The Emergence of African American Dance

Slavery in the United States-slaves was detrimental to the newly arrived Africans for countless reasons. One such reason was the prohibition the traditional expression of African roots and heritage. Thus, a variety of alternative methods of expression gradually emerged as the need arose. The hybrid versions of expression that gradually developed include: the blues, spirituals, gospel, shuffles, and hoe-downs. The new methods of expression were not superior to the traditional methods, but innovations in movement styles were prominent due to the repressed situation of slaves. Throughout the changes in movement styles, religiously affiliated dance tended to retain more traditional African qualities, whereas social dances tended to deviate more from African tradition.

The influences that did affect chift in styles included European dances as well as American ones. Folk dances such as reels, quadrilles, and clogs eventually became the forerunners to tap dance, which emerged in the mid 1800's. Other clear developments in African American movement styles came before tap, but it is the first major development that whites took note of, and thus is the first one to have been recorded at any length.

Formal Black Dance Takes the Stage

In 1921 "Shuffle Along" opened on Broadway, leading the way for the ligitimacy of African American shows. Among the most famous stage dancers of that time included Earl Tucker, Avon Long, and Alice Whitman. As African American dance on stage became increasingly popular, it was influenced more and more by white audiences because they were commonly the main source of funding.

The term "jazz dance" emerged in the 1920's, around the same time as the jazz age itself; the term refers to both vernacular dance and stage dance of the "jazz" genre. The separations between vernacular and stage dance increased as economic influences took over, forcing pop culture trends and high art trends to go theri separate ways. This separation was the very beginning of the codification of distinctly African American dance styles, and would eventually lead to professional black dance companies.


The Rise of Black Performance Dance

Ironically, many of the first black dance shows in the US were performed by white people wearig black face make up. These minstrel shows consisted of the routines, jokes, dances, skits, and accents of African Americans. From 1854- 1900, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment. Althoguh African Americans were not allowed on stage at that point in time, many black performers were in circuses, carnivals, and medicine shows even. Vaudville became popular around 1900, and both black and white companies toured with routines including slapstick, jokes, tap, and various dances from plantation days, such as the cakewalk.

The turn of the century brought about a social dancing craze. Both blacks and whites were thrilled with all sorts of social dances, many of which had roots in African dance styles, including the turkey trot, grizzley bear, monkey, chicken scratch, bullfrog hop, kangaroo dip, bunny hug, shim sham shimmy, black bottom, Charleston and Lindy hop.

Shortly after the rise of this new craze came the popularity of stage performers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bert Williams, the Nicholas brothers, the Berry brothers, and Buck and Bubbles. During this period of time, the 1920's and 30's, Harlem was the world hot spot for night club performances, and the Cotton Club was the hottest venue of all.