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African American Dance

African Americans are famous for their unique culture and dance styles that were brought to America by captive Africans in the 1600s. Barbara Glass’s African American Dance: An Illustrated History provides a detailed exploration of how African dance was transported from Africa to America, and how the dance has shaped the present dance in America. The author describes how the American dance styles prove to be resilient, surviving the enslavement period in the new land to become a crucial part of American culture. The dance was not only popular among African Americans, it also shaped and influenced European dance forms and gradually became popular in mainstream culture.

Most of the African American history focuses on the struggles of the black community in America and skips most of the artistic contribution of the community to American consciousness. Most of the popular dances that are often thought to be American are drawn from the American dance culture. I have always been convinced that popular dances such as Black bottom, Lindy hip hop, Cakewalk, Shimmy, Charleston, and most rock ‘n’ roll dances, were originally African dances. The dance styles are marked by some unique African-derived movements as explained by Glass. Chapter one of the book describes how the enslaved Africans kept their dance in alien surroundings. Despite the multiplicity of African tribes-enslaved Africans were drawn from different cultural groups with different cultures and languages, there were shared commonalities as seen in most of the African nations. These commonalities were crucial in the formation of African American culture.

As the circumstances of the enslaved continued to change their culture also evolved to accommodate the American condition. The evolution led to the amalgamation of African and American dance. However, the role of dances in the traditional African society remained the same even after the black community was transported to America. Dance was significant in African American community life. In their ancestral lands, African communities danced as a way of connecting with God, negotiating important life experiences, celebrating birth and marriage, educating young people, healing the sick, celebrating puberty, moving the deceased into the spiritual world, protecting against the evil spirits and mother role (Glass, 2007). African American communities continued with their dance in the new land, serving several purposes including binding slaves together as a community, providing spiritual sustenance, releasing the oppressed slaves from oppression, and linking them to their cherished past.

As Africans moved to a new world, it soon became obvious that the two cultures had an appreciation for dance but their dances contrasted sharply in terms of dance aesthetic, and dance vocabulary. African dance was marked by unique movement vocabulary that involved the movement of all body parts, shoulder, and hip movement, stamping and hopping steps, angular bending of legs, torso, arms, and asymmetrical body use. The dance contrasted with the European style which rely mostly on arm and leg movement. Most of the Europeans shared the elitist view of dance. Dance was reserved for the noble in society. The dance provided a context in which the elite interacted to showcase fashion and enhanced status. Dancing was considered a leisure activity that demanded expensive education, expensive clothing, accessories, large decorated rooms; hence the activity separated the rich from the poor.

African dancing styles have continued to evolve and spread, shaping cultures and being shaped by them. African dance vocabulary is evident in today’s social dance popularized by African Americans. One can look at the history of African Americans by simply observing their present popular dances. For example, the Juba dance which involved slapping thighs, shuffling feet, and rhythmic hand clapping shows how African Americans improvised complex rhythms to circumvent the ban on the use of drums imposed by the slave owners. The dance style has similarities with the Yoruba dance in West Africa. Cakewalk was probably born as a result of the improvisation of the African dance to fit the new culture. The dance has some African dance vocabulary as well as some European dancing styles in it. Glass indicates that African Americans in the new lands felt free to be creative within the patterns and traditions of the original African dance. The creativity is illustrated by the Charleston dance style which is an improvisation of musicality.

Chapter two focuses on the history of the ring shout; one of the oldest continuously practiced music, song, and dance styles of African origin. The dance began during the period of rice culture and oppression of African Americans by their white masters. The tradition was initially a spiritual practice to honor the ancestors of the community. Shout dance is an anticlockwise tradition performed that was later adopted as religious worship. When African Americans were converted to Christianity, the shout was modified to fit the new religion and allow African Americans to worship in a traditional African way. Besides serving religious purposes, shout tells the stories of centuries of hardship and oppression experienced by African Americans

Performance of the shout involved the formation of a circle, polyrhythms, and pantomime. Performers bent their shoulders slightly forwards as they moved around the circle. The singers were not allowed to use drums as it was seen as a way of communication, especially when organizing riots. Therefore, the singers clapped uniformly in syncopation and not in unison to add creativity and complexity. Other forms of percussions such as the use of sticks and patting, and foot percussion became important alternatives to the drum.

Shouts received sharp criticism from the white population and some middle-class African Americans. The whites criticized it as barbaric while some middle-class blacks viewed the practice as idolatrous and the religious enthusiasm in it as irrational and loss of self-control. The critics viewed the practice as an old remnant of idolatrous ritual and tried to repress it. Black ministers also admonished the dance as an antichristian practice. However, it survived these attempts to eradicate it and continued to spread and flourish because of the spiritual blessings it conferred. It became popular when African Americans were permitted to enlist in the Union Army. Black soldiers found refuge in the shouts as most of them were massacred in war. During the dark years of slavery, the shout offered spiritual fulfillment to suffering people in the African American community.

The dance traditions were maintained through a variety of black festivals and gatherings where African traditions were showcased as detailed in chapter three. Slave owners in North and South provided opportunities for their slaves to come together to celebrate in ways that natured them and helped them to keep alive the memories of their past origin and who they are. The festivals and gatherings included Pinkster in New Jersey and New York; John Canoe in North Carolina; General Training Day in New England dancing in Congo Square in New Orleans, and corn shucking across the south, Elections day in Massachusetts, Rhodes Islands, and Connecticut, and New Hampshire. During the festivals and gatherings, civil authorities allowed blacks to break free of white domination for a short period to allow them to celebrate their customs, traditions and socialize with family and friends. The festivals allowed African Americans to demonstrate a range of African values and behaviors that were often not tolerated but only permitted during the festivals.

Dance was a major focus in these festivals and they would dance for hours or days. Pinkster, which was initially a Dutch religious festival was adopted and became a predominantly African American celebration that took place in Albany (Glass, 2007). Although there is little information regarding the type of dance vocabulary during the festival, it can be assumed that singing, hand-clapping accompanied the performance. Most African American dance used handclapping and feet thumbing in absence of a drum. Glass indicates that the performance may have included a circle dance that involved people moving in and out of a circle. A contemporary form of Pinkster is performed in some west African countries where the dance has been modified to include modern musical accompaniments. However, the dance maintains its circle movement and hand clapping.

John Canoe was a dance-masquerade custom practiced by African Americans and traces its roots to Africa. In some places in North America, slaves celebrated Christmas by wearing costumes made of animal skin, rags, and feathers. The dance was accompanied by drumming and chanting. The dancers covered themselves entirely to assure anonymity. The dance is presently common in Jamaica where it has evolved from a simple origin to a formally organized parade with intricate costumes and themed music.

Solo percussive dance provided a unique innovative space for African American dancers, especially after the ban of the use of drums in dances. Negro jigs provided an opportunity for dancers to showcase their original or improvised dances. The dance is often accompanied by banjo music, makeshift instruments, and patting or clapping. The dancer’s torso is bent forward and knees are raised high in kicks or powerful stamps. The dance requires the execution of complex footwork as well as bending of the arms and legs. The dance originated from Africa and was later combined with European jigs and clogs, resulting in other styles such as Juba, buck dancing, Appalachian dancing, and flatfooting. This dance style is different from other typical African American dances that involved the movement of whole body parts and shoulder. The jig relied on leg and arm movement like a typical European dance. This aspect may probably explain the reason why the whites were attracted to the dance.

The negro jig shared several similarities with European solo dance that promoted an exchange of historical accounts. The shared similarities led to both parties claiming credit for the tap dance that was created as a result of the merger between the two dances. A few differences separate the two dances. African American jig involves acrobatic moves, improvisation, the closeness of the feet to the grounding scuffling and sliding steps. European jig involves dancing in a vertical posture and eyes focus straight ahead. The arms dangle loosely while the legs and feet do all the rapid work of the dance. Solo Irish dancers shared some similarities with the African American jig. The complex footwork and movement of all body parts is a shared similarity between the two dances. The negro jig was later improvised by dancers as they began to compete with Irish migrants.


Glass, B. S. (2007). African American dance: An illustrated history. McFarland.


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