Dance among Slaves
Dance among Slaves
Dance was an integral part of daily life among African American slaves. Observations of slave culture, particularly on the Southern plantation, yield evidence of a layering of traditional African tribal dance practices shared, blended, and reinvented in the New World. For this reason, dance practices among African American slaves represent a narrative of resistance and survival.
In Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970 (1972), Lynne Fauley Emery discusses the slave owners' practice of what they called "dancing the slaves." This activity occurred on board the ships transporting the slaves from Africa to America, the voyage American history records as the Middle Passage. She notes, "Dancing was encouraged for economic reasons; slaves who had been exercised looked better and brought a higher price" (Emery 1972, p. 6). Noting the physiological benefits of exercise, slave owners forced slaves to exercise to maintain their health. Alexander Falconridge, a white surgeon on board one of the slave ships, recalled "Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of [the slaves' health], they are sometime obliged to dance, when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they go about it reluctantly, they are flogged" (Emery 1972, p. 8). "Dancing the slaves" continued beyond the slave ships, permeating America's Southern plantation culture.
On the plantations, slave owners forced slaves to dance "under the lash," both for economic reasons and for entertainment. Slaves were danced to maintain a healthy appearance, though, given the often-meager conditions in which they lived, they appeared anything but. Emery concludes, "[The African slave] danced not for love, nor for joy, nor religious celebration [as he had done in his native African home]; he danced in answer to the whip. He danced for survival" (1972, p. 12). Dancing provided a mask for what were sad, dismal living conditions, despite the slaves' happy and healthy façades. The process of "dancing the slaves" demonstrates the way slave owners made negative a practice that, for many African slaves, had been culturally redeeming. But many slaves were able to recast many of these same movements in a positive light simply by using similar movements and gestures to create a common language and use it for the good of community and culture-building.
Dance was an integral part of slave plantation culture. Some of the more popular dances involved types of animal mimicry. A common form mentioned was the Buzzard Lope. In Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942), the song collector, Lydia Parrish, described this dance as she witnessed it in the Georgia Sea Islands: "March aroun' / Jump across! / Get the eye!…. / Get the guts! / Go to eatin'! ./ Look aroun' for mo meat" (1942, p. 111). Other animal mimicry dances included the Fish Tail, Pigeon Wing, Snake Hip, and Turkey Trot. Dances such as these were similar to the African tribal dances celebrating a successful hunt. As such, these slave dances represented a survival of African tribal culture on the plantation in the American South.
Other dances containing elements of African tribal culture were ring dances. In Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1986), the Savannah Unit of the Georgia Writers' Project of the Works Project Administration cites Hettie Campbell of St. Mary's Island, Georgia, who described these ring dances: "We does plenty uh dances in those days. Dance roun' in a ring. We has a big time long bout wen crops come in an everybody bring sumpm tuh eat wut they makes an we all gives praise fuh the good crop an then we shouts an sings all night. An wen the sun rise, we stahts tuh dance" (pp. 186–187). Ring dances provided a form of communal fellowship in which slaves recalled their tribal customs of praising the gods for a successful crop.
The Ring-Shout was a type of ring dance marking sacred occasions. This dance was particularly observed among the Mohammedans of West Africa. On the slave plantations, the ring-shout offered a means for African slaves to maintain their fervent religious customs while adhering to the American Protestant church's ban on dancing of any kind. In the Slave Narratives of the Federal Writers' Project, Louisiana slave Wash Wilson explained, "Us longed to de church, all right, but dancin' ain't sinful iffen de foots ain't crossed. Us danced at de arbor meetin's but us sho' didn't have us foots crossed" (1941, p. 198). One of the earliest accounts of the ring-shout comes from Laura Towne, a Northern teacher sent by the Freedman's Bureau to teach the Negroes in the Sea Islands. In her book, Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, a letter to her family describes:
Tonight I have been to a "shout," which seems to me certainly the remains of some old idol worship. The Negroes sing a kind of chorus,—three standing apart to lead and clap,—and then all the others go shuffling around in a circle following one another with not much regularity, turning round stamping so that the whole floor swings. I never saw anything so savage. (1969, p. 20)
To the outside observer, such dancing appeared savage, but in fact it represented retention of African cultural practices in America.
In his book Slave Culture (1987), Sterling Stuckey notes this very distinction between African slave and European cultures. He states, "The division between the sacred and the secular, so prominent a feature of modern Western culture, did not exist in black Africa in the years of the slave trade, before Christianity made real inroads on the continent" (1987, p. 24). This type of dancing was a concept foreign to the European powers, in whose culture existed a distinct boundary between sacred and secular. Whereas such dancing perpetuated a conception of savagery in the minds of European Americans viewing these acts, it sustained a central element of African tribal culture among the slaves.
Federal Writers' Project, Works Progress Administration. "Wash Wilson." In Slave Narratives, vol. 14, part 4: Louisiana Narratives. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1941.
Georgia Writers' Project, Works Progress Administration. Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Parrish, Lydia. Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. New York: Creative Age Press, 1942.
Towne, Laura M. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Ondra Krouse Dismukes