One of the most notable aspects of the evolution of American social dance from the late seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth century is the emerging dominance of African-American dance styles. During the first two hundred years the development of a recognizable American dance style progressed slowly through a blending of African and European movement and music forms. By the end of the 1890s, however, a distinct pattern unfolded in which dances created in African-American communities spread out to the American mainstream, moving from the United States to Europe and eventually to other parts of the world, such as the Charleston in the 1920s and the hiphop/freestyle in the 1970s and 1980s. During the twentieth century the process accelerated. Propelled by the aggressive exportation of American movies, television, records, and videos, African-American dances spread quickly. And since the early 1980s, with worldwide satellite television broadcasting and the consequent expansion of the music-video industry, a world youth culture has developed. Linked together through CDs and music videos and tuned to the latest move, an adolescent in Paris or Tokyo dances to the same beat as a New York hip-hopper. The styles they are trying to master are decidedly African American, and the teenagers dance more like each other than like their parents.
Although American dance has been fused from many different cultural sources over hundreds of years, the two main traditions of movement and music that shaped the way Americans move are those of Western Europe and West Africa. In constant flux, American dance encompasses older traditional dances as well as the newest fads, stage dance and street forms, classical African dances, ballet, square dancing, and the most recent club inventions.
Because popular dances are created democratically by thousands of people over a long period of time and are learned through observation and imitation, traditional movements pass and are recycled from one generation to the next. For example, some of the steps used in hip-hop/rap/freestyle look like updated versions of the fast, slipping footwork of the Charleston, which, in turn, echo the rapid grinding and crisscrossing steps basic to some of the traditional dances of West Africa. The cycle works the other way as well, and contemporary African social dances recycle and retranslate modes of popular American dances.
Because it is nonverbal, dance information can cross temporal and geographic borders. It slips ethnic boundaries, and it blurs the imaginary lines that separate folk art from fine art, popular dance from classical dance. As a result of this flexibility, original functions and forms get altered, movements get reshaped to fit new situations and contexts. Paradoxically—because body language is learned early and strongly and is a fundamental cultural identifier—dance, the most fugitive of artistic expressions, remains one of the most persistent of all cultural retentions.
Carried in the kinetic memories of African slaves and European immigrants, dances arrived whole or in fragmented forms. Subjected in North America to radically different environmental and cultural mixes as well as the harsh conditions of slavery, dances adapted. Circumventing verbal communication, dance (like music) provided a way for Africans from disparate geographic areas to come together, to move together, to bond together in a strange land. Gradually, over time, an African-American style evolved as dances got re-created by those who recalled their dance inheritances whole, those who recalled them only partially, and those of other cultural origins for whom it was not a legacy.
African Traditions in Colonial America
In colonial America the majority of African slaves resided in the middle and southern colonies. The rapid establishment of religious circular dances (grouped under the generic name of "ring shouts") and secular circular dances (called "juba" dances) indicates a probable legacy of compatible movement characteristics shared by the various African groups. These early African Americans also practiced seasonal dances that marked seasonal changes and harvesting and planting times, or dances that celebrated rites of passage such as marriage dances. In addition there seemed to have been a variety of animal dances (probably a fusion of hunting dances and mask-cult or religious dances), and processional dances, used during funeral celebrations.
In the late 1730s slaves were forbidden use of their drums in several colonies, in part because of the 1739 Cato Conspiracy or Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, which led to the subsequent passage of a series of laws forbidding slaves to congregate or to play their big gombe drums. Deprived of their larger percussion instruments, the slaves turned to smaller means of percussion. They used their bodies as musical instruments. Previously used in complementary rhythmic accompaniment, these now became dominant: hand clapping and body slapping (also known as "patting" or hamboneing), and rhythmic footwork. Small percussive instruments, such as tambourines and "bones" (the legbones, ribs, or jawbones of animals played with pieces of wood or metal rasps) became widespread. (At times the bones could be fashioned into two fine, thin, long pieces that were held in the hand and played like castanets.) In both the religious ring shout and the secular juba, the feet slid, tapped, chugged, and stamped in rhythmic harmony with antiphonal singing and clapping as the dancers moved around the circle. The juba and the ring shout shared other characteristics, such as moving counterclockwise, with the dancers in the surrounding circle providing musical, movement, and percussive motifs in a call-and-response pattern with a changing leader. In the juba, individual improvisations occurred in the middle of the circle; in the ring shout, individual ecstatic possession occurred among some of the participants. In the juba especially there was a fluid relationship between the improvisers and the surrounding circle of watchers and music makers. Those in the center would dance until exhausted; then others from the circle would move in to take their places.
Colonial slave masters rarely allowed religious dances to be performed openly, so religious dances continued to be practiced clandestinely. At times they merged with other, more secular dances and continued to exist syncretically. Although these new dances retained many characteristics of those from the Old World, they had become their own distinctive dance forms.
Blending of African and European Traditions
Certainly the most powerful changes were caused by the mixing of African and European dance styles. European dance featured an upright posture with head held high and a still torso with no hip rotations. Arms framed the body and—because European dance was usually performed inside, on floors, in shoes—there was careful placement and articulation of the feet. Men and women danced in couples, and in this partnership, body line and placement, as well as couple cooperation, were emphasized over individual movement. In European "figure" dances, floor patterns were valued above personal invention (in "figure" or "set" dances many couples will move together as a group in specific designs, similar to a modern-day Virginia reel or square dance). Music and dance tempos were organized around simple rhythms with regularly stressed beats and syncopations, and musical compositions emphasized melody. The pervasive dynamics of European dancing were control and erectness.
By contrast, African dance "gets down" in a gently crouched position, with bent knees and flexible spine. Traditional African dance tends to be performed in same-sex groups. Danced in bare feet on the bare earth, it favored dragging, sliding, and stamping steps. The supple upper body, with its flexible relationship to the lower limbs, could physically carry many rhythms simultaneously, mirroring the polyrhythms of the music. A polyrhythmic, multimetered, and highly syncopated percussive dynamic propelled movement and music. Movement often initiated from the pelvis, and pelvis rotations caused a sympathetic undulation in the spine and torso. Animal motions were imitated and quite realistically portrayed on the entire body. Improvisations were appreciated as an integral part of the performance ethos.
These last two qualities would make especially important contributions to the development of African-American dance. First, when the dancer imitates the animal's motions fully, habitual patterns of locomotion and gestures are bypassed. Timing and tempos get altered, usual choices are supplanted by fresh movements, fueling the dance vocabulary with new material, expanding the lexicon of motion. For example, "peckin'" (the head thrusts forward and backward like a bird feeding) and "wings" (the arms are flapped like the wings of a great bird, or sharply bent elbows beat quickly) spiced the larger body movements of the Charleston in the 1920s. The monkey and the pony were popular dances of the 1960s, and breakdancers of the 1980s did the crab and the spider. In the early 1990s, the butterfly (the legs open and close like butterfly wings) became a popular dance in reggae and dance hall styles.
The emphasis on improvisation advanced the evolution of dance styles. The improviser accomplishes two things simultaneously. While staying within the known stylistic parameters (reinforcing traditional patterns), the improviser is an inventor whose responsibility is to add individual flavor to the movement or timing that updates and personalizes the dance. This keeps social dance perpetually on the edge of change and also helps explain why social dance fads come and go so quickly.
The inevitable exchange between European and African styles led to incorporation and synthesis, and what evolved was neither wholly African nor European but something in between. As they served at the masters' balls, slaves observed the cotillions, square dances, and other "set" or "figure" dances. In turn, European-American dances were altered by observation and contact with African-American music and dance. Sometimes black musicians played for the white masters' balls. It was also not uncommon on southern plantations for the children of the slaves to play with the masters' children. It was common practice for the masters to go down to the slave quarters to watch slave dances or to have their slaves dance for them on special occasions. At times, slaves engaged in jig dance competitions, where one plantation would pit its best dancers against the best dancers from another. At first, "jig dance" was a generic term that European Americans gave to different types of African-American step dances where the feet rhythmically played against the floor, because this fancy footwork resembled the jigs of the British Isles. Informal jig dance contests occurred in northern cities on market days, when freedmen and slaves congregated to dance after the market closed (in Manhattan this happened in the Five Points Catherine Square area), and along the banks of the great transportation river highways, where slaves hired out by their masters worked as stevedores alongside indentured or immigrant workers. In New Orleans, "Congo Square" was designated as the place where slaves could congregate and celebrate in song and dance on Sunday.
The majority of the earlier European colonists came from the British Isles, and within that group were large numbers of poor Irish settlers and Irish indentured servants. More than any other ethnic group, the Irish mixed with African slaves doing heavy labor—the Irish as indentured servants, the Africans as slaves—for the master. Later they lived alongside each other in slums of poverty, so that the mutual influence of Irish step dances like the jig and hornpipe and African step dances was early and strong.
General patterns of fusion suggest the following progression. Between the late 1600s and early 1800s, African and African Americans adopted aspects of European dance for their use. For example, they began early to move in male-female couples (mixed couples and body contact in traditional African dance is extremely rare) in European figure dances, such as quadrilles and reels. However, they retained their own shuffling steps and syncopated movements of feet, limbs, and hips. After the 1820s that trend reversed, as Europeans and European Americans began to copy African-American dance styles—a trend still in effect. In general, as the African elements became more formal and diluted, the European elements got looser and more rhythmic. Religious dancing became secular; group dancing gave way to individual couples on the dance floor; and following the rise of urbanization and industrialization and the consequent migration of black workers, rural dances moved to the towns. Since the late 1930s, in reverse, urban dances that became dance crazes spread back to rural communities and out to the world.
The 1890s was the decade that marked the beginning of the international influence of African-American dance. The cakewalk had been developing since the late 1850s, and by the 1890s was well established as an extremely popular dance in both theatrical and nontheatrical contexts. According to ex-slaves, the cakewalk, with its characteristic high-kneed strut walk, probably originated shortly after the mid-1850s. The dance had begun as a parody of the formal comportment and upright posture of the white ballroom dancers as they paraded down the center of the floor, two by two, in the opening figures of a promenade that would have begun the formal balls. The simplicity of this walk made it easy to mimic and exaggerate, it fit easily into the African tradition of satiric song and dance, and the formality of the walk resonated with African processional dances. Apparently the dance had been a "chalkline" dance, where the dancers had to walk a line while balancing containers of water on their heads.
By the 1890s the cakewalk had been adapted as a ballroom dance by whites, who grafted the high-kneed walking steps with a simple 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm of early ragtime jazz and blended it with the promenading steps that were already a central motif in many of the schottisches and gallops popular in the ballrooms of the time. The cakewalk quickly translated to the stage and had been regularly performed in the big African-American touring shows since the beginning of the decade, by such troupes as Black Patti and her Troubadours and in shows like The South Before the War and A Trip to Coontown, among others. The cakewalk was danced on Broadway by excellent black performers in Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898). As well, there were numerous cakewalk competitions done regularly by whites (one of the largest annual events took place at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan). The enormous popularity of the dance is clear from even the most cursory perusal of sheet music from 1890 to 1907. A few exhibition dance teams of African-American performers traveled to Europe to perform the dance (the most famous was the husband-and-wife team of Charles Johnson and Dora Dean), and in 1904 the cakewalk received the validation of aristocratic society when the Prince of Wales learned the dance from the comedy-and-dance team of African-American performers Bert Williams and George Walker. The structural framework of the cakewalk had open sections for improvisation that shifted emphasis to the individual's role, changing the focus from the group to the couple and the person. It was the turn of the century, and as the incubator of individual invention, the cakewalk was the perfect artistic catalyst to launch dance into the modernist sensibility of the twentieth century.
A rash of rollicking animal dances gained ascendancy between 1907 and 1914, overlapping the cakewalk and replacing it in the public's favor. The turkey trot, kangaroo hop, and the grizzly bear (three among many) incorporated eccentric animal gestures into the couple-dance format, a blend that had long been practiced by African-American dancers—elbows flapped, heads pecked, dancers hopped—in bits of motion that were derived from such African-American animal dances as the buzzard lope. The rising popularity of these dances paralleled the rise in sheet music publication. For a small investment, people got music and dance instructions, since the song lyrics told how the dance should be done.
A typical example of the instructional song is the well-known ragtime dance ballin' the jack, which developed in about 1910. (The meaning of the title is obscure, but it probably originated from railroad slang, with the general meaning of enjoyable, rollicking good times.) As described in 1913 in its published form by two African-American songwriters, Chris Smith and Jim Burris, the dance had the following steps:
First you put your two knees close up tight, then you sway 'em to the left, then you sway 'em to the right. Step around the floor kind of nice and light, then you twis' around and twis' around with all your might. Stretch your lovin' arms straight out in space, then you do the eagle rock with style and grace, swing your foot way 'round, then bring it back, now that's what I call ballin' the jack.
The Jazz Era
Between 1900 and 1920 a dance fever gripped America. Since the early 1900s couples had been moving closer together, and with the evolution of the slower, more blusey early jazz styles, close-clutching dances like the slow drag, which had always been done at private parties, began to surface in public places. The hip motions and languid gliding feet in such African-American dances as the grind and mooch (both a couple or solo dance) indicate that body contact and postures were already racially shifting. Certainly this prepared the way for the arrival of the tango and its immediate acceptance as a dance craze in 1913. (The tango originated in Argentina. Although its precise origins are quite complex, it was also a likely synthesis of European and African influences.) The tango is a difficult dance to do, necessitating dance lessons, a reality happily exploited by the numerous exhibition tango teams who demonstrated the dance to the eager public, then taught it to them in their studios or at the local dance hall or tango teas. If few could afford this luxury, thousands of people nevertheless danced what they believed to be the tango. In reality, the frank sensuality of thigh and pelvic contact coincided more readily with familiar close-couple African-American dances of the juke joints, small dance halls, and white-and-tan clubs that peppered mixed neighborhoods of every American city.
By the late 1910s a flood of migrating workers moved northward, seeking jobs in urban industries built for the war effort of World War I. As great numbers of African Americans moved into cities, they formed a critical mass of talent that erupted in a variety of artistic expressions. Their energy gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and turned Harlem—and black neighborhoods in other industrial cities—into crucibles of creativity in the popular and fine arts. The golden years of black Broadway (1921–1929) began with the hugely successful Shuffle Along (1921), written, directed, composed, and choreographed by African Americans (its four major creators were Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles). This production, and subsequent road shows, brought African-American jazz music and jazz dances to a wide audience. There was little distinction between social dances and stage adaptations, and current popular dances were simply put onstage with few changes. As a result of Shuffle Along 's popularity, Broadway dance began to reshape itself, shifting to a jazz mode, as Florenz Ziegfeld and other producer-directors began to copy Shuffle Along 's choreography. A spate of new studios opened in the Broadway area to teach this African-American vernacular jazz dance to professional actors and to an eager public (one important instructor was Buddy Bradley, who taught the Astaires and a host of other Broadway and film actors, then went on to choreograph English revues).
Then with the 1923 Broadway show Runnin' Wild, the Charleston burst onstage and into the hearts of the American public, especially through the eponymous song James P. Johnson composed for the show. However, the Charleston had been a popular dance among African Americans long before the 1920s. Although its origins are unclear, it probably originated in the South, as its name suggests, then was brought north with migrating workers. Jazz historian Marshall Stearns reports its existence in about 1904, and the late tap dancer Charles "Honi" Coles said that in about 1916 as a young child he learned a complete version of the dance, which had long been popular in his hometown of Philadelphia.
The Charleston is remarkable for the powerful resurgence of Africanisms in its movements and performance and for shattering the conventions of European partnering. The Charleston could be performed as a solo or a couple dance, or partners could dance together side by side or in the closed-couple position. For women in particular, its wild movements and devil-may-care attitude broke codes of correct deportment and propriety. It was quick and decidedly angular, and the slightly crouched position of the body imparted a quality of alert wildness. The steps (and the early jazz music it was performed to) are syncopated, the knees turn in and out, the feet flick to the side, and a rapid forward-and-backward prancing step alternated with pigeon-toed shuffles and high kicks. As the arms and legs fling in oppositional balance, elbows angled and pumping, the head and hands shake in counterpoint. Knock-kneed, then with legs akimbo, body slightly squatted, this beautiful awkwardness signaled the aesthetic demise of European ideals of symmetry and grace in social dance. The fast-driving rhythms of the music smoothed the flow of broken motions into a witty dance punctuated with shimmies, rubber-legging, sudden stops, and dance elements such as the black bottom, spank the baby, or truckin'. Although these new dances often caused alarm because of their seeming anarchy of motion, and the uncontrolled freedom that that implies, the Charleston in particular roused the ire of the guardians of public morality. Warning that the Charleston would lead to sexual and political dissolution, the dance was condemned by several clerics and was banned in several cities.
Although the Charleston was immediately introduced to Europe by American jazz artists touring there, it was Josephine Baker (she had been a chorus girl in Shuffle Along ) who personalized the dance. She went to Paris in 1924 and became the darling of the French, and it was Josephine's charming, humorous, and slightly naughty version of the Charleston that caused such a sensation in Europe. The Charleston, and all the bold young women who performed it, came to symbolize the liberated woman of the twenties, and the rubber-legging "flapper" became an icon of the era.
dancing at the savoy
Then, in 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened in New York City's Harlem. Nicknamed "The Track" or "Home of Happy Feet," the Savoy could accommodate up to four thousand people. Because it had the reputation of being the place to go and hear good music and dance, all the best bands wanted to play there. It was the practice to feature two different bands on the same night, playing one after another on two different bandstands placed at opposite ends of the ballroom. This subsequent "battle of the bands" energized dancers to new heights of daring and improvisation. For thirty years the Savoy would be the center of dance in New York City, and there dances were brought to such a level of excellence that the name "the Savoy" was synonymous with the best in dancing. As its reputation grew, the Savoy also became a showplace, a kind of informal stage arena where people could go to watch the finest Savoy dancers as each tried to outdance the other.
Great dancing is inspired by great music, and the history of African-American social dance parallels the history of African-American jazz music. In truth these social dances are most accurately described as "vernacular jazz dance" (from the title and subtitle of Marshall and Jean Stearns's magnificent 1968 historical study of tap and popular dance, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance ). The juke joints of the South and the dance halls of the North served as forums where musicians and dancers worked together. The sharing of ideas, rhythms, and the heated excitement of music and movement feeding each other produced an environment of experimentation where the spirit moved and dances got created on the spot. Certainly the arrival of big-band swing music, fathered by the great jazzmen and their groups, all of whom played the Savoy, parented the next great African-American dance as well.
the lindy hop
Existing concurrently with the Charleston and evolving from it, a kind of Savoy "hop" was getting formulated on the floor of the Savoy Ballroom. Then, in 1928 the dance was christened "the lindy hop" by a well-known Savoy dancer, Shorty Snowden, in honor of Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. The dance, which would become an international craze and an American classic, contained many ingredients of the Charleston—the oppositional flinging of the limbs, the wild, unfettered quality of the movement, the upbeat tempos, the side-by-side dancing of partners. But the two most outstanding characteristics were the "breakaway," when two partners split apart completely or barely held on to each other with one hand, while each cut individual variations on basic steps (a syncopated box step with an accent on the offbeat) and the spectacular aerial lifts and throws that appeared in the mid-1930s. The tradition of individual improvisation was, of course, well entrenched. However, with the lindy hop, it was the climactic moment of dance, and the aerial work set social dance flying. The lindy hop contained ingredients distilled during the evolution of social dance since the 1890s. It had a wide range of expressive qualities, yet it was grounded in steps and rhythms that were simple enough to be picked up readily and were capable of infinite variations. It would, in fact, become one of the longest lasting of all African-American social dances. Commonly known as the jitterbug in white communities, the dance adapted to any kind of music: There was the mambo lindy, the bebop lindy, and during the 1950s, the lindy/jitterbug changed tempos and syncopations and became known as rock 'n' roll; when looked at carefully, the 1970s "disco hustle" reveals itself as a highly ornamented lindy hop cut down to half time. In the 1980s and '90s, "country-western swing" looks like the lindy hop framed by fancy armwork, and in the South, "the shag" is another regional variation of the lindy hop theme.
On the floor of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom the lindy hop was brought to its highest level of performance, fueled by the big-band swing played by brilliant musicians in orchestras led by such men as Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Al Cooper, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman, and many more. As the dynamics of swing music heated up to its full musical sound and fast, driving, propulsive "swing" beat, the dancers matched it with ever more athletic prowess. In the mid-1930s the lindy took to the air, and using steps with names such as the hip to hip, the side flip, the snatch, over the back, and over the top, the men tossed the women, throwing them around their bodies, over their heads, and pulling them through their legs until the women seemed to fly, skid-land, then rebound again.
The Savoy lindy hop was renowned for its spectacular speed and aerials. An entrepreneurial bouncer at the club, Herbert White, decided to capitalize on this dancing talent, and he formed "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers." Choosing a large group of lindy hop dancers, the best from the ballroom, White split them into smaller troupes or teams that toured the country, appearing in movies, vaudeville, on Broadway, at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, and in many other venues. The lindy spread out to the world, first through newsreels and films, and then the dance was carried personally to Europe and Asia by American GIs during the 1940s.
As the language of jazz moved from swing to bebop, rhythmically more complex and harmonically daring, so did the nature of jazz dance. With the passing of the great dance halls, the smaller venues that featured the five- or six-piece jazz combo that was the basic form of bebop became the main site for jazz performance, and though many of these clubs had no space for dancing, bebop-influenced jazz dance nonetheless flourished.
Bebop jazz often sounded barely in control with its fast pace and solo improvisations, and bebop dancers mirrored the music. The at-times private, introverted quality of musical performance was reflected by the bebop dancer's performance, which appeared disassociated and inward. Rather than having the movement scattering outward, as in the Charleston and the lindy, the bebop dancers used footwork that slipped and slid but basically stayed in place, the dynamic of the dance was introverted and personal, and the dancer appeared to gather energy into the center of the body.
Like the music, the dance was dominated by males. And if the bebopper used many of the same steps as the lindy hopper, there were enormous stylistic differences in the focus and body language. Bebop was almost the reverse of the lindy: Partners broke away for longer periods of time than they spent together. Bebop dance could be done as a solo, in a couple, or in a small group of three or four. This open relationship was perfect for a dance that placed the strongest significance on individual improvisation and devalued group cooperation. The body rode cool and laid-back on top of busy feet that kept switching dynamics, tempo, flow, timing, direction, impulse, and emphasis. Off-balance and asymmetrical, the dance wobbled at the edge of stability. The dance was filled with slips and rapid splits that broke down to the floor and rebounded right back up, and the bebopper was fond of quick skating-hopping steps that appear to be running very fast while remaining in the same place. Elbows pulled into the body, shoulders hitched up, hands lightly paddled the air. Balanced on a small base—the feet remained rather close together—with swiveling body and hips, the dancer seemed made of rubber. Partners rarely touched each other or looked directly at each other. Bebop dancing influenced the dance styles of rhythm and blues and other black popular music of the 1940s. It is also known as "scat" dancing (the comparison is to the vocal freeflights of the scat singer). James Brown is perhaps the best-known entertainer who dances in bebop mode. Watered down and simplified to rapidly rocking heel-and-toe steps that alternated with pigeon-toed motions in and out, with the occasional splits, bebop lost most of its glittering individualism when translated to the mainstream. Yet the effect of bebop dance was to give the social dancer a new "cool" persona, that of the "hipster," whose sensual slipperiness provided a rest, a contrast, to the heat and speed of the jitterbug lindy. This hip attitude had an enormous effect on Broadway jazz. Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, and Jack Cole, three powerful Broadway and film choreographers, would convert the physical language of bebop dance into a style of laid-back, cool jazz that would be viewed as epitomizing the best of Broadway jazz dance.
1950s Rock 'n' Roll
During the 1950s, with the explosion of a "teen culture" and a "teen market," an entertainment industry, led by the record companies, was established to service this market. Bepop dance influenced the dance styles of rock 'n' roll. The record industry, ever quick to seize an opportunity, made the crossover, renaming rhythm and blues rock 'n' roll. The jitterbug got renamed as well, now called by the music's name of rock 'n' roll dance. Partners continued to split apart. With the infusion of the bebop mentality, a slippery smoothness in the footwork calmed down some of the flinging of the older forms of jitterbug, while the twisting hips were beginning to even out the sharp bouncing of the fast-paced Savoy style. Toward the end of the 1950s, gyrating hips (the trademark of Elvis Presley), previously only one movement phrase in the midst of many, would be singled out and made into an individual dance. "The twist," which became another worldwide dance fad, structured an entire dance around a single movement. Its simplicity made it easy to do, and its virtues were promoted in Chubby Checker's beguiling rock 'n' roll song "The Twist" (1960, a close copy of Hank Ballard's 1958 original). Also in the 1950s there was a resurgence of close-clutching couple dances, similar to the older mooch and grind (now known as "dirty dancing"), danced to sweet harmonics of five-part a cappella singing groups who were developing a singing style that became known as doo-wop. It is notable and interesting that in the 1950s, during a period when there was a strong sense of conformity, group line dances such as the stroll and the madison became popular.
Re-Africanization in the 1960s
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement was reflected in a re-Africanization of dance forms in such dances as the Watusi, the monkey, the bugaloo, and a series of spine-whipping, African-inspired dances such as the frug and the jerk. Animal gestures and steps reentered dances with a vengeance, formulated into dances such as the pony, the chicken, and the fish (also known as the swim). Partners did not touch. Instead, they danced face-to-face, but apart, reflecting each other's movements, using a dialogue of movement that was essentially a call-and-response mode of performance.
Motown singing groups whose carefully tailored and tasty dance routines were choreographed by Cholly Atkins had an inestimable effect on dance styles. The teenagers who admired these groups and bought their records now watched them perform on television. Then they copied the Motown style, whose choreography was made to underline the message of the song. A variety of pantomimic dances was created in which the words, or story line, of the song were enacted by the dancers. For example, one of the most popular and beautiful of these tunes was Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhiker" (Atkins worked with Gaye on this tune). The major gesture-motif of this dance recurred as the dancer—feet doing little prancing steps, hips swiveling, head bobbing—circled the hand in front of the torso, then swung it off to the side, thumb stuck up, as if he or she were trying to hitch a ride on the road, watching the cars go by.
Disco and Line Dancing
The 1970s disco explosion featured the hustle (if one strips away the ornamentation of multiple turns and sharply pointing arms and poses as the man swings out his partner, the lindy hop becomes visible). The line dance made popular by the movie Saturday Night Fever (1976) is actually the old madison, retooled for the 1970s (the same is true for the 1980s' bus stop and the 1990s' electric slide). However, with the explosion of breaking and electric boogie in the Bronx during the late 1970s, and popping in Sacramento and Los Angeles, dance styles underwent a radical change in the United States, then in Europe, Asia, and Africa as the styles spread to the world on television and music videos.
Breakdancing and Hip Hop Culture
Breakdancing was part of a larger cultural movement known as hip-hop, which got established in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. Hiphop had a variety of artistic expressions—graphic arts (graffiti or "writing"), spoken poetry (rapping), music (scratchin', which developed into the rap music of the 1980s and 1990s), religion and philosophy (Zulu Nation and the politics put forth in the lyrics of the rap), and dance (breaking, electric boogie, and popping and/or locking). Breakdancing took the structural principle of the breakaway and expanded it into a solo dance form. Accompanying the breakdancers musically were street DJs who were using the techniques of scratchin' (holding the record by its edge, the DJ moves it back and forth on the same groove) and mixing (shifting back and forth between turntables, the DJ replays the same sound bits of a couple of records over and over) to create new syncopations and "breaks" in the old records, thereby improvisationally composing new musical scores. Then, using one or more microphones, rappers would talk rhythmically over the music.
Intensely competitive, breaking was primarily a solo, male dance form that re-Africanized the aesthetics of African-American dance. Visually it retains powerful reverberations of gestures and phrases derived from capoeira, the martial-art dance that came to the New World with the slaves captured in the Angola region of southwestern Africa.
Breaking stressed acrobatic fluency in the spins and in the dancer's buoyancy. In fact, bouncing is one of its most obvious characteristics. Performers effortlessly spring from dancing on their feet in an "uprock" style to "breaking" down to twirl on the floor; then they rebound to an upright position. There is little distinction between up and down, and because the breaker moves within a circle, the focus is multidirectional, as a consequence of its bounding-rebounding quality. Breaking seems to defy gravity, to exist almost at the edge of flight.
Popping and locking are other hip-hop dance styles that were performed along with breaking and were developed first on the West Coast. In these styles the body seems to be broken into segments. As motion moved from the fingers of the left arm through the chest and out the fingers of the right arm, the joints "locked" or "popped" into sharp millisecond freezes. The movement looks as if it were a living rendition of a video game, and popping and locking did evolve from an earlier dance known as the robot. A related but more undulating version of popping and locking, called the electric boogie, developed on the East Coast; in this dance the body seemed to move in fluid, increasingly complex minifreezes.
Breaking was the dance of the young and tough hiphop subcultures of the ghettos, and the rawness of the sounds and the movements made breaking the dance of protest that rallied against the mainstream disco styles of music and movement. Because of its brilliance, its technical display, its physical virtuosity, and its machismo, and because breaking got immediate and near-hysterical media coverage, it became popular worldwide. Breakers sprung up in Tokyo, Rome, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris, and long after it had faded in popularity in the United States (in about 1984), it was still flourishing in the 1990s in other parts of the world. Breaking was the most powerful and early expression of the hip-hop culture, and because of its worldwide success, it prepared the way for the eventual ascendancy of rap, which de-emphasized the dancer for the rapper and was the centerpiece of the hiphop movement of the 1980s and early 1990s.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the young adults who were creating the current social dances did little that was reminiscent of traditional European dance and much that was reflective of the ancient African legacy. On the dance floor they gathered in casual circles that randomly arose, then disintegrated. Male/female partnerships, if they existed at all, changed and shifted throughout the night, and a partner was simply another dancer who was focused upon for a while. Dancers moved in loose groupings that may or may not have mixed genders (males often danced together, or there would be a group of females dancing). Though they moved in stylistic harmony, improvisation was highly prized, and each participant brought individual flavor to the movements.
There were many reverberations with traditional African motion. The body was slightly crouched with bent knees, feet flat on the floor. The footwork favored sliding, stamping, or digging steps. When the music was hard-hitting and fast, dancers burst out in vigorous jumps and athletic maneuvers; a phrase may have consisted of diving down to the floor ("breaking" down) in belly slides or shoulder rolls, then smoothly pulling the body upright, swinging back into the beat with fast, sliding steps. Digitalized and engineered, the African drum has been transformed into a sonic bass boom that blasts through the speakers. With volume turned up to the "red zone," the bass power pops the body, vibrating bones, internalizing the beat. The dancers used their torsos as a multiunit instrument with an undulating spine, shimmying shoulders, and swiveling hips. Movement was polyrhythmic, and rippled through the body in waves, or it could lead to very briefly held positions known as freezes. Heads circled and bobbed, arms did not frame the body so much as help it balance. Dances were named for the style of music that is played, such as house, rap, hip-hop or dance hall, or they were called "freestyle" because each dancer improvisationally combined well-known steps as the fancy strikes.
A prime example of an Africanized dance was one performed to Chuck Brown's "The Butt," which hit the top of the commercial pop charts in 1988 and was notable for its bold call-and-response structure. As the title suggests, movement concentrated on shaking buttocks. Dancers "get down" in a deep squat. Placing hands on butts or thighs, they arch their spines, nod their heads, and swivel the pelvis in figure eights. In the early 1990s this same dance remained popular. It was now called "winding," performed by young, urban, black, and white club goers to reggae or go-go (a Washington, D.C., musical style influenced by Jamaican reggae). "Winding" alludes to the circular winding motion of the hips. In 1901 the same moves were called "the funky butt," and in the 1930s they were known as "grinding."
African-American underground club dancers continue to create new dances that will be picked up by the mainstream tomorrow, disseminated through music videos. All music-video dance styles originate in the clubs and on the streets, so one must look at the places of origination to get a glimpse into the dance styles of tomorrow.
Club Dancing and DJs
Club dancers, mostly African American and Latino youth, are the most active, influential, and democratic of the social dance choreographers. The club community is a specialized one, which has coalesced around an action rather than a neighborhood or through bloodlines. Relationships are made because of a shared obsession with dancing. Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of a real "clubhead" is that dance is passion and possession, and through movement, they experience "going off," a kind of secular spirituality that echoes the spiritual possession of the older African circle dances brought to this country four hundred years ago.
Music is provided by DJs mixing at their consoles with a couple of turntables, merging the sounds of one record into another in a seamless musical flow, composing on the spot. They are musicians of consoles and amplifiers; they are today's bands and orchestras and conductors. Using raw recorded "cuts" that have not been engineered into their final form (this is not the stuff of commercial radio), DJs are the high priests of the clubs who regulate the emotional and physical heat of the dancing. A good DJ knows how to play the songs that inspire movement. He shifts the mood and pace through musical combinations, acting and reacting to what he sees on the floor. Reading ephemeral signals of movement and energy, breath and beat, a constant flow of information is exchanged between dancer and DJ.
In the early 1990s, dance styles fell into rough generational divisions. Hip-hop tended to be done by the younger generation of early through late teens, while lofting (this style of dance is called different names in different parts of the country) and house tended to be done by a slightly older group in their late teens and twenties. Lofting was a softer assimilation of the "old school" breaking, whose immediate predecessors are the lindy hop, and whose older progenitors are the capoeria and other African acrobatic dances. The "New Jack" style of hip-hop uses footwork reminiscent of the Charleston and earlier West African step dances. The pose and punch and stylized gestures of voguing exaggerate the syncopated isolations of jazz, and like the cakewalk, voguing makes satiric commentaries on the mannered postures of the monied classes, as represented in the images of models of high-fashion magazines. At the end of the twentieth century and into the new millennium, hip-hop continues to created variations on breakdancing, including popping, uprock, house, and bebop.
Social dance is a structure of movement that is always open to modification. Propelled by improvisational innovation, dancers can transform a recreational participatory event into a performance within a circle. Perhaps the greatest African aesthetic gift was the reverence for improvisation. It keeps social dance democratic, it is not tied to any one institution or controlled by a small elite group who determine who shall perform and who shall observe. Improvisation and individuals keep dance a celebration of imagination, while the flexibility and power of movement itself is what links the past to the present and the community to the person.
See also Breakdancing; Capoeira; Hip Hop; Jazz
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sally sommer (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005