African American Dance

African-American dance dates back to the 17th century. At that time, the roots of African slavery were implanted deep in the soil of Western culture. The slaves remembered the songs and dances of their native Africa, and taught them to their children and grandchildren. This oral tradition was handed down from each generation to the next.

Often, as traditions are passed down, they evolve. During this process, the original flavor is diluted while at the same time, new elements are added. This is certainly true of African-American dance, which lost some of its native African character while absorbing a certain degree of the American spirit. Its polyrhythmic nature is perhaps the only major trait of African-American dance to remain constant throughout its history.

Dance and music go hand-in-hand and African music in particular is characterized by the presence of polyrhythms. A polyrhythm is the simultaneous expression of two or more contrasting rhythms. The rhythms may be simple when heard individually, but become very complex when they are combined. Every form of African-American dance or music, whether it is jazz, rock, reggae, soul, rhythm and blues, or gospel, contains polyrhythms.

The polyrhythmic nature of both African and African-American dance conveyed by the dancers, who use different parts of their body to move to teh various beats. Paul Bohannan described this feature of African-American dance when he wrote, "The head moves in one rhythm, the shoulders in another, the arms in still a third, the trunk in another, and the feet in still another." This aspect of African-American dance was epitomized in modern times by the late Michael Jackson, in dances to songs like "Bad" or "Billie Jean." Essentially, Jackson was performing a variation on traditional folk dances that were handed down through the generations.

In addition to combining multiple concurrent rhythms, African dance is earth-centric. The African-American dancer faces the earth, in contrast to the ballet dancer who faces the heavens. The African-American dancer also uses every part of the body, not just the extremities. Vigorous hip and shoulder movements give an overall impression of bodily energy while the angular bending of knees and elbows illustrates the dancer's engagement with daily life.

Barbara Glass described a phenomenon she termed the "Africanization of American movement," in which non-African Americans began to dance in a way that was both fluid and rhythmic. This type of dance emphasized individual expression over set patterns, and featured extremely relaxed body movements. This derivative of African-American dance reached its peak during the era of swing music.

Despite the earth-bound physical nature of African-American dance, the genre is inspired by the spirit as well, through the medium of gospel. Sacred dance is a component of many faiths and as such, becomes a vehicle for expressing the religious thoughts and feelings of the dancer. A number of dances attempt to express spirituality and empowerment through stories of perseverance, survival and success in the face of human bondage and oppression.

In particular, gospel -- also called "spiritual" -- is a genre of music and dance that illustrates the deep connection forged by African-Americans to the Bible, or gospel. This strong attachment helped the slaves bridge the gap between their ancient African rituals and the new Christian beliefs and rituals of their white masters. African-Americans absorbed the culture of the Bible, especially those sections dealing with life, death and salvation.

The slaves did not confine gospel dance and music to church, but took it with them as they performed their daily tasks in the fields. "Ring Shouts," a type of folk song with an accompanying dance, recalls African heritage through the emulation of the calls and replies of workers in the field. In the Ring Shout circle dance, the dancers "get the spirit" by clapping, singing and calling out Hosannas. The Ring Shout stirs dormant feelings and often transports dancers into a state much like a trance.

Dance and music offered the slaves a vehicle for articulating their innermost pain and intense spirituality. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, who studies African-American culture, has explained that the slaves were "prohibited from worshipping their African gods when Christianized by their masters. Some slaves secretly held African-based religious rituals while others incorporated them into the Christian service." Through dance and music, then, the slaves could speak to their ancient gods and to their new God as well.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The History of Black Dance in America
Sherman, Shantella.
The New Crisis, Vol. 107, No. 1, January/February 2000
Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture
Katrina Hazzard-Gordon.
Temple University Press, 1990
Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion
Susan Manning.
University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts
Brenda Dixon Gottschild.
Praeger Publishers, 1996
It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Harlem Swing: Social Dance and the Harlem Renaissance
Brown, Tamara.
Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 31, 1998
Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture
Thomas F. Defrantz.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers
Constance Valis Hill.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Crip Walk, Villain Dance, Pueblo Stroll: The Embodiment of Writing in African American Gang Dance
Phillips, Susan A.
Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 1, Winter 2009
Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars
Joel Dinerstein.
University of Massachusetts Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Tap Dancers Rap Back at the Machine;" Chap. 7 "America's National Folk Dance: The Lindy Hop"
African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader
Harry J. Elam Jr.; David Krasner.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Black Salome: Exoticism, Dance, and Racial Myths"
Theorizing Connectivities: African American Women in Concert Dance
DeFrantz, Thomas F.
The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), Vol. 4, No. 6, September 2011
Gospel Music and Dance within the Spirit of America
Gaines, Willysann; Ross, Frank Russel.
JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Vol. 80, No. 7, September 2009
The Routledge Dance Studies Reader
Alexandra Carter.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 26 "'Keep to the Rhythm and You'll Keep to Life': Meaning and Style in African American Vernacular Dance"
A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements
Annemarie Bean.
Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "To Make Black Bodies Strange: Social Critique in Concert Dance of the Black Arts Movement (1998)"
History and Memory in African-American Culture
Geneviève Fabre; Robert O'Meally.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Performing the Memory of Difference in Afro-Caribbean Dance: Katherine Dunham's Choreography, 1938-87"
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