African-American dance

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African-American dance has developed within Black American communities in everyday spaces, rather than in studios, schools or companies.[1] These dances are usually centered on folk and social dance practice, though performance dance often supplies complementary aspects to this. Placing great value on improvisation, these dances are characterized by ongoing change and development. There are a number of notable African-American modern dance companies using African-American cultural dance as an inspiration, among these are the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Unlike European-American dance, African-American dance was not taxed in the fields of Europe where it began and has not been presented in theatrical productions by generations of kings, tzars, and states. Instead, it lost its best dancers to the draft and started requiring taxes from establishments in the form of a federal excise tax on dance halls enacted in 1944. Dance halls continue to be taxed throughout the country while dance studios are not, and African-American dance companies statistically receive less taxpayer money than European Americans. However, Hollywood and Broadway have provided opportunities for African-American artists to share their work and for the public to support them. Michael Jackson and Misty Copeland are among the most well-known African-American dancers.


The Greater Chesapeake area encompassing Virginia, Maryland, and much of North Carolina was the earliest and perhaps most influential location of the black-white cultural interchange that produced "African-American" dance.[2]:19 Captive Africans who were sold to white Americans by other African rival tribes, particularly from black Nigerian Arabs and dark-brown Arabs from numerous societies in several African regions, began pouring into the area as slaves from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries. Given their cultural heterogeneity, including music and dance, they most likely learned to dance together by creating fresh dance moves that are completely different from their older generation of great-great-grandparents. These dances looked nothing like African dances because slavery ended in 1865; the younger 1920s generation would have known nothing about African tribes, for in those times the 1920s were seen as modern.[2]:21 Something like a regional Chesapeake tradition, a thing entirely novel in European eyes, arose perhaps not long before the 18th century had become the 19th.[2]:21 Within one or two generations of establishing these creolized African forms, or perhaps simultaneously, elements of European dances were added.[2]:22 "Competitive individuality and [probably] improvisation" were also Choreographic Elements of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century West African Dance" that were continued in this region.[3]

The history of dance for black people begins in Thompson's book[4] where she talks about slave masters forcing slaves to sing and dance as a form of entertainment, while they continue to work throughout the evening. The evolution of black dance thus emphasizes black dance as a true form of release from that history, reclaiming dance as something that is theirs and not someone else's.

Based on the limited pictorial record, the typical African practice of bending emphatically at the waist and hips gave way to a more upright, European-like style. This may have reflected the African practice of carrying heavy loads on the head, which requires a strong, balancing spine.[2]:22 Black dancing continued strong preferences of other African characteristics such as angularity and asymmetry of body positions, multiple body rhythms or polyrhythms, and a low center of gravity.[2]:23

Jig, Clog, and Break Down Dancing have been attributed to African Americans, although this is disputed.[5][6] A visitor to the southern United States wrote that "Hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels Put life and mettle into their heels....No restraint of the etiquettish ball-room...What luxury of motion... This is dancing. It knocks the spangles out of the ball-room."[7]

New York City and the Harlem Renaissance[edit]

Just as the Harlem Renaissance saw the development of art, poetry, literature and theater in Harlem during the early 20th century, it also saw the development of a rich musical and dance life: clubs (Cotton Club), ballrooms (Savoy Ballroom), the home rent party and other black spaces as the birthplaces of new dances, theaters and the shift from vaudeville to local "shows" written and choreographed by African-American artists; theaters as public forums for popularizing African-American cultural dances.

Genres by period[edit]

pre-19th century[edit]

19th century[edit]

Dance genres:

1920s through 1940s[edit]

Dance genres and moves:



Music genres:

Dances and moves:


Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

1980s and 1990s[edit]

Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

2000s and 2010s[edit]

Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

Performance, competition and social dance[edit]

Milwaukee United Steppers giving a glimpse of Milwaukee Style stepping and bopping

Competition has long played an important role in social dance in African and African-American social dance, from the "battles"' of hip hop and lindy hop to the cakewalk. Performances have also been integrated into everyday dance life, from the relationship between performance and social dancing in tap dancing to the "shows" held at Harlem ballrooms in the 1930s.

Social dance spaces[edit]

Competitive dance[edit]


In most African-American dance cultures, learning to dance does not happen in formal classrooms or dance studios. Children often learn to dance as they grow up, developing not only a body awareness but also aesthetics of dance which are particular to their community. Learning to dance - learning about rhythmic movement - happens in much the same way as developing a local language 'accent" or a particular set of social values. Children learn specific dance steps or "how to dance' from their families - most often from older brothers and sisters, cousins or other older children. Because cultural dance happens in everyday spaces, children often dance with older members of the community around their homes and neighborhoods, at parties and dances, on special occasions, or whenever groups of people gather to "have a good time". Cultural dance traditions are therefore often cross-generational traditions, with younger dancers often "reviving" dances from previous generations, albeit with new "cool" variations and "styling". This is not to suggest that there are no social limitations on who may dance with whom and when. Dance partners (or people to dance with) are chosen by a range of social factors, including age, sex, kinship, interest and so on. The most common dance groups are often comprised by people of a similar age, background and often sex (though this is a varying factor).[citation needed]

Cultural expression[edit]

Lee Ellen Friedland and other authors argue that to talk about cultural dancing without talking about music or art or drama is like talking about fish without talking about water. Music and dance are intimately related in African-American cultural dance, not only as accompaniments, but as intertwined creative processes.[10]

"African American Cultural Dance" was a description coined by National Dance Association author and researcher Frank R. Ross, who correctly replaced the old stereotyped "vernacular" (native or natural) definition of African-American dance with its correct definition as "cultural." (Sanctioned by The National Dance Association and International Dance Council - UNESCO).[1]

Some of the popular African-American dances of today are the Detroit Ballroom and Social - Chicago Steppin & Walking, D.C. Baltimore, Cleveland Hand Dance, Calypso & The NAACP Sanctioned Grand March – National Black Wedding & Reunion Dance. Popular black dance organizations are perfectly paired Gentlemen of Ballroom of Cleveland Master Dancers of Akron, OH. Dance Fusion, World Class-Detroit, Majestic Gents - Chicago Smooth & Easy D.C. Tri - State - Love to dance - Sugarfoot of Baltimore, MD. The new American dance art form of African-American cultural dance and music was accepted into the New York City Schools dance education curriculum.

Jacqui Malone describes the relationships between tap dancers who traveled with bands in the early 20th century, describing the way tap dancers worked with the musicians to create new rhythms. Much has been written about the relationship between improvisation in jazz and improvisation in jazz dance - the two are linked by their emphasis on improvisation and creative additions to compositions while they are in process - choreography and composition on the spot, in a social context - rather than a strict division between "creation" and "performance", as in the European middle class ballet and operatic tradition. African Dance is supposed to be about a person getting connected to the ground and telling their story and struggles using dance. It also allows people to feel the vibrations of their dance beneath their feet, allowing them to dance how they please, utilizing the space that they have so they can express themselves freely.

It is equally important to talk about the relationship between DJs MCs, b-boys and b-girls and graffiti artists in hip hop culture, and John F. Szwed and Morton Marks have discussed the development of jazz and jazz dance in America from European set dances and dance suites in relation to the development of musical artisanship.

African-American modern dance[edit]

African-American modern dance drew on modern dance and African-American folk and social dance along with African dance and Caribbean dance influences. Katherine Dunham founded Ballet Nègre in 1930 and later the Katherine Dunhan Dance Company, based in Chicago, Illinois. She also opened a school – the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre – in New York City (1945). Pearl Primus drew on African and Caribbean dances to create strong dramatic works characterized by large leaps in the air, often basing her dances on the work of black writers and on racial and African-American issues, such as Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1944), and Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit" (1945). Alvin Ailey, a student of Lester Horton and Martha Graham, with a troupe of young African-American dancers performed as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City in 1958. Ailey drew on his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel.

African-American sacred and liturgical dance[edit]

Dance was and is an integral part of West African communal religious expression. This tradition, to the extent permitted by slave holders, continued in the antebellum worship of slaves and other African Americans.[11] One example was the ring shout in the early church. Dancing, especially as a group, became less frequent when African Americans joined more liturgical denominations such as Methodist and Catholic but was more likely maintained in Holiness, Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Individuals often rose to dance when moved to do so. Since the 1970s, liturgical dance has become more accepted as and element of worship even among Methodist and other liturgical churches. The black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s as well as efforts by groups such as The Sacred Dance Guild fostered this dance form,[12] which draws on modern dance and jazz dance. Since the late 1980s gospel mime, in which texts and lyrics are acted out, has found some acceptance in black churches.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ross, Frank Russell. Soul Dancing! The Essential African American Cultural Dance Book. Reston: National Dance Association, 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Julie Malnig, Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader, University of Illinois Press, 2009. Illustrated edition. ISBN 9780252075650.
  3. ^ Jurretta Jordan Heckscher, "All the Mazes of the Dance". PhD dissertation. 2000.
  4. ^ Thompson, Katrina Dyonne (2014). Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. University of Illinois Press.
  5. ^ "Jig, clog, and breakdown dancing made easy, with sketches of noted jig dancers". Dance Instruction Manuals, The Library of Congress.
  6. ^ Irish Jig and clogging were both in existence when, in the 1840s in the Five Points area of New York, occupied in part by many Irish, William Henry Lane, aka Masta Juba, combined the shuffle with the Irish jig, a style called a break-down, attracting attention from Charles Dickens who visited Charles Almakck, later called Pete Williams' place, a black American dance hall.
  7. ^ Dulles, Foster Rhea (1965) [1940]. A History of Recreation. Appleton-Century-Crofts. p. 159. LCCN 65-25489. OCLC 419856.
  8. ^ a b Approved by National Dance Association.
  9. ^ Flynn, Meagan (December 6, 2018), "Is Fortnite stealing black dance culture? The creator of the ‘Milly Rock’ argues yes in a new lawsuit", The Washington Post.
  10. ^ Friedland, LeeEllen. "Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance", in Brenda Farnell (ed.), Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136–57.
  11. ^ a b "The African American Lectionary". The African American Lectionary. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  12. ^ "Sacred Dance Guild | Celebrating Dance as a Sacred Art since 1958". Retrieved April 14, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • deFrantz, Thomas. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African-American Dance. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
  • Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. California: National Press Books, 1972.
  • Glass, Barbara S. African American Dance. McFarland & Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7864-7157-7.
  • Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. "African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives." Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427–45.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Jackson, Jonathan David. "Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing." Dance Research Journal 33.2 (2001/2002): 40–53.
  • Malone, Jacqui. Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
  • Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. 3rd edn. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
  • Szwed, John F., and Morton Marks. "The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites." Dance Research Journal 20.1 (1988): 29–36.
  • Welsh-Asante Kariamu. "African-American dance in curricula: modes of inclusion" (Pathways to Aesthetic Literacy: Revealing Culture in the Dance Curriculum) American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) (July 28, 2005)
  • Welsh-Asante Kariamu. The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions (Contributions in Afro-American & African Studies), Greenwood Press, 1993.
  • Welsh-Asante Kariamu. African Culture the Rhythms of Unity: The Rhythms of Unity Africa World Press, 1989.

External links[edit]