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Reflection on African American Dances

In early 1600, black people from Africa were shipped into North America. The Africans were kidnaped from their home countries and forced to work as slaves in the American colonies. The nature of how the Africans were brought into the United States did not allow them to carry any personal belonging. However, many Africans were equipped with African traditions, customs, memories, and how they perceived the world. The Africans brought these unique aspects into their new world. One of the predominant traditions among Africans is distinctive music and dance. In the past, Africans used music and dances during life passages and in all ceremonies, including religious ceremonies. Similarly, the Africans that moved into the United States, despite being far from home, carried on with the traditions of using music and dance in the celebration and gatherings held by their masters.

In 1776, English colonies in North America became the United States. The United States was divided into North and south states. The slaves were deployed in both Northern and Southern America. After independence, slavery was abolished in the North but progressed in the South. The demand for slaves in the southern regions increased after the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin increased cotton production, and the Americans could meet the British Textile demands. The shift in cotton production demanded more slaves in the South. As a result, slaves were turned into commodities, and some Europeans primarily raised slaves for sale; the business was profitable. The slave business significantly contributed to the hurdles faced by the enslaved people. Since slaves were traded as commodities, they were often forced to separate from their families. Family separation was devastating for the African people and greatly affected them. The enslaved people were afraid of advancing by having children because they feared they might be separated from them. The woes of the enslaved people resulted in the development of some songs and dances to represent the challenges they were facing. Some of the songs composed to illustrate these challenges include the shout songs. The songs and dances have been passed on, and now when we listen to them or watch the dances, they help us understand what the slaves went through.

Over the years, the African dances have survived, proving resilience and flexibility. During slavery, the blacks were forced to work on the plantations for long periods with minimal rest time. According to the historical periods, enslaved blacks motivated themselves during the day with African dances while working in the fields. The dance helped the blacks survive the harsh moments and gave them hope to survive the following days. For instance, the enslaved people who worked on the railways carried heavy metals throughout the day. In order to foster coordination, the blacks used African dances and music to move the metals with ease. The dances helped the enslaved people perform their duties and fulfill their master’s demands. Not only did the African dance help them work better, but it also fostered the upholding and maintaining of the African tradition among the slaves.

African dances were also essential in promoting unity among the enslaved. The Africans shipped into America were from different backgrounds because they were obtained from other African countries. As enslaved people working in the same plantations or serving the same masters, the blacks had to find a way to unite them. Participation in dance promoted unity between the enslaved people as they had a common thing to do. Further, the dances were used as a form of coded communication among the slaves without spiking their masters. Some of the dances relayed important information or revealed plans of one group to another. The slaves were kept on guard by their masters and minimized communication among the enslaved people to prevent the possibility of them starting revolutions to abolish slavery. However, the Africans were intelligent and used their unique traditions especially dance, to convey these coded messages. This type of communication helped the slaves to stand up for themselves and fight for their freedom later in the years.

The Africans were able to uphold their traditions and pass them on through generations. The African dances have survived challenging moments proving to be resilient. Since the Africans moved into a new continent in considerably small numbers, it was possible that the Africans could easily be sworn to adopt the European ways and forego their traditions. However, the Africans who moved to America upheld their traditions and cultures despite being in a new environment. The resilience and persistence of the Africans to practice their habits made it possible for the African dances to evolve and be passed through several generations. African dance is unique compared to European dance. Since I was little, I have always been interested in African dances. I have always practiced with my peers in several of the dances in school, at home, and in most African functions I have attended.

The dances are used as a trademark for African Americans. Despite the dances mainly originating from African countries, the dances have been modified to tell a story about the struggles the enslaved people encountered in the slavery era. When watching some of the dances, the first thing that pops into mind is slavery.

In the early years of slavery, the enslaved people entertained their European masters using African dances. As years went by, new slaves from other parts of the African countries were introduced and significantly influenced the formation of African American arts. Despite the dance disparities in the African countries, they had almost similar dances. The African dances followed almost similar rhythms or moves. The similarities made it possible to blend the dances resulting in new dance forms representing African Americans in the United States. Continuation interaction with the Europeans, to some extent, influenced the formation of African American dances. Also, modernization contributed to the changes in African American dance as time passed. Nowadays, African American dance has evolved and incorporates modern and European dance styles. However, despite the differences, African American dances are unique.

One of the oldest African-derived dances is the Ring shout. In the ring shout, dance individuals gathered in the form of a ring and danced while producing sounds in the form of shouts. The dance is thought to have been derived from Central and West Africa; it combines many African circle dances. The ring shout dance is the oldest African American religious dance. Currently, the dance is performed in the Georgia Sea Islands. The Ring dance holds a lot of significance to African Americans not only because it was the first but also because of its relevance. I watched several videos on YouTube trying to get the concept of the Ring shout dance.

One of the key insights I picked from the dance is it was a form of expression for the enslaved people. The slaves spent most of the day working in the fields. They were also limited in associating with others. Slavery times were very hard, and the dance helped the enslaved people express themselves. During the dance, the individuals could dance freely while moving in a clockwise direction. They could also shout in the process of dancing. I believe the movements and shouting helped the slaves express themselves, relieving the stress and tension inside of them.

Further, being a religious dance helped the enslaved people to maintain their traditional ways. As African Americans began converting to Christianity, they needed something that could bind their traditional beliefs with the newly acquired beliefs from Christianity. The Ring shout dance helped bridge the gap by allowing the African Americans to dance in their traditional form while shouting improvised hymns in the form of shouts related to the new concepts of Christianity. Utilizing these traditional dances in religion helped in a smooth transition.

Following the development of the Ring shout dance by incorporating various African cultures, it illustrates how the dances today, like rock & roll or jazz, combine different dances to come up with specialized styles to fit the particular genre. Also, various traditional African American dances have been adopted as religious dances. Similarly to the Ring shout dance, the dance moves, like the continuous clapping of the hands and stamping of the feet, help promote the African culture in religion.

After years of suffering as slaves, there was hope for African Americans in America. In 1776 a new American nation was formed, instilling hope of freedom in the African Americans working as slaves. All men, Black and white, were termed as equal as created by God after the independence of the United States. The constitution instilled further hope for the freedom of African Americans. In 1808, the constitution forbade the importation of slaves from African countries. Gradually from the 1780s, the enslaved people were granted freedom depending on the states they were living in. These times of hope prompted the African Americans to practice their cultural arts openly, seeking sympathy and acceptance from the white people. The events that occurred to the African Americans in their new world were documented in the form of songs and dances.

After independence, African Americans were given the opportunity to showcase African-based dances in black festivals and gatherings such as the Pinkster in New Jersey and New York, Negro Election Day in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, corn shucking across the South, general training day and Dancing in Congo Square. The gesture of allowing the blacks to come out and express their culture showed significant changes from the early days of the slavery era. The Europeans treated the Africans better, enabling them to showcase their culture freely. The events illustrated how things were changing for the better. Furthermore, the events and festivals fostered unity among African Americans and helped create awareness of the culture. Since the events were held annually, they have upheld and promoted the existence of the traditional cultures of African Americans.

Similarly, nowadays, there are many events held in the united states that target only African Americans. The events aim to continue passing on African Americans’ traditions to other generations. Attending such events helps one understand where they have come from. The dances and songs presented in such events have been designed to hold the history and tell a story about African Americans since their introduction to a new world (America).


Glass, B. S. (2012). African American dance: an illustrated history. Mcfarland & Co.


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