Song and Dance: An Overview

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Song and Dance: An Overview

"For the African," historian Sterling Stuckey once said, "dance was primarily devotional, like a prayer" (Stuckey 1987, p. 25). Dance, for those first slaves introduced into the New World, was a vehicle of community; it was a way of communicating with one's ancestors, one's gods, and one's universe in toto. "Because the emotions of slaves were so much a part of dance expression," Stuckey further wrote, "the whole body moving to complex rhythms, what was often linked to the continuing cycle of life, to the divine, was thought to be debased" in the eyes of whites. That a dance could be sinful would have been a foreign idea to Africans (Stuckey 1987, p. 25).

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), colonel in command of a Union regiment composed of black soldiers (many of them ex-slaves), was drawn to the periphery of his men's circle on more than one night. He was enrapt by the sound of their singing, and often by the dances that accompanied those songs. He realized that song and dance were closely connected—a combination of methods by which those soldiers fostered unity and spirituality in the face of hardship. Some younger troops affected a cynical attitude toward the activity, but even they were drawn into the moment when an especially urgent and passionate song, Room in There, was sung: then, "every man within hearing, from oldest to youngest, would be wriggling and shuffling as if through some magic piper's bewitchment." Higginson was affected by the song, but could not be a part of it (Stuckey 1987, pp. 28-30).

Singing and dancing were an integral part of plantation life for slaves. Former slave Fanny Randolph recalled the dances of her youth, during a corn shucking festival:

Us 'ud all git ter-gether at one uv de cabins an us 'ud have er big log fire an' er room ter dance in. Den when us had all shucked corn er good while ever nigger would git his gal an' dey would be some niggers over in de corner ter play for de dance, one wid er fiddle an' one ter beat straws, an' one wide r banjo, an' one ter beat bones, an' when de music 'ud start up (dey gener'ly played 'Billy in de Low Grounds' or 'Turkey in de Straw') us 'ud git on de flo'. Den de nigger whut called de set would say: 'All join hands an' circle to de lef, back to de right, swing corners, swing partners, all run away!' An' de way dem niggers feets would fly! (Georgia Narratives, p. 196).

Some of the social dances would be very familiar to whites of the time, or even of the early twenty-first century. Waltzes, square dances, the Virginia reel, the schottische, polkas, quadrilles, and cotillions were common. Julia Blanks recalled a dance called the "gallopade—and that's what it was, all right; you shore galloped. You'd start from one end of the hall and run clear to the other end" (Texas Narratives, p. 99). Sara Colquitt slyly added to Works Progress Administration (WPA) reporters in the 1930s that "us sho'did more'n dance, I'm telling you" (Alabama Narratives, p. 89).

Other dances had uniquely African elements of music and rhythm. One popular party game involved dancing with a glass of water on one's head, to see who could dance the most energetically without spilling any. Another popular form was clapping juba (or patting juba). Solomon Northup, a former slave who escaped to freedom, described this as "striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the time keeping time with the feet, and singing" (Northup 1853, p. 322).

Although one slave preacher said that "Yer'll neber git ter hebben by loafin', pitchin' cents, and dancin' juba," many slaves at least found some pleasure in their earthly sojourn by engaging in the latter, and other forms of dance. Jane Smith Hall Harmon, eighty-eight years old at the time of her interview, expressed her view of dancing:

I allus could dance, I cuts fancy steps now sometimes when I feels good. At one o' dem big old country breakdowns (dances), one night when I was young, I danced down seben big strong mens, dey thought dey wuz sumpin'! Huh, I danced eb'ry one down! (Georgia Narratives, p. 196)

Former slave Tom Mills put it more succinctly. "I was a dancin' fool," he said. "I wanted to dance all the time" (Texas Narratives, p. 91).


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Osgood & Co., 1870.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Fanny Randolph." Georgia Narratives. vol. 4, part 3, p. 196.

Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Jane Smith Hall Harmon." Georgia Narratives. vol. 4, part 2, p. 99.

Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Julia Blanks." Texas Narratives. vol. 16, part 1, p. 99.

Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Sara Colquitt." Alabama Narratives. vol. 1, p. 89.

Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Tom Mills." Texas Narratives. vol. 16, part 3, p. 91.

                                         Troy D. Smith