The History of Black Dance in America

By Sherman, Shantella | The New Crisis, January/February 2000 | Go to article overview

The History of Black Dance in America


Sherman, Shantella, The New Crisis


A thorough look at Africans in America would not be complete without considering African-American dance. From plantation dances enslaved Africans used to express their tragedy and triumph to the ever-changing slick motions of modern hand dancing, black rhythmic movements are an integral weave in the fabric of American culture. Dance grew out of hardship but became entertainment.

Take, for instance, the shuffling dances of Southern plantations. Dancing was strictly prohibited at the onset of slavery Historians believe this to be a part of some moral code imposed by the Protestants. Since the act of raising a foot was considered to be dancing, slaves took to gliding their feet instead of raising them, or moving the torso and hips about with limited or no arm movement, thereby masking their activities.

Because dance was an integral part of life in Africa, with special festive dances being performed at weddings, funerals, and religious ceremonies, once AfricanAmericans were allowed to worship as Christians, traditional African dance rituals were integrated into Catholic, Protestant and Methodist worship. Eventually plantation dancing was allowed by white owners who wasted no time turning them into a competitive sport.

Plantation slaves often competed against one another to be named the most agile and charismatic dancer. The winner usually received some trinket from the slave owner. Perhaps the most revered dance was a couple's dance for which the winners received a cake. This dance came to be known as the "cake walk."

As traveling minstrel shows gained popularity in the late 1700s, the cake walk and other dances performed by African Americans were imitated by whites in blackface. Gaining legitimacy among white audiences, the cake walk soon found its way into white social life, as celebrated, in some areas, as the waltz. Various interpretations of the cake walk, the shuffle and a host of other plantation-inspired dances permeated American culture.

By the 1920s, American popular culture had moved from a stereotypical view of black dance - docile, unsophisticated and primitive - to an equally stereotypical, if only slightly more accurate, assessment of blacks' innate rhythmic ability.

The great migration of blacks from the South to the North after World War I allowed for a mixing of different AfricanAmerican backgrounds. A merging of creative experience could be seen most readily in art, music, literature and dance. Nowhere was this more evident than in New York's Harlem. Black pride grew like weeds from every corner, and with it came experiments in dance that focused less on the struggle and more on entertainment. Chorus lines sprung up in every drama guild and theater, as black dance evolved to include more technique and discipline. It was during this vibrant age of renewal that an old plantation standard, tap dancing, gained new momentum. With combined elements of shuffling and acrobatics, tap dancing was featured on a large scale in dance productions from Broadway to Chicago.

While more interest was developing over the new styles of performance dancing, ordinary African Americans were creating their own dance art in speakeasies and juke joints. When blacks moved from one community to another, one of their first acts was to find a juke joint and show off the new dance steps they had learned during their travels.

Dances like the Charleston, ballin' the jack, and the jitterbug came of age under the fleet-footed theatrics of average social dancers at house parties. Adding a spin here and a dip there, these social dances would reinvent themselves consistently and effortlessly into "new" dances that everyone was certain they had seen somewhere before.

As African Americans moved into the 1940s, two very intimate dance styles took center stage: ballet and African cultural dances.

Ballet had always been considered a dance form far outside the scope of black experience. …

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