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African-American Dance History


    • In Africa, dance played a very important role in everyday life. Africans used dance to celebrate special occasions such as birth, marriage and other rites of passage. They also use it to emulate everyday events such as planting and harvesting crops. When slave traders brought Africans to the Americas, the slaves danced in order to stay close to their roots. Slave owners banned the dancing. Because the definition of dancing was to lift your feet, the slaves adapted and began using shuffling movements, waving their arms and moving their torsos.

    Minstrel Shows

    • The plantation dances soon began to show up on stage through minstrel shows. For the first time, African-American dance was introduced to white audiences in large numbers. Black and white performers made up the minstrel shows. They were often making fun of the black population, depicting them as lazy and ignorant. The white performers wore blackface when playing the role of an African-American. Although they were making fun of themselves, the black performers were drawing from their culture and displaying their original dance styles. Vaudeville eventually replaced minstrel shows, and as African-Americans gained freedom and equal rights, the minstrel shows disappeared completely.

    Harlem Renaissance

    • Success in the theater continued and played an important role in legitimizing black dance and its performers. The success raised the bar for black and white performers alike. For the first time, the white population began to imitate the dances they saw. "The Creole Show" introduced a widespread white audience to the dance called the cakewalk.

      Along with the theater revival, African-American dance moved into the clubs, and Harlem was the center of the action. In the 1920s and '30s, art, music, literature, and dance were enjoying a rebirth in the African American culture. Famous clubs like the Cotton Club were the center of the dance movement where the African-American community experimented with dance styles such as swing, Lindy Hop and the Charleston.

    Modern Dance

    • In the 1940s and '50s, African-Americans began to participate in ballet and modern dance. Dancers and anthropologists Katherine Duncan and Pearl Primus studied dance in Africa and the Caribbean and brought the techniques they learned back to America and to the modern dance classroom. These techniques influenced many modern dance styles. Also playing a contributing role to the development of modern dance were the Lester Horton Dance Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. White and black choreographers used the African-inspired movements and cast African-American dancers in their performances.

    Urban Dance

    • A different dance movement became popular outside the theater and dance classes. Break dancing emerged from the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s, and hit the big screen in the 1980s with "Breakin'" and "Breakin' 2." Although breaking and hip-hop dancing originated on the streets, classes in both dance styles are offered in dance studios across the world today. They have also taken to the stage with dance ensembles specializing in hip-hop and break dancing.

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