Black Dance in America

The Old Seed by Camille Yarbrough

This is the first of a series of four articles which examine African dance, It’s forms and functions in Africa, how and why African dance was Changed in America, and, ultimately, how America was changed by African dance.

People from every level of African society were brought here during the slave trade, each of them bringing their knowledge of African culture and their skill in one or more of the arts in Africa some of them had been master dancers who prepared the numerous dancing groups for the many festivals, and who decided which steps would be danced and what rhythms played.  Other belonged to secret performing societies.  But everyone did some dancing.  They danced, “like day backs didn’t I have no bone.”

The Chokew  people of Angola have a saying:

Dance all the drums in your body
Absorb one tasty drum bit after


until all are digested within a strongly

moving single frame.”1

And that’s how they danced, those first ones here, those Africans, our “great” great grand mothers and father.  They were a people of tradition, those Africans brought here as slaves.  From childhood they had been taught that they lived in an interdependent universe which had an order.  They had pride in knowing that they were part of that order, and they carried within themselves a radiating spiritual energy with which, over the centuries, their ancestors had woven a multilayered and delicately balanced cultural support system of festivals, ceremonies, rituals and rites, both religious and secular.

These forms contained tales, legends, myths, epic narratives, riddles, proverbs, invocations, recitations, ballads, chants, tongue twisters, songs of satire, ridicule and abuse, praise songs, love songs, songs of social comment, songs of self-affirmation, political songs, prayers, morality songs, funeral songs (dirges) and lullabies—to list only a portion of the verbal art forms.  Dances and some form of rhythmic movement accompanied each of these disciplines along with the appropriate music, masks and regalia.

Dances took many forms individuals danced surrounded by the community which gave them support and criticism.  There were group dances, team dances, dances of two, three and four dancers.  They danced in rings, semicircles, serpentine lines and in columns.  There were dance dramas which dealt with social relations, funereal celebrations and public worship.  There were mime and acrobatic presentations.

All of these forms had a common purpose. They were spiritual and serious, playful and entertaining.  Not only were they outlets for the creative genius of the people, but they served to bring the members of the community together, strengthened social, emotional, spiritual and political ties that bound them and gave them direction for the future.  Their culture was a survival tool for those Africans held in slavery and if they hadn’t used it as they did, it is debatable whether we, their descendents, would be here today.  They used their arts not only to make space between themselves and the horrors of slavery, but also to energize themselves.  The sounds and movements healed and fed their life force.  How do our arts help us now?  

They stood in shackles on auction blocks

remembered the ways of home

and often, for all to hear

in quick-learned, picked-up,

Africanized English words,

sang songs of satire, ridicule and

abuse in signifyin rhyme

and when despair

hung from their song

like moss hangin from a weeping

willow trees


their song, bent and slowed,

was almost gone

those proud ones/those first ones


bowed down low and

danced despair to death

in slow “grine time”.

They had brought it all with them and they remembered.  Back home there had always been some occasion when the community came together to dance.  Not everyone was a master dancer or belonged to one of the many performing societies, but  back home everyone participated in the festivals and when a child was born, and when someone married, when someone died, when a ceremony or a rite needed to be performed, the community came together and danced.

Even when they worked and walked and played, they moved in rhythm.  The belief was that dancing made the body stronger and that it must be done with emotion, strength, drive, speed, skill and vitality, the whole body must be used.  They remembered how back home old people had danced and bragged about how they “still had the power.”  Children had learned rhythm first while being carried on their mother’s backs as their mothers danced or worked.  Later, they were shown how to observe and listen to the music and imitate the movements of their elders.  How proud they had been when their four and five year old babies learned the basic elements of their festival dances and danced complicated rhythm patterns.  Yes, they remembered.  Shortly after their arrival in America some of our ancestors who had been craftspeople back home made drum and stringed instruments in the old way.  Those who had been master drummers, members of drumming ensembles or stringed instrumentalists eagerly and gratefully played these newly made instruments.  It was usually on Sundays when they sometimes had free time and space to relax, that this new community made up of people from many African nations gathered together and danced.  Those who had no drums beat their bodies in rhythmic sound patterns and/or danced to the drums that beat inside of them.  Transported in this way, perhaps for fleeting moments they forgot where they were and their bodies would ride the rhythms and they would use their bodies and the drum that beats inside.  Transported by it, their bodies would ride the rhythms and they would be back home again dancing in the serpentine lines, circles, semicircles and columns, moving close together, feeling their neighbor’s energy, the heat from the sun and the power from the earth beneath their feet.  They remembered their own power and feeling of completeness and how the life force moved in them, around them and how it told them that they were free.

They remembered and they danced every part of their bodies, the different parts moving at the same time, but to different rhythms.  Back home they would listen carefully to the master drummer, pick up on the main beat, then do variations on that rhythm, moving their feet in such a way as to divide the rhythm into different meters by developing various accents within that rhythm pattern.  Then they would pick up on the other rhythms with different parts of their bodies until their whole body became rhythmitized – matching the polyrhythmic, multimeter character of the music.  Their heads moved to the rhythm of the smallest drum while their shoulders were guided by the gourd rattle, the pelvic girdle by still another drum, and their feet moved to the master drum.  Throughout the dance they would change and rechange these combinations as the master drummer introduced new rhythmic patterns, accents and played the rhythmic bridges that lead the dancer from one set of movements to another.  They laughed when remembering how they had to catch all the new patterns with the drummer or listen to his criticism and ridicule played on the drum.

Because most African languages are tonal and because most traditional African dance movements are symbolic and could be said to “speak,” the drummers were linguists in addition to being musicians.  Tonally/rhythmically they played proverbs, insults, praises and directions, and told stories which the dancers interpreted with movement.  Just as the Griot and other historians recited the histories of their respective cultural groups, the master dancers had danced philosophic statements and their history in symbolic movements.  They had been judged on style and how they “cut” all the changes with the drummer while looking good.  They had to dance the proper figures appropriate for each change in rhythm, improvise within that framework, dance the whole body—on the beat and off—while at the same time moving through a series pf symbolic lines, expressions, attitudes and quick changing tableaus, then finishing with a heavy “get down” movement and the proper salute.

Back at the slave castles, before they were put on the ships, they had been taken out of the crowded slave pens and allowed to dance for their “health.”  Some Europeans who had seen them and who had studied African music remarked.

“African rhythm is so   

complicated that it is

exceedingly difficult for a

European to analyse….Broadly

speaking the difference

between African and European

rhythms is that whereas any

piece of European music has at

any one moment one rhythm in

common, a piece of African

music has always two or three,

sometimes as many as four.

From this point of view

European music is childishly


“…this twisting, turning,

contortions  and springing

movements, executed in

perfect time, are wonderful to

behold….For these set of

dances…the physical strength

required is tremendous.  The

body movements are extremely

difficult and would probably kill

a European.”3

Late at night against the rules of the plantations, our great grandparents would gather in their “praise houses,” their hidden “hush harbors,” their cabins or anyplace they could, and share, some secretly in their African languages, and others in their make-do, get-over English, their various memories, music, songs and dances.  They believed that through their art, which was a way of communicating with their gods, they could change things, so they would sneak away at night and sing and dance in prayer till morning, symbolically changing night to day and slavery to freedom.

The style of musical behavior of Black revivalists was complained about by Christian evangelist John Watson in 1819.  He wrote:…“With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step…if  some in the meantime sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh…the evil is only occasionally condemned and the example has already visibly affected the religious manners of some whites.”4

Sometimes they would dance all night in a cabin, and still hit the fields in the morning.  Dancing was praying

“…the true ‘shout’ takes place

on Sundays or on ‘praise’ nights

through the week, and either on

the praise house or in some

cabin in which a regular

religious meeting has been

held. Very likely more than half

the population of the plantation

is gathered together….But the

benches are pushed back to the

wall when the formal meeting is

over, and old and young men

and women…boys…young

girls barefooted all stand up in

the middle of the floor, and

when the ‘spirichil’ is struck,

begin first walking and by and

by shuttling round, one after the

other, in a ring.  The foot is

hardly taken from the floor, and

the progression is mainly due to

a jerking, hitching motion,

which agitates the entire

shouter, and soon brings out

streams of perspiration .

Sometimes they dance silently,

sometimes as they shuttle they

sing the chorus of the spiritual,

and sometimes the song itself is

also sung by the dancers….

Song and dance alike are

extremely energetic and often,

when the shout lasts into the

middle of the night, the

monotonous thud, thud, thud of

the feet prevents sleep within

half a mile of the praise-


During slavery the Africans were never without leadership in Dahomey  from 1650 to 1715 puppet kings backed by the slave trading powers of Europe replaced many of the traditionally appointed kings in that area, and sold into slavery many who were skilled in religious ritual.  In his book The New World News Melville J. Herskovits gives a list of such kings.  While in Dahomey he was told.

“…with each priest or prince

sold into slavery went hundreds

of people, cult followers 6…in

Dahomey the sale of priests was

so common that the knowledge

of how to worship the river

spirits, to which these priests as

heads of the local river cult

usually ministered, has been

quite lost 7…you have nearly all

the people of this family in your

country:  They knew too much

magic.  We sold them because

‘they made too much trouble’.…

This family has strong men.

they are good warriors but bad

enemies.  When they troubled

our king, they were caught and

sold.  You have their big men in

your country…”8

So the spiritual power and knowledge of religious forms and functions were there underpinning the culture.  Dance, which was an avenue for expressing that spiritual power, was one of the major devices our ancestors employed to ease the pain of slavery.  Each day they kept their minds on discovering new ways of staying alive until the next day, until freedom, until they could go home again to that land they remembered and told their children about.  Right in front of the eyes of Europeans who denied that Africans had a culture to help one another through painful situations.

“Git on de table, Fred,”

de bossman say.
Fred he climb on, an’ stan’

waitin’.  The white man
auctioneer was bustin’ round.
He had ter have some writin’
folk make out some papers, an’
wasn’ quite ready fer de sale to
start.  So Fred he jus’ stan’ on de

By-n-by—Plunk…plunkplun-kety plunk!

Dat nigger wid banjo settin’ on
de bench waitin’ to be sold, he
plunk his banjo.  Den he rattle

inter a real chune. Hi-yo!  Fred

‘gin ter shuttle roun’ on his big

feet an’ fine’l he can’t stan’ it no

longer.  He gotta dance.  He slap

his big feet on de banjo table,

an’ we all pat wid de banjo

music White man laug an’

clap dey han’s.  Make him dance

some mo’.  Wouldn’t le de

auctioneer start till Fred dance

de buck-an-wing.  Yo-ho!  It sho-

ly was funny!

De white man what bought

Fred say he done paid hundert

Dollars mo’ fo dat nagger cause

He could dance like dat!”9

Those Africans those first ones here, those proud ones, our “great” great-grandparents knew that the society which held them as slaves was an immoral society.  They knew that in order to live they must make their own rules, and use whatever weapons they had to buy time while they worked in other ways and used their spiritual powers to bring about the change they knew was to come.  So, they danced and made dance work for them—for their freedom.

They remembered the essence of who they were, or as one of their proverbs said:

Wood may remain ten years in water

but it will never become a crocodile.



The Old Seed

  1. Thompson, Robert Farris. African Arts in Motion.  Los Angeles University of California Press.
  2. 1974,  pp.16.
  3. Blassingame, John W., The Slave Community. New York: Oxford Press. 1972, pp. 19.
  4. Ibid, pp. 20.
  5. Raboteau, Albert J., Slave Religion. London: Oxford Press. 1978, pp. 67.
  6. Ibid, pp. 119.
  7. Herskovits, Melville J., The New World Negro. Indiana: Minerva Press. 1966, pp. 88.
  8. Ibid, pp. 119.
  9. Ibid, pp. 87.
  10. Emery, Lynne Fauley, Black Dance. Palo alto, California: National Press Book. 1972, pp. 102.
  11. Erman, Adolph. Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dover Press. 1972, pp. 245.