Origins of Popular Dance
Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at the African American origins of popular dance.
Writing in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, scholar Richard Newman calls dance "probably the greatest African American contribution to world culture." Given the remarkable breadth of African American influence on world culture, this is not a modest declaration. Among dancing styles with origins in black North America—and, in many instances, West Africa—we can count the Charleston, the Twist, the cakewalk, voguing, the Lindy Hop, the Hustle, disco, the limbo, break dancing, and countless other "fad dances" that at some point captured the attention of the United States and the world. Additionally, from these dances originated many popular terms still in use. ("Juke" joint, or "jook" joint, from the Gullah word joog, was originally the name for clandestine sites in the antebellum south where slaves would make music and dance.)
The above, certainly, were not the only sort of dances inspired by African American tradition. The contributions of Asadata Dafora, Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Arthur Mitchell toward the development and redefinition of American concert dance have been momentous and well acknowledged. Nevertheless, traditional concert dance—as opposed to Broadway or vaudeville performances, which were devised specifically to be accessible to ordinary people—has by its establishment character always been more confined. Consequently, few innovations showcased in Mitchell's groundbreaking performance in Agon, the 1957 ballet created by Russian choreographer George Balanchine, ever trickled into homes to the extent that Chubby Checker's leg-twisting moves did.
Though by no means complete, this month's Focus On offers a brief introduction to the African American origins of popular dance.
View photo essay
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about African American contributions to popular dance. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)