African diasporic dance denotes those dances and dance traditions Africans brought with them and passed on to their descendants during the great "scattering," or diaspora. Beginning with the slave trade to Portugal in the fifteenth century and lasting well into the nineteenth century, between ten and thirteen million Africans were enslaved and displaced throughout the Americas. With them came African worldviews that meshed the material and spiritual worlds and incorporated music and dance into life's every aspect.
Preserved through an oral tradition, passed from generation to generation and body to body, these dances have survived as characteristic traits, entire rituals, and spiritual traditions, thus creating a basic vocabulary of movement principles common throughout the entire diaspora. They survived because they were the easiest to conceal and the hardest to erase.
These principles are part of what can be called an African cultural continuum or aesthetic—ways of speaking, moving, and approaching artistic expression that have roots firmly planted in Africa yet are clearly transformed by Africans' experiences in the Americas. These principles have shaped much of what is seen as uniquely American forms of expression and have been fundamental in creating American vernacular dance. International dance crazes such as the Charleston, cakewalk, Lindy Hop, bossa nova, and twist sprang forth from the loins of African diasporic dance. Theatrical forms of dance have felt its touch as well, influencing the fields of ballet, modern dance, and the Broadway stage.
The Role of Dance in African Cultures
Art historian Robert Farris Thompson states in African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (1974) "Africa … introduces a different art history, a history of danced art" (p. xii).
More than three times the size of the continental United States, Africa is home to hundreds of different cultural groups and over seven hundred distinct languages. The music and movement styles of Africa are as diverse as its peoples. Yet comparative studies show that there are commonalities that cross ethnic and cultural lines and grow out of a shared conceptual approach to art. In African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1979), John Miller Chernoff maintains that people in Africa "do not so much observe rituals in their lives, as they ritualize their lives" (p. 160). Music and dance are inextricably linked, a multi-dimensional community event that integrates dance, instrumental music, song, literature, and visual arts.
Old dances made anew—reinvented and renamed, evolving and merging with other types of movement while never losing certain characteristics—these traits, or "Africanisms," become part of the hallmark of African diasporic dance. These African-derived movement characteristics can be described as polyrhythmic and multicentered music and movement, orientation toward the earth, call and response, improvisation, functionality, circularity in movement, formation and community, repetition, and spiritual transport, or "flash of the spirit."
Rhythm is made visible through movement that breaks the body into various points of interest or centers with overlapping polyrhythms, often with the hips as the central focus. Its bent-kneed, full-footed contact stance is the embodiment of a "get-down quality" or orientation toward the earth, exhibited also through descent in posture and musical tone as intensity increases. Angularity in the elbows, torso, and legs—knees bent, hips riding above the rhythmic steps, close to the ground—ensure that legs are seldom straight and the feet leave the ground only to return again.
In call and response, dancers "answer" the call of the drum with a movement response, be it a specific rhythmic pattern that signifies a particular movement of dance or the dialogue between the lead drummer and dancer during solos. Throughout the South, gandy dancers moved railroad ties in a unified rhythmic response to the chants of the lead "caller."
Improvisation is an essential part of expression, implying a connection to the divine that inspires the dancer to do the impossible. A sense of functionality prevails so that gestures become symbol, a means of spiritual transport, to pass on to others cosmic principles or the values of a society.
Circularity in movement, formation, and community, expressed in the saying "Let the circle be unbroken," reflects a cosmology that sees the continuity of life and our connection to those passed on before us. Form is secondary to motion, and circular formations encourage little separation between participant and observer. One dances with and for the community. Movements are repeated, building toward a climactic end. This use of repetition raises energy and increases intensity.
Although African traders, soldiers, and diplomats prior to the fifteenth century migrated to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, bringing their cultures with them, it was not until the European transatlantic slave trade that the dissemination of African culture was so extensive. Dispersed throughout North America, the Caribbean, and South and Central America, these Africans, who came primarily from West and Central Africa and Mozambique, would make up the largest forced migration in history.
During the weeks and months of the Middle Passage, slave traders would often "dance the slaves" in an attempt to keep them somewhat healthy. Chained together naked in filthy shallow berths, slaves were forced on deck to "dance"—that is, jump up and down while still chained, encouraged by the cat-o'-nine-tails, a particularly brutal type of whip.
One of the earliest and most important dances to appear in the Americas was the ring shout. This ancestral dance became a powerful tool for Christian conversion, as well as survival and resistance. It was as sacred as prayer and provided Africans with a way of worship, even as they converted to Christianity. Counterclockwise shuffling of the feet, close to the ground and never crossing but sustaining the rhythm, accompanied by singing, hand clapping, stomps, and an occasional broom handle upon the floor, the shout symbolized the very meaning of being African in the Americas.
During the 1800s, Place Congo, once a site for informal gatherings of Africans, Indians, and Creoles, was designated as Congo Square by the mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, the only place where African Americans, free or enslaved, were allowed to gather to dance, and only before sunset on Sundays.
Growing largely out of public interest in African American culture, the minstrel show becomes the most widespread form of entertainment in the United States from the 1840s to the 1890s. Largely a northern entertainment, these performances by white performers in black-face, or "blackened up" with burnt cork and makeup, were based on imitation and mockery of African-American music, dance, and performance styles. Idealizing plantation life with caricatured portrayals of African Americans, these minstrel shows become the basis of some of the longstanding stereotypes of African Americans. The minstrel show also provided one of the first performance venues for African Americans.
It took one extraordinary performer, William Henry Lane, to break this standard. Lane, born a free black in Providence, Rhode Island, came to notoriety for his exquisite dancing, which mixed the rhythmic foot patterns of Irish step dancing with African movement vocabulary and the syncopation of flatfooted buck dances. Often considered the father of American tap dance, Master Juba, as Lane was called, "ingeniously combined the Irish jig and reel with African-derived movements and rhythms to lay the foundation for what we know as American tap dance," as stated by dance historian Jacqui Malone in Steppin' on the Blues (1996, p. 54).
Another dance made popular by the minstrel stage was the cakewalk, first created as a dance of derision by African Americans mocking the mannerisms of slaveholder society, and then imitated by minstrel performers, unwittingly imitating the imitators. It became the first international dance craze, often accompanied by the syncopated piano rolls of ragtime music at the turn of the century.
Dances like the black bottom and the Charleston, observed in African-American communities, become international dance crazes. The Lindy Hop, so named after Charles Lindbergh's successful flight across the Atlantic, emerged from the dance halls of Harlem and spread across the United States like wildfire. The Lindy Hop included both acrobatic partnering lifts and its characteristic breakaway—partners "breaking away" to insert their own improvised steps, such as the shorty George or hucklebuck—giving rise to the jitterbug. The jitterbug became the emblem of the 1950s, danced to another music evolved from the blues: rock and roll.
On the Broadway stage, American tap dance was the predominant style of dance used in musicals of the 1930s and 1940s. Brilliant tap artists such as the Nicholas Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, and Jeni LeGon were innovators in the art form, serving as coaches and unnamed choreographers in movie musicals such as Orchestra Wives and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Evolving out of the buck dances of African-American slaves and meshed with the stepping traditions of Irish immigrants, tap dance focuses on the feet as percussive instruments, involving intricate rhythms performed for the ear as well as the eye. Young choreographers such as Savion Glover have reinvigorated the form, infusing it with the heavy rhythms of hip-hop and urban style.
Stepping, born on the campuses of the historically black colleges and universities, began as a bonding ritual for young African-American college students in black fraternities in the 1920s. This uniquely African-American dance form, characterized by elaborate syncopated stomps, hand clapping, and verbal play, had its roots in military-style marching, children's hand-clapping games, South African gumboot dances, cheerleading, and patting traditions. Step shows, showcasing choreographed step routines of the various black Greek organizations, have grown to be hugely popular intercampus events, involving students across both cultural and ethnic lines.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, a new urban culture burst forth from African-American and Latino communities in New York City. Rooted in grassroots Africanized urban music/dance culture and practiced at house parties, playgrounds, and dance halls, hip-hop developed into a global phenomenon, shaping music, dance, fashion, poetry, and visual arts.
Breaking was a social dance form that included "popping and locking," "up and down rock" (stylized mock fighting modeled after Asian martial arts movement), and the dance-like movements of the Afro-Brazilian fighting form capoeira. Renamed break dancing by the media, breaking borrowed elements from earlier dance forms, such as the aerial and ground Lindy, the Charleston, cakewalk, jitterbug, double-dutch jump rope, and stepping. Elaborate graffiti mural paintings appeared everywhere,
emblazoned across subway cars and city buildings, as the fashion world exploded with baggy, low-slung pants, sneakers, and baseball caps.
American Concert Dance
On the concert stage, innovators such as choreographers Edna Guy, Hemsley Winfield, and Asadata Dafora (Horton) meshed African-American sacred and secular dance traditions with modern dance in the early 1930s. Horton, originally from Sierra Leone, fused African and Western performance styles to create concert dances drenched in African movement principles yet stylized for the concert stage. Edna Guy, a student of modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, created works based on African-American spirituals and, with fellow choreographer Hemsley Winfield, gave the first Negro art dance concert at the Ninety-Second Street YMHA in 1937. In the 1940s choreographer Katherine Dunham brought forward African-American and Afro-Caribbean social and traditional folkloric dance and ritual forms through her choreography, at the same time as Pearl Primus began her research of rural southern migrant communities. Primus's choreography was embedded with elements observed in sacred and secular dance traditions, and after completing her Rosenwald Fellowship in Africa, she became one of the preeminent teachers of African dance in the United States.
Generations of dancers have followed in the footsteps of these trailblazing women. Choreographers, performers, and artists have continued to reinvent and reshape African dance forms, including modern dancers Alvin Ailey, Dianne McIntyre, and Bill T. Jones; tap dancers Savion Glover and Gregory Hines; ballet choreographer Alonzo King; and hip-hop artist Rennie Harris, among others.
African diaspora dance is part of an African cultural continuum that has, from the beginning, altered American dance from within. It developed out of the circumstances of slavery, the socioeconomic marginalization of African Americans, and the presence of European influences. Rather than dying out, it has persisted, deeply imprinting American dance expression with traditional African dance characteristics. From the pulpit to the concert stage, African diaspora dance continues to express the values of a people and infuse American culture.
Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Dixon Gottschild, Brenda. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance, Dance, and Other Contexts. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.
Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Book Co., 1988.
Glass, Barbara. "Introduction." In When the Spirit Moves: African American Dance in History and Art (exhibition catalog), edited by B. Glass. Wilberforce, Ohio: National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, 1999.
Malone, Jacqui. Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Perpener, John O., III. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Stuckey, P. Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
robin marie wilson (2005)