African American dance


African American dance

African American dances in the vernacular tradition (academically known as "African American vernacular dance") are those dances which have developed within African American communities in everyday spaces, rather than in dance studios, schools or companies. African American vernacular dances are usually centered on social dance practice, though performance dance and concert dance often supply complementary aspects to social dancing.

Placing great value on improvisation, African American vernacular dances are characterised by ongoing change and development. Because they exist in social spaces and their main 'purpose' is self-expression, they are continually changing to reflect the needs, interests and personalities of their participants. They are also often characterised by their 'stealing' or 'borrowing' from other dance traditions and any particular African American vernacular dance shows clear evidence of its relationship to other, earlier dances.

The term 'vernacular dance' is often critiqued by dancers within a tradition as being unnecessarily 'technical'. Despite these (very legitimate) issues, the term is commonly used in dance studies literature internationally.

There are a number of notable African American modern dance companies using African American vernacular dance as an inspiration, amongst these are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

History of African American vernacular dance

lavery and dance

The phrase 'African American vernacular dance' is commonly used to refer to those dances which have developed within the African American communities of the United States from the 1600s. African slaves brought to America from the 1600s were representative of a wide range of ethnic groups, and their dance and cultural lives were similarly diverse. To speak of an 'African American vernacular dance' without qualification is to ignore the vast range of dance practices and traditions which developed from these African roots in communities across the United States. Afro-American dance in the earliest days was a response to the conditions of slavery. Cultural life for African slaves in America was controlled by slave owners, and varied between individual slave owners, local communities and the work in which slaves were employed. In general terms, though, we can say that much of the rich cultural and social life of African slaves in America was forbidden by slave owners (for a range of reasons, including social, religious, misunderstanding or simple cruelty), compromised by strict rules, replaced by the culture of the slave owners, or combined with this culture of the slavers to produce new hybrid forms. New and different cultural traditions developed not only in different cities across America, but on the properties of different slave owners. There were distinct regional variations in dance in African American communities even in the 1600s, developing as a combination of traditions from different African ethnic groups, the culture of slave owners and other groups within the immediate society, as responses to the musical and social lives of individuals in that community, and in response to different experiences under slavery.

The Americans Civil War and northern and southern African American dance

The American civil war saw social change in both the Northern and Southern states of America, with a reduction in slaves in the North, and, conversely, increases in slavery in the South in response to developments in cotton farming. There were, consequently, different types of dances developing in different parts of the country in response to these social forces. Just as music of the day reflected the everyday experiences of musicians, the dances of the day reflected the everyday lives of the dancers

Cake walk, derision dances and plantations

Tap dance and African American dance

Emancipation and the Northern Drift

With emancipation came the liberty to travel. To generalise, African Americans travelling north brought with them the dances of the plantations and agricultural life. Northerners moving south brought urban dances. In the 1800s vaudville shows and bands criss-crossed the United States, linking Northern and Southern cities and carrying music and dance with them. Dancers travelled with the bands, including flash dancers who performed acrobatic feats, contortionists, tap dancers and many others. This new 'trade' in dance culture between previously isolated communities contributed not only to a developing African American national consciousness but also a rich cultural exchange and development of new dances which responded to these social changes.

New York and the Harlem Renaissance

Just as the Harlem Renaissance saw the development of art, poetry, literature and theatre in Harlem during the early 20th century, it also saw the development of a rich musical and dance life.
* Clubs (Cotton Club), Ballrooms (Savoy Ballroom), rent party and other 'black spaces' as the birthplaces of new vernacular dances.
* Theatres and the shift from vaudeville to local 'shows' written and choreographed by African American artists.
* Theatres as public forums for popularising African American vernacular dances.

The Swing era

Late 20s, 1930s and 1940s- lindy hop, Charleston, Texas Tommy

The 1950s

- Washington Hand Dancing, Mashed Potato

The 1960s

- Northern Soul, Motown

The 1970s

- funk, disco

The 1980s

- Hip Hop, break dancing, popping, locking, voguing, cabbage patch

the 1990s and 2000s

- Krumping, Hyphy, Snap dance, Cha Cha Slide, Line Dance (Booty Call), Lean wit It, Rock wit It, Walk It Out, footworking, Chicken Noodle Soup, Crip Walk, Gangsta Walk, Tootsee Roll, The Roosevelt, Getting Lite Poole Palace, Butterfly Dance, Jocin, Toe Wop, Crank Dat Soulja Boy, A-Town Stomp, [Harlem Shake] , [Aunt Jakie]

Performance, competition and social dance

The idea of dividing performative, competitive and social dance in African American vernacular dance is largely an imposition of Anglo-European class and cultural values. In a vernacular dance culture there is often no distinction between 'dance' spaces and 'non-dances spaces'. Dance and rhythmic movement are as much a part of everyday life as language. In many cases dance has played a more central role than literacy (especially during slavery), particularly in the communication of history, tradition and culture between generations, much as has oral culture.Competition has long played an important role in social dance in African and African American social dance, from the 'battles' of hip hop and lindy hop to the cake walk.Performances have also been integrated into everyday dance life, from the relationship between performance and social dancing in tap dancing to the 'shows' held at Harlem ball rooms in the 1930s.

ocial dance spaces

* Juke joint, street parties, rent party and the importance of the front porch
* ballrooms, cabaret clubs and church halls

Competitive dance

- Cake walks, the Harvest Moon Ball, Breakdance and battles

Learning to dance in an African American vernacular dance tradition

In most African American vernacular dance cultures, learning to dance does not happen in formal classrooms or dance studios. Children often learn to dance as they grow up, developing not only a body awareness but also aesthetics of dance which are particular to their community. Learning to dance - learning about rhythmic movement - happens in much the same way as developing a local language 'accent' or a particular set of social values.Children learn specific dance steps or 'how to dance' from their families - most often from older brothers and sisters, cousins or other older children. Because vernacular dance happens in everyday spaces, children often dance with older members of the community around their homes and neighbourhoods, at parties and dances, on special occasions, or whenever groups of people gather to 'have a good time'. Vernacular dance traditions are therefore often cross-generational traditions, with younger dancers often 'reviving' dances from previous generations, albeit with new 'cool' variations and 'styling'. This is not to suggest that there are no social limitations on who may dance with whom and when. Dance partners (or people to dance with) are chosen by a range of social factors, including age, sex, kinship, interest and so on. The most common dance groups are often comprised by people of a similar age, background and often sex (though this is a varying factor).

African American vernacular dance in the mainstream

Film, Theatre and Video Clips

- Hollywood musicals and stage (theatre)s: the Nicholas Brothers and Gene Kelly; Frankie Manning and Dean Collins

- Music videos: Madonna and Missy Higgins: black dancers in white clips, black dances on white bodies, black music and dance in black bodies

Black dances in white communities

- contemporary swing dance communities- contemporary tap dance- hip hop classes and white b-boys

African American vernacular dance and a continuum of creative cultural expression

Lee Ellen Friedland and other authors argue that to talk about dancing in a vernacular tradition without talking about music or art or drama is like talking about fish without talking about water. Music and dance are intimately related in African American vernacular dance, not only as accompaniments, but as intertwined creative processes.

Jacqui Malone describes the relationships between tap dancers who travelled with bands in the early 20th century, describing the way tap dancers worked with the musicians to create new rhythms. Much has been written about the relationship between improvisation in jazz and improvisation in jazz dance - the two are linked by their emphasis on improvisation and creative additions to compositions while they are in process - choreography and composition on the spot, in a social context - rather than a strict division between 'creation' and 'performance', as in the European middle class ballet and operatic tradition.

It is equally important to talk about the relationship between DJs MCs, b-boys and b-girls and graffiti artists in hip hop culture, and John F. Szwed and Morton Marks have discussed the development of jazz and jazz dance in America from European set dances and dance suites in relation to the development of musical artisanship.

African American modern dance

African American modern dance drew on modern dance and African American vernacular dance along with African dance and Caribbean dance influences. Katherine Dunham founded "Ballet Negre" in 1936 and later the Katherine Dunham Dance Company based in Chicago, Illinois. She also opened a school in New York (1945). Pearl Primus drew on African and Caribbean dances to create strong dramatic works characterized by large leaps in the air. Primus often based her dances on the work of black writers and on racial and African-American issues, such as Langston Hughes "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1944), and Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit" (1945). Alvin Ailey, a student of Lester Horton and Martha Graham, with a troupe of young African American dancers performed as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York in 1930. Ailey drew on his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel.

ee also

*African American History
*Dance in the United States
**Modern dance in the United States
*Get down
*Jazz dance
*Street dance

Further reading

*deFrantz, Thomas. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African-American Dance. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
*Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. California: National Press Books, 1972.
*Friedland, LeeEllen. "Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance." Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 - 57.
*Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
*Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. "African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives." Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
*Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
*Jackson, Jonathan David. "Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing." "Dance Research Journal" 33.2 (2001/2002): 40 - 53.
*Malone, Jacqui. Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
*Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. 3rd ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
*Szwed, John F., and Morton Marks. "The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites." Dance Research Journal 20.1 (1988): 29 - 36.
*Welsh-Asante Kariamu. "African-American dance in curricula: modes of inclusion." (Pathways to Aesthetic Literacy: Revealing Culture in the Dance Curriculum) American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) (July 28, 2005)
*Welsh-Asante Kariamu. The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions (Contributions in Afro-American & African Studies) Greenwood Press, 1993
*Welsh-Asante Kariamu. African Culture the Rhythms of Unity: The Rhythms of Unity Africa World Press. 1989


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