Photo Essay - Origins of Popular Dance
Album cover for Let's Limbo! (1963), recorded by John Greenwood & the Islanders. Courtesy of Jan Tonnesen.
Though the limbo is most often associated with beach parties, American wedding celebrations, and other raucous occasions, its history is much less festive. The precise origins of the enduring fad dance remain somewhat in dispute, but all seem to relate back to bondage. Among the theories: the limbo was a simulation of the descent into a slave ship's hull—the further along one got, the more difficult it was to get out; limbo-like movements were forced upon transiting slaves in order to "exercise" them onboard, as healthy slaves would fetch higher prices at auction; its contorted performance reconciles the story of Anansi, a plotting, trickster spider common in West African folklore, with the horrors of slavery; and, lastly, the dance is a variation on a Vodou folk dance from the Dahomey Kingdom (modern-day Benin). Regardless of its beginnings, in the Western Hemisphere, limbo—which is also a West Indian slang term for "limber"—is believed to have been first observed at funerals in Trinidad. While apocryphal accounts date white interest in the dance to the time of the Bahamian plantation system, where watching slaves perform was "a popular diversion for the masters" (Craton and Saunders), tourist visits to 1950s Jamaica are a more likely explanation of its export to the United States. What is certain, however, is that the ritual's historical significance—described by scholar Jan Carew as "a profound symbolic expression of the long struggle of the Afro-Caribbean peoples against slavery, the plantation system, a stultifying colonial rule, and a demonstration of how the African identity established itself in the Caribbean"—lies in stark contrast to its modern status.
Craton, Michael and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Volume 2, From the Ending of Slavery to the Twenty-First Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
Cover art for Walking For Dat Cake (1877), an early cakewalk by composer David Braham. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Emerging on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century, the cakewalk was perhaps the most influential African American-created popular dance in U.S. history. No less important, the routine, which was largely a great exaggeration of the minuets and other staid classical dances performed at planters' cotillions, represented a daring (and risky) defiance of the slaves' masters. Slaveowners either failed to detect the mockery or just didn't care, and actually encouraged the cakewalk enthusiastically; so popular was the dance that slaveowners would often hold competitions between slaves, with winning couples awarded a special cake—thus the term "cakewalk." By the late 1800s it had spread to cities outside the South and was often the final routine in minstrel shows, at the time performed by whites. (An apt summary of the whole crude spectacle is provided by Eric Bennett: "whites imitating blacks imitating whites.") The dance eventually jumped to theater and was most closely associated with the black acting and proto-comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker in their seminal 1903 musical In Dahomey. The cakewalk continued to appear in various productions, eventually converging with ragtime, the fast-paced, piano-heavy music genre also popularized in minstrelsy and embraced by millions of middle-class American whites. This development, which would repeat itself countless times in the future, is difficult to understate; joined together with the cakewalk, ragtime "gave birth to the American music industry" and "ushered in the Jazz Age" (Bennett).
Bennett, Eric. "Cakewalk, The." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 2d ed. Edited by Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
Members of Washington, D.C.'s Palace Club basketball team join instructor Vivian Marinelli in dancing the Charleston (c. 1925). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Before the Charleston was the Charleston—flappers, Model Ts, and all—it was the Juba, or Giouba. The dance, a vigorous jig-like motion that involved whirling around a circle on one foot, was brought to South Carolina from the west-Central African Kingdom of Kongo in the mid-18th century. Though many slaves arriving in South Carolina were transported to New Orleans (the site of Congo Square, a well-known space for slaves to dance), the name "Charleston" was eventually bestowed by whites in acknowledgment of the dance's perceived origins. By the end of slavery the dance continued to evolve apace, and postwar economic and demographic transition "accelerated cross-fertilization" among freedmen, helping "older plantation dances . . . [to] combine with new, urbanized forms" (Hazzard-Donald). By the late 1800s the Charleston, now a uniquely African American art form, had become an integral part of the minstrel show. In 1923, it jumped the race line, leaping into popular American culture on the heels of the enormously successful Broadway show Runnin' Wild, a creation of famous stride pianist James P. Johnson. The revue's showcase number was "Charleston," "perhaps the defining song of America in the 1920s;" after its Broadway run, the show toured for the next five years (Kernfeld). In New York City, enthused whites began regularly visiting black nightclubs such as the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater. Interest in the Charleston, aided by the steady immigration of African Americans to the dense cities of the industrial north, also brought national attention to other black-created dances—many themselves derivations of the Charleston—such as the Black Bottom, Lindy Hop, and Jitterbug.
Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. "United States of America - African-American Social Dance." In International Encyclopedia of Dance. Edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kernfeld, Barry. "Johnson, James P." American National Biography Online. 2010.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (c. late 1920s). Courtesy of Photofest.
Unlike all of the African American dance innovations before it, tap dance was as much influenced by European tradition as it was black custom. Beginning in the 17th century the Irish jig and the English clog dance—social dances of the Scotch-Irish indentured servant class—slowly melded with the step and ring dances indigenous to African slaves to forge a uniquely American form. While some of the arrangements of tap's British Isles predecessor were preserved—notably, employment of soft- and hard-shoe routines—flourishes common in West African secular dance such as accent differentiation, syncopation, and "polyrhythmic, multimetric percussive sensibility," lent the style its most recognizable traits. The first tap performances to occur outside of slave plantations began in the 1820s with the rise of the minstrel show. The country's most popular form of entertainment for much of the latter part of the 19th century, minstrel shows—and thus, tap—were at first exclusively performed by whites in blackface. With the exception of Master Juba (William Henry Lane), who was actually given top billing in a show in New York City, blacks were virtually shut out from performing the very form they created until the end of the Civil War (Sommer). Following the war, mixed and all-black companies began to develop, evolving and popularizing the dance even further, and with the rise of vaudeville and Broadway tap broke squarely into the mainstream. Tap was so popular by the 1930s that no less than Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, still considered one the most popular dancers of the 20th century, appeared with Shirley Temple in the 1935 movie The Little Colonel; until its decline two decades later, Hollywood—in particular white actors (and gifted dancers) Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—couldn't seem to get enough of the dance.
Sommer, Sally R. "Tap Dance." In International Encyclopedia of Dance. Edited by Selma Jean Cohen. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker in 1930 short film Crazy House.
Decades before Elvis Presley's nation-shocking, pelvis-contorting appearance on the Milton Berle Show, Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker was scandalizing audiences at Connie's Inn and the Savoy in Harlem. An aggressive, gyrating pulsation the likes of which the audience had never before seen, the Snake Hips was startlingly suggestive even in the freewheeling days of the Roaring Twenties. Adding to the dance's intrigue was Tucker himself, a hard-drinking malcontent who was known for carrying a razorblade. Though Tucker and his dance had a part in the 1930 short Crazy House, he was best known for his work with Duke Ellington, who would often have Tucker onstage to accompany his music. An inveterate playboy, Tucker died in 1937 from syphilis, at only 32 years old. Nevertheless, his dance survived to "[form] the basis for all later African American dances requiring sharp-popping accents," most notably breakdancing (Hazzard-Gordon). While Presley's adaptation of Tucker's dance (other followers included Al Minns and Clifton Webb) was more subdued, his 1956 appearance on Milton Berle still might have sparked the first television-inspired outcry over public decency.
Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1990.
Georgine Darcy and Stephen Preston dance in 1962 film Don't Knock the Twist. Courtesy of Photofest.
Much like the snake hips and the Charleston before it, the Twist was simultaneously greeted with wonderment and revulsion. A February 1962 issue of Ebony featured two opposing full-page op-eds on the dance, one authored by Twist popularizer Chubby Checker and the other by critic and Broadway dancer Geoffrey Holder, who denounced the dance as "nothing more than the oldest hootchy kootchy in the books." Whatever one's judgment of the Twist, its influence on American social dance—as opposed to performance-orientated forms such as tap—was indisputable. Before the Twist, social dancing almost always required partnering; with its solitary and unregimented movements, however, the Twist redefined dance as an individual affair, a seemingly perfect fit with the "rebellious" rock and roll culture spreading across the country. (In fact, though Checker's 1960 appearance on American Bandstand made the dance famous, its namesake song was actually written by rhythm and blues singer and rock and roll pioneer Hank Ballard in 1959.) Like American social dances before it, Checker's dance drew heavily from the African American tradition of "borrowed/incorporated movement qualities and structures . . . [including] extensive use of shoulders, head, hips, and knees, often moving independently or at different directions at the same time" (Dils and Albright). A bona fide "craze," the dance helped Checker become the only artist in recording history to have a single reach number one in two separate years (1960 and 1961).
Dils, Ann, and Ann Cooper Albright. Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Van McCoy dances alongside actress and model Tamara Dobson (1975). Courtesy of Photofest.
With much of the period devoted to psychedelic rock, hard rock, and folk, the 1960s and early 1970s saw the mainstream popularity of dance-oriented music decline significantly. Soul music (and its offspring, funk) remained popular with white audiences—Superfly, Curtis Mayfield's 1972 masterpiece, hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart—but it never generated an explicit association with dancing like the Twist, cakewalk, or ragtime had years before. With the rise of the discotheque in the mid-1970s, coupled with a more orchestral, bass-driven soul sound, this would begin to change, at least in urban areas. Notable innovators of the evolving sound included Barry White and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes; though not truly soul, African import Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa, a bestselling single in 1972, also featured a prominent bass line. 1975 was a defining year for the new genre, when the Hustle, aided by Van McCoy's song of the same name, became the most popular dance in the United States. An airy, string-laden romp, "The Hustle" was seemingly meant to be danced to. Later that year, Donna Summer solidified the reign of the new dance-music hybrid emerging from discotheques across the country with her sensuous, bass-slapping single "Love to Love You Baby." At this point discos were largely frequented by gay men, but the chart-smashing success of the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever two years later proved that disco had quickly gone mainstream and white. While disco fell out of favor by the end of the decade, its legacy was immense: The dominant, repetitive bass line—the genre's defining trait—remains a hallmark of electronic music and hip-hop; also, the 12-inch single was invented by disco DJs, who used them to more easily fade in and out between songs (Brackett).
Brackett, David. "Disco." Grove Music Online. 2011.
Willi Ninja, mid-1990s. Courtesy of Jayson Keeling.
In 1990 the video for Madonna's "Vogue" debuted on MTV, introducing much of the world to a little-known dance form with roots in early 20th-century Harlem. The song took its name from voguing, an exaggerated imitation of the poses spotted in fashion glossies (in particular its namesake) popular among various Harlem "houses," underground organizations of mostly black and Latino gay men that were equal parts social club, refuge, and performance troupe. Though Madonna's chart-topping song may have acquainted a new generation with the Harlem house, it wouldn't be the first time Harlem gay culture captivated the public. In fact, one of the most sought-after performances in 1920s and 1930s New York was the Hamilton Lodge ball, a burlesque that, according to an account at the time, assembled "effeminate men, sissies, 'wolves,' 'ferries' [sic], 'faggots,' the third sex, 'ladies of the night,' and male prostitutes . . . for a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking and advertisement" (Hill). So prominent was the ball, and ball culture, that Langston Hughes devoted a chapter to it in his autobiography. The drag queens performing at Hamilton Lodge—which at its peak drew thousands of jostling spectators, whites and heterosexuals frequently among them—vied in intense competition for various prizes awarded to the most fashionably dressed, most feminine looking, most masculine looking, and a hodgepodge of additional superlatives. Ball culture retreated back underground after the Depression and wouldn't again emerge in the mainstream until filmmaker Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. By the time Livingston shined a light back on gay Harlem, voguing had become a mainstay of house competition. A critical and commercial success, Paris brought several ball fixtures to modest attention, including house "mother" and highly accomplished choreographer Willi Ninja, called at his death "a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people" by Madonna (Silverman).
Hill, Abram. "Hamilton Lodge Ball an Unusual Spectacle," New York Age, March 1926.
Silverman, Stephen M. "Madonna's 'Vogue' Inspiration Dies." People, September 2006.
Break dancer in New York City (2008). Courtesy of Andrew Tng.
Though intimately associated with the rise of hip-hop, break dancing—or "b-boying," to purists—actually took root in the disco era. In the period of isolated percussion between record changes (breaks), dancers began to perform highly stylized maneuvers "that emphasized the pause in rhythmic continuity" (Bennett). While the conventional role of the disco DJ was to minimize any gap between songs, before long DJs in New York City began lengthening the break in order to provide a backdrop for the new dance form. A distinctly modern synthesis, the dance incorporated elements of indigenous black dances such as the cakewalk, the Charleston, and the snake hips, along with influences from the Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance, and kung fu caricatures. Though interest in disco dropped precipitously by the end of the 1970s, break dancing—which was birthed in the South Bronx—was expertly positioned to take its place. Street gangs began staging dance-offs in place of conventional battles, and as hip hop began to define itself, break dancing become more and more an integral part of the new music form. (Afrika Bambaataa, regarded as one of the founders of the genre, considered breaking one of the "four elements" of hip hop, in addition to deejaying, emceeing, and graffiti.) Within a few years of its inception, breakdancing had come to include outrageously acrobatic moves—well-illustrated by names such as "the helicopter"—and similarly distinctive clothing fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the burgeoning style was quickly overcome by commercialization; the 1983 movie Flashdance, propelled by an extended break dancing sequence, grossed almost $100 million. As dilution continued apace, the dance form inevitably lost the attention of the mainstream, eventually returning back to a smaller group of devotees.
Bennett, Eric. "Break Dancing." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 2d ed. Edited by Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.