Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout

Article excerpt

Abstract: When one considers the history of American dance traditions one rarely thinks about its possible relationship to the local African American "Sanctified" or fundamentalist church described in works such as James Baldwin's Go Tell it On the Mountain. This article examines the historical relationship between early African American slave worship and its contribution to both the social and theatrical dance traditions of the United States.

Keywords: Hoodoo, Ring Shout, Black dance, Plantation dancing.

More than any discipline in the academy, Black Studies explores unseen and overlooked connections between African American life, culture and sociocultural movement in the United States. Uniquely placed as an interdisciplinary enterprise, Black Studies is not restricted by ideological confines which dictate a disciplines approach and focus. Because it challenges many traditional paradigms and their assumptions, Black Studies has the potential to discover both new approaches and new truths while pointing to future research. Such is the case with African American folk religion and dance.

Neither the literature on American dance nor the literature on Hoodoo1 has considered the possible role of African American folk religion in the development of American dance traditions. Dance scholars such as Lynne Emery, Robert Ferris Thompson, Sally Banes, Kariamu Welsh, and Jackie Malone have given no consideration to the role of the Hoodoo folk religion on American dance development. Likewise, the scholars who research Hoodoo have narrowly focused their work so that there is little room for other than historical considerations. This type of narrow focus is reflected in the work of Hoodoo scholars like Yvonne Chireau. Therefore, the intent of this article is to give preliminary examination to the idea that a now nonexistent institution, which I call "the old Hoodoo religion," played a significant role in American dance development.

African American social and vernacular dance has been the wellspring from which nearly all popular American dance, as well as significant theatrical dance, has been drawn. Where it has not been the sole inspirational source, as is the case with theater dance, it has been of significant influence in the dance creation process. From its appearance in North America, African American dance has been intimately responsive to its sociocultural environment; dance gives abstract visual representation to significant moments in African American community cultural history, while articulating esteemed values and nourishing the African soul.

Enslaved Africans brought their traditional dances to North America with them. Primarily sacred, these dances, upon arriving here, quickly underwent modification which broke with specific ethnic African traditional cultural meaning. The original African institutional and ceremonial context, as well as the structure and function of the dance, were disrupted by enslavement.

Independently reconstituted by bondsmen who clung to cultural memory as a means of psychological survival, the dance was reconfigured and adjusted to the new physical and social environment. African traditional dance was modified and forced to adjust to both the new conditions of labor imposed by enslavement and the psychological necessities imposed by its attendant practices.

The African dance vocabularies varied from one African ethnic group to another; but these sacred dances all conformed to an overarching African aesthetic in dance which included the use of angularity, mimicry, multiple meter/polyrhythmic sensitivity, segmentation and delineation of body parts, as well as asymmetry.2 These aesthetic organizing principles were common and familiar, as were certain principles of structural organization. The two most visible organizing structures were the circle and the line. All the Africans landed in significant numbers in North America were from cultures which ordered their dances using these aesthetic principles and organizing structures. …

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