JAMES BROWN: Godfather of Dance

By Gottschild, Brenda Dixon | Dance Magazine, August 2000 | Go to article overview

JAMES BROWN: Godfather of Dance


Gottschild, Brenda Dixon, Dance Magazine


WITH A UNIQUE voice underscoring a music that pulses with the insistence of its African roots, James Brown holds unquestioned right to his title, "The Godfather of Soul." But to those who have seen Brown on videos of hits like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Please, Please, Please"--or, best of all, in person at one of his thousands of shows over a half-century career--his drop-dead dancing is, without a doubt, a dazzling, vivid, essential part of his performance.

Brown possesses a dancing style as thoroughly extraordinary and influential as that of Master Juba, the legendary minstrel of the 1800s. Brown is a wellspring of inspiration for artists and amateurs, not only on the dance floor and the popular stage but also in the clubs of the hip-hop generation and the concert performance venues of postmodern dance. In The Blues Brothers, the hit 1980 Dan Aykroyd-John Belushi movie, Brown appears briefly as a singing, dancing preacher, the perfect role for him. He's at the center of a crucial dance scene in the film, not so much the dancer but the reason for the dance, a function he's filled in real life.

Singing as distinctively as another pioneer, Louis Armstrong, Brown cut his eyeteeth on swing. He particularly admired Louis Jordan and his band. (Like the singing, dancing Cab Calloway, Jordan was one of the celebrated "dancing bandleaders" of the 1930s and 1940s.) Jordan's flair, Count Basie's precision and a host of other gospel, jazz and blues influences that he soaked up were spun into the new forms of music and dance that have become part of his legacy.

Born May 3, 1933 (by his own reckoning; accounts differ), in a one-room shanty in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown has been performing professionally since he was 19. Early on, boxing, baseball and social dancing were part of the no-frills education of this small, sinewy, tough kid. Quick to learn the value of moving fast and hitting hard, he was able to translate these real-world survival skills into the performance patterns that became his trademark. The boxer's lightness and the base runner's speed are embedded in his sly stepping.

His performance consists of a calculated combination of tightly rehearsed routines relieved by improvisation. He evolved his now-legendary style in that school of hard knocks, the black clubs and dance halls of the South in the Jim Crow era of segregation. Rather than compete with the sophisticated doo-wop groups (male singing groups of the 1950s whose routines were based on vocal harmony and smooth, synchronized choreography), Brown's group, the Famous Flames, went in the opposite direction: Instead of suave and cool, they were unapologetically rough and hot. By the late 1960s, Brown had invented funk--a raw, sweaty, gritty, blatantly rhythmic style. The wild, sexy, "in-your-face" performance of rock, punk and hip-hop artists would not be with us today were it not for James Brown's radical innovations.

He wore makeup; his brightly colored, outrageously cut suits were really costumes; and he dramatized his songs with brilliant dancing and extravagant play-acting. The classic example of his style is the cape routine for "Please, Please, Please," his earliest hit (1956). Using his feet as percussion instruments to keep the beat (the same means used by rhythm tap dancers, but for a different end), Brown understood that rhythm was his basic strength. He danced faster--and harder--than anything anyone had ever seen before. Even standing in place, he worked his feet--and sometimes his head and buttocks--to accompany the beats in his deceptively simple music. Keeping abreast of the many fad dances created in the black communities, he incorporated them into his act and developed them into his own image, creating a dance that is so uniquely his own that it is simply called "The James Brown." It is an indescribably fast and furious combination of the slide, slop, funky chicken, mashed potato, camel walk, shimmy, applejack and quiver. …

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