African Influence on American Dance

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 13:13   /   Views: 191
African Influence on American Dance

African dance has contributed many characteristics to dance in America. We see evidence of this in many aspects of dance today. Being such a diverse nation, America has the blessing of combining original dances from different cultures to create an amazing dance repertoire. American dance as we know would be completely different, if it weren’t for the Africans.

African dance began with the different rhythms of the tribes. Its roots in America began with the slave trade. The American slave trade began in 1619, (However, Africans were imported as slaves to the West Indies staring almost a century before that) with the arrival of Dutch trading ships carrying a cargo of Africans to Virginia. They were first brought over by boat to places such as Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti. Eventually different countries end up taking over those nations and slaves fall under their rule. In Brazil, the Portuguese take over, in Cuba the Spanish take over, and in Haiti, the French take over. The retaining of African culture by those in slavery was stronger in the other nations than in America, as the Spanish and French rulers adhered to the more lenient view of dancing taken by the Catholic Church. In America, the Protestant church strongly disapproved of dance. Therefore, dances that occurred in the West Indies, Brazil, Haiti and Cuba retained more of the African dance structure, than those in America did. Those dances can be classified as recreational or sacred. An example of a recreational dance is the Juba, which was a competitive dance where opponents would outdo each other in feats of skill, sometimes while balancing something on their head.

Sacred dances were based on the worship of religious gods. The goal of the dance was for the dancer to become "possessed" by the god so that it would speak through the dancer. Two examples are voodoo and Shango dances. Traces of the African religious practice of possession, or disengaging from reality through the combined effects of music and dance, can be detected in the appeal of some forms of jazz dance.

In America, the dance movement of Africa was restrained mainly by two factors: the attitude of the church towards dancing as being immoral and the restricted use of the primary African instrument (the drum). Drumming was banned in 1739 following a slave insurrection. White plantation owners responded by banning all drums and that forced slaves to search for other percussion options. They substituted with banjos, clapping hands, stomping feet, and the fiddle.

Dances that occurred on the Plantations were for recreation and religious reasons also. Because of the European influence in America, the movement gave a distinct American appearance, rather than a strictly African one. Many dances imitated animals. There were also circle dances and dances for celebrations. Another category that emerged was competitive dances. The most well known one was the cakewalk. The slaves had witnessed their owners’ dancing festivities and imitated their stiff upper bodies while contrasting it with loose leg movements. The owners enjoyed watching this and gave a cake to the best dancer.

The observation of African dancing by the whites led to them stereotyping the dancing slave. They began to blacken their faces and imitate them using such indigenous movements as the ‘shuffle’. The imitation dances by whites started an era of American entertainment based on the stereotype on the dancing ‘Negro’.

Before the Civil War, professional dancers were mostly white, with the exception of William Henry Lane. He was also known as "Master Juba" and was a freeborn slave thought to be the best dancer in the World. He had lived in Manhattan where the Irish immigrants also lived. His dancing was a combination of Irish jig dancing and African rhythm, just like the slaves who were forced to compete with the Irish migrant workers aboard the ships. Both his movements and the Nigerian slaves are said to be the start of tap dance.

Minstrelsy was also a popular form of entertainment in America from 1845 –1900. The Minstrel show was a group of male performers that portrayed the Negro as either slow and shuffling or sharply dressed and quick moving. The minstrel show proved prominent in spreading vernacular dances like the cakewalk and jig dancing on a wide scale.

The next major change after minstrelsy came with the birth of ragtime music and ballroom dancing after 1910. A bunch of animal dances were seen in white ballrooms. Examples were the Turkey Trot, and Chicken Scratch. The invasion of ballrooms with native inspired dances set the stage for the same process to occur on Broadway.

Zeigfield borrowed some of these dances for his Follies. Social dance became introduced on the theatrical stage. The big aspect being borrowed wasn’t the actual dances, but their swinging qualities. In 1921, Shuffle Along featured a jazz inspired dance called the Charleston. It left the audience with a lot of energy and a new respect towards black dancing. Tap was now also brought to white audiences and the musical comedies took on a new, more rhythmic life.

In the late 1920s, jazz inspired songs replaced the popular white standards and America accepted Jazz music as its own. Louis Armstrong was a big part of the creation of swing music. It was a style of jazz music that emphasized African influenced rhythm and was played by big bands. Faster and sharper footwork came about and the Lindy was the new dance craze. It incorporated the shuffle and glide and buck and wing movements from early African dances. The Lindy was significant for starting jazz dance styles used in later musicals. It also gave the opportunity for white choreographers to experience African swing.

Jazz music and dancing slowed down in popularity after WWII. Technology and music were evolving. The beat became more complex and musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizie Gillespie explored more with improv. The overall result was, jazz music became something more to listen to rather than to dance socially. The advent of Television in the 1950s also kept people at home instead of on the dance floors.

African American dance became more of an artistic expression than a social means. Professional companies and dancers restored early African rhythms and the beauty and emotion of their traditional songs, including Catherine Dunham’s "Shango", Alvin Ailey’s "Revelations" and Bill T. Jones’ "Uncle Tom’s Cabin".

In the past 50 years, African American dance has been rich in innovations as well as connections with the past. The definition of professional dance has broadened beyond ballet, modern, and jazz. Popular and social dances, including the urban black dance forms of break dancing and hip-hop have been recognized for their artistry and expressiveness. Dance created and performed by African Americans has become a permanent part of American dance. Every dancer and almost every person in America, in one way or another has danced steps that resemble early African polyrhythmic movements. Personally, I think the dance World in America could no have flourished as well as it did without it’s African influences.

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