slave labor starting in the 1500s. The dance styles of hundreds of African ethnic groups merged with European dances, forming the extension of the African aesthetic in the Americas. Dance has always been an integral part of daily life in Africa. In the Americas, it helped enslaved Africans connect with their homeland keeping their cultural traditions alive.
As before enslavement, Africans danced for special occasions, such as a birth or a marriage, or as a part of their daily activities and dance affirmed life and the outlook of a better future. African-Americans sang and danced while working as slaves, and as they converted to the religions of the Americas, they incorporated these traditions into these religions. Blacks who worked in the colonies of Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, and South America were given more freedom to dance than enslaved Blacks in North America. Many North American slave owners barred Africans from most forms of dancing. Africans found ways of getting around these prohibitions. For example, since lifting the feet was considered dancing, many dances included foot shuffling and hip and torso movement. Dances dominant through the 18th century included the ring shout or ring dance, the calenda, the chica, and the juba.
The dances of the plantation moved onto the stage through Minstrel shows, which introduced black dance to large audiences during the 1800s. As popular entertainment, both Blacks and whites performed them. Initially, Blacks appeared as caricatures that were often ridiculed, but they drew from their cultural traditions even as they made fun of themselves. In 1891, The Creole Show, a revue staged on Broadway introduced The Cakewalk, the first dance created by Blacks to become popular with the white population. Other black-influenced dance trends that followed were the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, and the Twist. The 1920s and 1930s were an especially fruitful time for black dance in the United States. During the Harlem Renaissance, similar innovations in theater, music, literature, and other arts accompanied African-American developments in dance. Black musical theater, derived from minstrel shows, continued to popularize and legitimize black dance traditions and black performers, as it had in the 19th century.
Black dance is as American as apple pie, and has become a global export in conjunction with black music.
One of the earliest black dances in the new world was the juba. Though the name has not been traced exactly, Mo'juba in Yoruba is a series of prayers, and means "I give reverence to." The word mojo is also considered by some etymologists to be derived from this phrase. In West African traditions, prayer and dance were linked.
The Juba dance was originally from West Africa. It became an African-American plantation dance that was performed by slaves during their gatherings when no rhythm instruments were allowed due to fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. The sounds were also used just as Yoruba and Haitian talking drums were used to communicate. The dance was performed in Dutch Guiana, the Caribbean, and the southern United States.
Later in the mid-19th century, music and lyrics were added, and there were public performances of the dance. Its popularization may have indirectly influenced the development of modern Tap dance. The most famous Juba dancer was William Henry Lane, or Master Juba, one of the first black performers in the United States. It was often danced in minstrel shows, and is mentioned in songs such as "Christy's New Song" and "Juba", the latter by Nathaniel Dett.
The McIntosh County Shouters have preserved and passed down the traditional Gullah-Geechie Ring Shout dance:
The ring shout developed out of the collision of West African spiritual practice with the Protestantism of the British colonies, essentially as a cultural response of slaves to the dry, movement-less worship practices of the slave owners. But the songs of the ring shout are in a style distinct from the more familiar American “spirituals.” Historians and musicologists presumed that the ring shout had died out completely until it was “rediscovered” in 1980 as being alive and well in McIntosh County.
Here is a short clip from a Library of Congress concert:
Efforts to repress slaves from dancing and drumming in America were harsh from the beginning:
When first brought to North America during the 1600s and 1700s, slaves from the West coast of Africa used drums to communicate with each other in much the same way as they did at home, sending coded rhythmic messages over long distances, which the Europeans could not understand. In this way slaves held in different encampments could stay in contact, and rebellion could be planned. But after some time the masters realized that the drums could talk:
"…it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes." - Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740)
Starting on the plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia, this ban soon spread nearly everywhere. Without drums, slaves used whatever was around to make beats: spoons, washboards, furniture, and their own bodies with hand-clapping, drumming on various surfaces of the body (Patting Juba), and foot-stomping and shuffling (Ring Shout). "It always rouses my imagination," wrote Lydia Parrish of the Georgia Sea Islands in 1942, "to see the way in which the McIntosh County 'shouters' tap their heels on the resonant floor to imitate the beat of the drum their forebears were not allowed to have." These earlier practices are also the origin of modern forms such as tap dancing.
Whites, in spite of the bans, quickly appropriated black dance and music—getting rich in the process—while at the same time denigrating the source. Racist stereotypes were the norm. Consider the minstrel show:
"Oliver Scott's Refined Negro Minstrels a happy lot of funny coons in myriad acts entrancing, new jokes and gags by black buffoons, the best of songs and dancing."
Racist Minstrel Show poster
Minstrel shows developed in the 1840s and continued to gain in popularity throughout the nineteenth century. These stage shows often featured white men, who blackened their faces with burnt cork and other compounds, lampooning African Americans. The shows were popular with both white and African American audiences. Despite the stereotypical nature of these shows, in many cases it was the first opportunity for African Americans to perform professionally. The African Americans who were a part of such shows often also appeared in blackface, to ensure that all actors were “black” enough…
Minstrel shows, through plays, jokes, and musical numbers including songs and dances, relied on the exploitation of African American stereotypes and presented racist images of black people as unintelligent, as well as displaying a sentimental view of the world of plantation slavery. This poster for Oliver Scott's Refined Negro Minstrels depicts many of the stereotypes that were standards for the minstrel shows, including Toms, Mammies, Coons, and Pickaninnies, all of which portrayed African Americans as comic sources of amusement. For generations these remained the standard stereotypes of African Americans in film, radio, and television.
While minstrel shows, and then vaudeville, were entertainment for the masses, the newly developing "modern dance" art form, sparked by white dancer Ruth St. Denis, was being adopted and changed by black dancers and choreographers. First and foremost was Edna Guy, who launched Katherine Dunham. During the same period, Asadata Dafora arrived in the U.S. from Sierra Leone, and black American modern dance would have a fresh injection of African movement. At the link, you can see one of the most famous dances he choreographed, the Ostrich.
One the best known contemporary modern dance pieces is Alvin Ailey's Revelations ("Revelations tells the story of African-American faith and tenacity from slavery to freedom through a suite of dances set to spirituals and blues music.").
Black dance as a performing art on dance-stage venues took many decades to garner national and international acceptance. The most in-depth television documentary to date on black modern dance was the series produced by PBS, Free To Dance:
"Without the African contribution, we would not have had American dance as we know it," says author Katrina Hazzard Donald.
In three one-hour programs, FREE TO DANCE chronicles the crucial role that African-American dancers and choreographers have played in the development of modern dance as an American art form. Through first-person accounts by dancers and witnesses, the series documents how African-derived movement and other forms of dance were fused to make modern dance so distinctively American. Landmark dance masterpieces by African-American choreographers were filmed expressly for the series and woven throughout the historical narrative. They include the work of Katherine Dunham ("Barrelhouse Blues"), Pearl Primus ("Strange Fruit"), Donald McKayle ("Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder"), Talley Beatty ("Mourner's Bench"), Bill T. Jones ("D-Man in the Water"), Alvin Ailey ("Revelations"), and many others.
Most audiences, black and white, were not attending art dance performances. On the popular stage, and in film, out of juba came tap.
The term "tap" came into popular use as late as 1902. In the 1800s, the dance had been referred to as "buck-and-wing," "buck dancing," or "flat-footed dancing." Metal taps attached to shoe bottoms weren't commonly used until after 1910. Before then, most shoes were made of leather uppers and wooden soles, while others had hobnails or pennies pounded into the toe and heel.
With the rise of vaudeville, traveling black road shows and Broadway revues, more and more opportunities for tap dancers opened up. Still, racism was prevalent, and black and white performers usually danced on different theatrical circuits and for segregated audiences.
The most famous black tap dancer was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whose career spanned decades. Some of the other supreme tappers can be seen in this tribute at the Kennedy Center to Sammy Davis Jr:
Tap evolved out of cross-cultural contact between African Americans and Irish indentured immigrants, who had their own dance form—step dancing and clog. One of my favorite dance performances is this contemporary piece in River Dance:
While black dance may now be accepted worldwide as an art form or as stage entertainment, it is still—first and foremost—a social formation. My parents danced the lindy hop and went out jitterbugging in segregated ballrooms. My dad spent time on the West Coast and wore a zoot suit, as did young Mexican-Americans he met there, who were immortalized in Luis Valdez' Broadway play, Zoot Suit, starring Edward James Olmos detailing the lives of the "pachucos" and the time of the Zoot Suit Riots.
Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi,
Jookin':The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture by Katrina Hazzard-Gordon:
Katrina Hazzard-Gordon offers the first analysis of the development of the jook—an underground cultural institution created by the black working class—together with other dance arenas in African-American culture. Beginning with the effects of African slaves’ middle passage experience on their traditional dances, she traces the unique and virtually autonomous dance culture that developed in the rural South. Like the blues, these secular dance forms and institutions were brought north and urbanized by migrating blacks. In northern cities, some aspects of black dance became integrated into white culture and commercialized. Focusing on ten African-American dance arenas from the period of enslavement to the mid-twentieth century, this book explores the jooks, honky-tonks, rent parties, and after-hours joints as well as the licensed membership clubs, dance halls, cabarets, and the dances of the black elite.
Jook houses emerged during the Reconstruction era and can be viewed as a cultural response to freedom. In the jook, Hazzard-Gordon explains, an immeasurable amount of core black culture including food, language, community fellowship, mate selection, music, and dance found a sanctuary of expression when no other secular institution flourished among the folk. The jook and its various derivative forms have provided both entertainment and an economic alternative (such as illegal lotteries and numbers) to people excluded from the dominant economy. Dances like the Charleston, shimmy, snake hips, funky butt, twist, and slow drag originated in the jooks; some can be traced back to Africa.
Today jookin, Memphis Jookin, or Gangsta' Walking is associated with the meteoric rise to fame of Lil Buck Clayton. His improv dance performance with Yo Yo Ma has well over 2 million views on YouTube:
The New York Times featured him in A Man in Constant Motion: Lil Buck Expands Jookin’s World:
The audience, well-heeled local arts patrons, had probably come for Yo-Yo Ma, also on the evening’s program, not the lithe young man with the mien and facial hair of a teenager, in high-tops and baseball cap. They gasped when Lil Buck accomplished a signature move, gliding smoothly across the floor as if levitating. He moved so that the notes seemed to vibrate up his body, his sneakers squeaking as he pirouetted.
“I think he’s a genius,” Mr. Ma said after the show. A video of their duet to Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” went viral in 2011; they have since performed it around the world — “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Mr. Ma said.
From the East Coast, similar elements from jookin are found in flex, shown in the video below:
Students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have also made major contributions to the black dance tradition, explored by Jacqui Malone in Steppin' on the Blues:
It's impossible to think of the heritage of music and dance in the United States without the invaluable contributions of African Americans. Those art forms have been touched by the genius of African American culture and have helped this nation take its important and unique place in the pantheon of world art.
Steppin' on the Blues explores not only the meaning of dance in African American life but also the ways in which music, song, and dance are interrelated in African American culture. Dance as it has emanated from the black community is a pervasive, vital, and distinctive form of expression–its movements speak eloquently of African American values and aesthetics. Beyond that it has been, finally, one of the most important means of cultural survival.
Former dancer Jacqui Malone throws a fresh spotlight on the cultural history of black dance, the Africanisms that have influenced it, and the significant role that vocal harmony groups, black college and university marching bands, and black sorority and fraternity stepping teams have played in the evolution of dance in African American life. From the cakewalk to the development of jazz dance and jazz music, all Americans can take pride in the vitality, dynamism, drama, joy, and uncommon singularity with which African American dance has gifted the world.
Though baseball is still considered to be the all-American sport, football has eclipsed it in popularity. African-American dance rhythms, grafted onto marching band precision, have become a popular part of half-time performances across the U.S. Some historians trace their history back to colonial times, documented in A Brief History of African American Marching Bands.
As a kid, living on the campus of Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1957, I was a baby majorette, and couldn't wait until our school played schools like Florida A&M or Grambling. I had no interest in the football game. I couldn't wait to see the bands!
HBCU marching bands were featured at both Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's inaugurations.
Another feature of HBCU's is black fraternity and sorority Stepping:
Stepping has often been compared to the South African Gumboot Dance.
During my growing-up years, in the '50s and '60s, I listened to R&B and "soul" music on the radio, and though Dick Clark's American Bandstand was on the television, broadcast out of Philly, it was a pale reflection of the dances being generated in black urban centers across the nation. The showcased dancers on American Bandstand were white. The few black teens who were on the show danced off in a corner of the studio.
During that era there was an explosion of dances, like the Twist, the Bop, the Shing-a-Ling, the Watusi, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato, the Jerk … hundreds of dances created in response to popular R&B tunes. Every summer I headed to Philly to learn the latest and bring them back to friends in New York.
By the 1970s, televised social dance was no longer the sole purview of Dick Clark, when Soul Train hit the airwaves:
Soul Train is an American musical variety television program, which aired in syndication from 1971 until 2006. In its 35-year history, the show primarily featured performances by R&B, soul, and hip hop artists, although funk, jazz, disco, and gospel artists have also appeared. The series was created by Don Cornelius, who also served as its first host and executive producer. A weekly feature was the line dance.
The powerhouse of R&B was Motown, and Motown groups were known not only for their music, but the fancy footwork that was part of the show. The house choreographer for Motown was Cholly Atkins, who you can see here rehearsing the Temptations. The youthful Jackson 5 captured the imagination of listeners and viewers around the world, propelling Michael Jackson to international fame, and the moonwalk became part of dance history.
Jackson credited Jeffrey Daniel, a former Soul Train dancer, with teaching him to moonwalk. Other super soul stars were known for their dance moves, among them Jackie Wilson and, of course, James Brown.
Also in the '70s, with the rise of disco dancing, the intersections between the Puerto Rican and African-American community in New York City created a new fusion,The Latin Hustle.
This was an extension of the development of salsa, Afro-Cuban music that migrated to New York, and was transformed by Puerto Ricans and danced by Latinos, blacks and whites, in parks, at block parties, and in nightclubs.
From Mambo To Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale is an hour-long documentary that tells a story about the creative life of the South Bronx, beginning with the Puerto Rican migration and the adoption of Cuban rhythms to create the New York salsa sound; continuing with the fires that destroyed the neighborhood but not the creative spirit of its people; chronicling the rise of hip hop from the ashes; and ending with reflections on the power of the neighborhood's music to ensure the survival of several generations of its residents, and, in the process, take the world's pop culture by storm.
Segueing into hip-hop and breaking, one of the many documentaries about the genesis of b-boys is The Freshest Kids.
(Full documentary can be found here.)
Of course, not all black dancers seek entry into the world of black dance. Like young dancers the world over, many aspire to ballet. Yet, despite the fact that a few black dancers have been allowed into elite companies—most notably male dancers like Arthur Mitchell, who moved on from the New York Ballet to form the Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook, and more recently, Misty Copeland—the barriers of racism are still there.
BLACK BALLERINA, a feature length documentary-in-progress, is a story of passion, opportunity, heartbreak and triumph of the human spirit. Set in the overwhelmingly white world of classical dance, it tells the stories of several black women from different generations who fell in love with ballet. Six decades ago, while pursuing their dreams of careers in classical dance, Joan Myers Brown, Delores Browne and Raven Wilkinson confronted racism, exclusion and unequal opportunity. In 2014, three young black women also pursue careers as ballerinas. Do they find that the color of ballet has changed? If so, how? If not, why?
BLACK BALLERINA uses the ethereal world of ballet to engage viewers in a subject that reaches far outside the art world. Through broadcast and a comprehensive educational and community outreach initiative, BLACK BALLERINA compels viewers to think about larger issues of exclusion, equal opportunity and change.
Langston Hughes wrote:
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening…
A tall, slim tree…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.