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Blues dance at a juke joint, early 20th century.

African-American dance has developed within various spaces throughout African-American communities in the United States, rather than studios, schools, or companies. These dances are usually centered on folk and social dance practice, though performance dance often supplies complementary aspects to this. Placing great value on improvisation, these dances are characterized by ongoing change and development. There are a number of notable African-American modern dance companies using African-American cultural dance as an inspiration, among these are the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem,and Katherine Dunham Company. Hollywood and Broadway have also provided opportunities for African-American artists to share their work and for the public to support them.[citation needed]


After the start of the slave trade in the 1500s, Africans brought their dances to North, Central, and South America, along with the Caribbean islands.[1]

Development during slavery

The Greater Chesapeake area encompassing Virginia, Maryland, and much of North Carolina was the earliest and perhaps most influential location of the black-white cultural interchange that produced "African-American" dance.[2]: 19  Given their cultural differences, particularly with music and dance, they most likely learned to dance together by creating brand-new dances to draw on their traditions without replicating them precisely. Elements of European dances were also absorbed into these creolized dances, and by the late 18th century, the area had developed a recognizable dance style.[2]: 21–22 

The limited pictorial record indicates that the original African movements, which emphasized bending at the waist and hips, eventually faded away in favor of a more upright style, similar to European dances. However, it has been argued that this change was not an adoption of the European style, but actually reflected the African practice of carrying heavy loads on the head, which requires a straight, upright spine.[2]: 22  Black dancing continued to reflect other African characteristics such as angularity and asymmetry of body positions, multiple body rhythms or polyrhythms, and a low center of gravity.[2]: 23 

Katrina Thompson found that the evolution of black music and dance emphasizes dance as a form of release. In some instances, slaveholders forced slaves to sing and dance to entertain them while they worked. The act of singing and dancing for themselves thus became an act of reclamation.[3] The cakewalk, for example, developed on plantations as a subtle mockery of the formal, mannered dancing practiced by slaveholding whites.[4] The slaves would dress in handed-down finery and comically exaggerate the poised movements of minuets and waltzes for their own amusement.[4][5] A 1981 article by Brooke Baldwin concludes that the cakewalk was meant "to satirize the competing culture of supposedly 'superior' whites. Slaveholders were able to dismiss its threat in their own minds by considering it as a simple performance which existed for their own pleasure".[6]

New York City and the Harlem Renaissance

Just as the Harlem Renaissance saw the development of art, poetry, literature and theater 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), the home rent party and other black spaces as the birthplaces of new dances, theaters and the shift from vaudeville to local "shows" written and choreographed by African-American artists; theaters as public forums for popularizing African-American cultural dances.[citation needed]

During this time voguing was a very popular thing in an event called ball. Ball culture was a way for black people to come together mostly LGBTQ+ and black women to show off and feel like a star or have a chance to be seen. Paris Is Burning (film) is a great documentary about ball culture and who started it and you see it through the eyes of the mothers( leaders of the drag houses) and how they started and how they came to be and the culture of them.[citation needed]

Performance, competition and social dance

Milwaukee United Steppers giving a glimpse of Milwaukee Style stepping and bopping

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 cakewalk. Performances have also been integrated into everyday dance life, from the relationship between performance and socializing in tap dancing to the "shows" held at Harlem ballrooms in the 1930s.

Social dance spaces

Competitive dance


In most African-American 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 cultural dance happens in everyday spaces, children often dance with older members of the community around their homes and neighborhoods, at parties and dances, on special occasions, or whenever groups of people gather to "have a good time". Cultural 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).[citation needed]

Cultural expression

Lee Ellen Friedland and other authors argue that to talk about cultural dancing 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 cultural dance, not only as accompaniments, but as intertwined creative processes.[9]

"African American Cultural Dance" was a description coined by National Dance Association author and researcher Frank R. Ross, who correctly replaced the old stereotyped "vernacular" (native or natural) definition of African-American dance with its correct definition as "cultural" (sanctioned by the National Dance Association and International Dance Council).[10]

Some of the popular African-American dances of today are the Detroit Ballroom and Social – Chicago Steppin & Walking, D.C. Baltimore, Hand Dance, Calypso & The NAACP Sanctioned Grand March – National Black Wedding & Reunion Dance. Popular black dance organizations are perfectly paired Gentlemen of Ballroom of Cleveland Master Dancers of Akron, OH. Dance Fusion, World Class-Detroit, Majestic Gents – Chicago Smooth & Easy D.C. Tri – State – Love to dance – Sugarfoot of Baltimore, MD. The new American dance art form of African-American cultural dance and music was accepted into the New York City Schools dance education curriculum.[citation needed]

Jacqui Malone describes the relationships between tap dancers who traveled 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. African Dance is supposed to be about a person getting connected to the ground and telling their story and struggles using dance. It also allows people to feel the vibrations of their dance beneath their feet, allowing them to dance how they please, utilizing the space that they have so they can express themselves freely.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

African-American modern dance

See also: Modern dance in the United States

African America modern dance blends modern dance with African and Caribbean movement (flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis, isolation of the limbs, and polyrhythmic movement). Notable people included:

African-American sacred and liturgical dance

Dance was and is an integral part of West African communal religious expression. This tradition, to the extent permitted by slave holders, continued in the antebellum worship of slaves and other African Americans.[19] One example was the ring shout in the early church. Dancing, especially as a group, became less frequent when African Americans joined more liturgical denominations such as Methodist and Catholic but was more likely maintained in Holiness, Baptist and Pentecostal churches.[20] Individuals often rose to dance when moved to do so. Since the 1970s, liturgical dance has become more accepted as and element of worship even among Methodist and other liturgical churches. The black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s as well as efforts by groups such as The Sacred Dance Guild fostered this dance form,[21] which draws on modern dance and jazz dance. Since the late 1980s gospel mime, in which texts and lyrics are acted out, has found some acceptance in black churches.[19]

Genres by period

Pre-19th century

19th century

Dance genres:

1920s through 1940s

Main article: Swing era

Dance genres and moves:



Music genres:

Dances and moves:


Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

1980s and 1990s

Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

2000s and 2010s

Music genres:

Dance genres and moves:

See also


  1. ^ "Black History and Dance in America, a story".
  2. ^ a b c d Julie Malnig, Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader, University of Illinois Press, 2009. Illustrated edition. ISBN 9780252075650.
  3. ^ Thompson, Katrina Dyonne (2014). Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. University of Illinois Press.
  4. ^ a b Baldwin, Brooke (1981). "The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality". Journal of Social History. Oxford University Press. 15 (2): 208. doi:10.1353/jsh/15.2.205. ISSN 0022-4529. JSTOR 3787107.
  5. ^ "Cakewalk King", Ebony, February 1953. Vol. 8, p. 100.
  6. ^ Baldwin, p. 211.
  7. ^ Gahndi, Lakshmi (December 23, 2013). "The Extraordinary Story Of Why A 'Cakewalk' Wasn't Always Easy". NPR. Retrieved March 22, 2023.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ Weems, Mickey (2008), "Popular Dance", The Fierce Tribe, Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit, University Press of Colorado, pp. 163–183, doi:10.2307/j.ctt4cgq6k.17, ISBN 978-0-87421-691-2, JSTOR j.ctt4cgq6k.17, retrieved 2023-03-31
  9. ^ Friedland, LeeEllen. "Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance", in Brenda Farnell (ed.), Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136–57.
  10. ^ a b Ross, Frank Russell. Soul Dancing! The Essential African American Cultural Dance Book. Reston: National Dance Association, 2010.
  11. ^ "Katherine Dunham". Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities. Archived from the original on 29 May 2020. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  12. ^ Aschenbenner, Joyce (2002). Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. University of Illinois Press.
  13. ^ Mennenga, Lacinda (2008). "Pearl Primus (1919–1994)". BlackPast. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  14. ^ "'Dancing the Night Away : Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance'. By Jennifer Dunning (Addison-Wesley) : 'The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company'. By Sasha Anawalt (Scribner's) [book reviews]". The Los Angeles Times. 17 November 1996. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  15. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (10 December 1989). "Alvin Ailey: Believer in the Power of Dance". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Crabb, Michael (30 January 2019). "For Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the themes that inspired its founder are as relevant as ever". Toronto Star.
  17. ^ "Eleo Pomare: Biography". The HistoryMakers. Includes link to extensive notes summarising the videoed interview. Retrieved 2 September 2022. Eleo Pomare was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 18, 2007.((cite web)): CS1 maint: others (link) Interview notes
  18. ^ "Johnson, Carole (1940–)". Trove.
  19. ^ a b "The African American Lectionary". The African American Lectionary. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  20. ^ Reed, Teresa L. (2012). "Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music". Black Music Research Journal. 32 (1): 5–25. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.32.1.0005. ISSN 0276-3605. JSTOR 10.5406/blacmusiresej.32.1.0005. S2CID 191571413.
  21. ^ "Sacred Dance Guild | Celebrating Dance as a Sacred Art since 1958". Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  22. ^ a b Approved by National Dance Association.
  23. ^ "Tennessee Voices, Episode 208: Eddie Bailey, Memphis-born documentary filmmaker". The Tennessean.
  24. ^ "Where They At: New Orleans Hip-Hop and Bounce in Words and Pictures. Aubrey Edwards and Alison Fensterstock. New Orleans 2010". 22 February 2010. Archived from the original on 12 June 2019. Retrieved 14 November 2022.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  25. ^ Matt, Miller (2008). "Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the US South, 1997–2007". Southern Spaces. 2008. doi:10.18737/M78P5T. Archived from the original on July 5, 2017. Retrieved June 30, 2017.
  26. ^ Flynn, Meagan (December 6, 2018), "Is Fortnite stealing black dance culture? The creator of the ‘Milly Rock’ argues yes in a new lawsuit", The Washington Post.
  27. ^ "Hip Hop Dances and the Songs That Popularized Them". BET.

Further reading