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African-American dance has developed within Black American communities in everyday spaces, rather than in 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, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Hollywood and Broadway have also provided opportunities for African-American artists to share their work and for the public to support them.
Africans brought their dances to North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean as slave labor started in the 1500s.
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.: 19 Given their cultural differences, particularly with regards to music and dance, they most likely learned to dance together by creating brand-new dances drawing 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.: 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.: 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.: 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. The cakewalk, for example, developed on plantations as a subtle mockery of the formal, mannered dancing practiced by slaveholding whites. The slaves would dress in handed-down finery and comically exaggerate the poised movements of minuets and waltzes for their own amusement. 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".
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.
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).
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.
"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 - UNESCO).
Some of the popular African-American dances of today are the Detroit Ballroom and Social - Chicago Steppin & Walking, D.C. Baltimore, Cleveland 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.
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.
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.
See also: Modern dance in the United States
African-American modern dance drew on modern dance and African-American folk and social dance. Katherine Dunham founded Ballet Nègre in 1930 and later the Katherine Dunhan Dance Company, based in Chicago, Illinois. She also opened a school – the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre – in New York City (1945). Pearl Primus drew on African and Caribbean dances to create strong dramatic works characterized by large leaps in the air, often basing 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 City in 1958. Ailey drew on his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel.
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. 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. 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, 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.
Main article: Swing era
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