History of African American Cultural Dance
History of African American Cultural Dance History of African American Cultural Dance

African-American cultural 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 supply 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, amongst these are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

The Greater Chesapeake area embracing Virginia, Maryland, and much of North Carolina was the earliest and perhaps most influential location of the black-while cultural interchange that produced "African American" dance. Captive Africans from numerous societies in several African regions began pouring into the area as slaves from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. Given their cultural heterogeneity, including music and dance, they mostly likely learned to dance together by drawing on the "grammar of culture" shared across much of Western and Central Africa. 

Something like a regional Chesapeake tradition, a thing entirely novel in European eyes, arose perhaps not long before the eighteenth century had become the nineteenth. Within one or two generations of establishing these creolized African forms, or perhaps simultaneously, elements of European dances were added. "Competitive individuality and [probably] improvisation" were also Choreographic Elements of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century West African Dance" that were continued in this region.

Based on the limited pictorial record, the typical African practice of bending emphatically at the waist and hips gave way to a more upright, European like style. This may have reflected the African practice of carrying heavy loads on the head, which requires a strong, balancing spine. Black dancing continued strong preferences of other African characteristics such as angularity and asymmetry of body positions, multiple body rhythms or polyrhythms, and a low center of gravity.

Jig, Clog, and Break Down Dancing have been attributed to African Americans, although this is disputed. A visitor to the southern United States wrote that "Hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels Put life and mettle into their heels...No restraint of the etiquettish ball-room...What luxury of motion... This is dancing. It knocks the spangles out of the ball-room."

New York City 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), the home rent party and other black spaces as the birthplaces of new dances. Theatres and the shift from vaudeville to local 'shows' written and choreographed by African American artists. Theatres as public forums for popularizing African American cultural dances.

In a dance culture there is often no distinction between 'dance' spaces and 'non-dance 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 cakewalk. 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.

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).

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.

African American Cultural Dance was coined by National Dance Association author and researcher Frank R. Ross. Mr. Ross correctly replaced the old stereotyped vernacular (native or natural) definition of African-American Dance with the correct definition of African-American Dance, which is "cultural." (Sanctioned by The National Dance Association and International Dance Council - UNESCO).

Some of the popular adult African-American Dances of today are the Detroit Ballroom and Social - Chicago Steppin & Walking, D.C. Baltimore, Cleveland Hand Dance, Calypso & The N.A.A.C.P. 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 allow 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.

African American Modern Dance
Modern dance in the United States
African American modern dance drew on modern dance and African American folk and social 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 1958. Ailey drew on his blood memories of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel.

Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.-Richard Bach

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