Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

Fundamentals of African American Dance and Minstrel Performance

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African-American dance is a medley of dance typologies used to convey the experience of African Americans. Through dance African Americans were able to proliferate their culture and show realistic portrayal of themselves in opposition to the constant stereotyping. African American dance created a platform for political and social perspectives to be heard in a public forum previously unknown to the community. Although minstrel performances and black concert dance share little in common, it is altogether possible that black concert dance wouldn’t be possible without the help of the first African-Americans who took part in the minstrel shows.

Minstrel groups were the most popular form of entertainment during the 19th century. This was spurred by the fact that America’s cities were growing at an almost exponential rates, and with this growth came the desired to be entertained. In being so widely viewed the minstrel shows pushed a stigma of the affectionate mammy, unkempt piccaninnies, and the lazy contempt sambo still prevalent to this century. It was also no coincidence that the minstrel shows flourished during an era where slavery was the main public issue, and then the shows fell out of fashion when people began to look more critically into the racial issue.

The first ingredients for a minstrel show began around the middle of the 1700’s. Blackface first debuted in the performance of “Negro Dance, In Character.” The show demonstrated that crowds of people were interested in being entertained by performers of impersonating black people, especially them dancing. This when aided by plays that described stereotypical black characters that were there to be mocked such as in, “The Triumph of Love” lead to the beginning of full blown minstrel troupes that began sometime around the mid 1840’s.

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Minstrels shows, at first, were widely performed by all white casts dressed up in blackface and would act as stereotypical black characters. Over time all black minstrel groups (referred to as blackface minstrels) began to form. However the stereotypes of past performers were so well received by the public that they couldn’t afford to break the cliches. Thus they continued to wear black face during performances as well as performing racially degrading routines. However, a positive take away from the blackface minstrels is that they provided the first opportunity for blacks to enter the theatrical stage.

The styles of dance used in minstrels revolved around percussive and vernacular dances. Percussive dance is a highly rhythmic musical dance where the form relies on precise execution of foot-based dance patterns. In minstrels this could be seen as the type of tap like dancing that first arose in minstrels due to Master Juba’s performances. The vernacular dances used in minstrels came from any type of dance performed while a song is playing, or even in the opening act of the minstrel in the walk-around. Much of the vernacular dances can be pointed back to buck and wing that can be traced back to jig’s that were performed on plantations.

All minstrel shows were cut into three distinct sections a minstrel line/opening, the olio, then the afterpiece. The minstrel line was used to show off the whole assembly the show had on hand. They would organize themselves in a semicircle with the black-faced hosts in the center and after the opening piece the hosts would begin to direct the cast through a series comic jokes and songs based around the stereotypes of black people. The opening would always end in a dance called the Walk Around done by the entire cast.

The Walk-Around was similar to that of a Juba or Ring-Shout where one person out of the semicircle would get up to dance in a buck and wing fashion navigating the stage until returning to his place where the next performer would rise and dance in a slightly variant fashion. This pattern could continue for five or more dancers. After an intermission the Olio would begin which was performed against a backdrop and would include a variety of singing, dancing, and stand up acts. A second intermission would commence and then the Afterpiece would take place. The Afterpiece usually was a type of sketch that the whole cast performed around typical black characters 'Sambo,' a lazy shiftless ignorant country hick used for humiliation, and 'Zip Coon,' a person who unknowingly comes off as dumb with their self-assurance in their articulate ability.

Altogether the minstrel’s would not be possible if it wasn’t for the likes of Thomas “Jim Crow” Rice, William Henry Lane “Master Juba”, and Dan Emmett. Thomas “Jim Crow” Rice was born on May 20, 1808, and is known as the father of minstrels. He was the first known white male to perform a song and dance skit in black face makeup in the late 1820’s. Rice choreographed a dance routine to a slightly modified version of “Jump Jim Crow.” He got the idea for the performance after watching a disabled black groom singing and dancing. Rice toured many cities and his performances were a resounding success.

What could be said of Rice’s choreographed performance of Jim Crow from what I found on youtube is that it has some parts of it that look as if he is tap dancing, while at other parts he is distorting his body, kicking, and jumping in a type of shuffle all while singing. In the African-Community the performance carries on the stereotype of the bumbling happy performing black who is meant to be laughed at, accompanied by the black-face over ensensuatiation of the facial features of black people. I can’t really see as to why the performance was so popular as there was nothing to stunning about it, except for the fact at how escentric it was in nature.

William Henry Lane was born a free man in Providence Rhode Island in 1825. At a young age he began to learn Irish Jig and reel dancing from his uncle who was a saloon performer in New York city at the time. By the age of ten he was out and performing dances for small crowds across New York., By the 1840’s he was headlining many white minstrel groups as the greatest dancer of the age under the stage name “Master Juba”. He headlined a minstrel that performed in London where he died at the age of twenty seven, many believe if he did not die so early that he would have had an even bigger lasting impact on African-American dance.

From watching renditions of Master Juba’s dance routine it looks as if he is performing a tap dance, with vigor and grace. The appeal to his performance is the same appeal as to watching any other tap-dance it is fast and captivating to watch feet move with such speed and technique. In the African-Community Master Juba’s dance is looked at with mixed views as on one-hand he performed in minstrels which helped to insinuate many stereotypes of black people, on the other hand he brought what could be seen as the only piece of authenticity to the minstrel stage. From the minstrel stage African-Americans were able to access jobs in other theatre settings.

The last person to cement the lasting legacy of minstrels during the 19th century is Dan Emmett. Emmett was born in 1815 in Ohio. At the age of thirteen he apprenticed as a printer and then enrolled in the Army. In Emmett’s time within the Army he became a master drummer, and after being discharged from the army he joined the Cincinnati Circus. During his time in the Circus he performed as a blackface banjo player and singer and from here he got his idea to start a minstrel group. He organized a group of four and named the group the Virginia Minstrels. The minstrel group was the first of its kind and met with much success touring across the nation.

Unlike the stereotypes the minstrels pushed, black concert dance demonstrated creative choreography dance productions influenced by various histories, experiences, and realities of African-Americans and used to express social, political, and/or cultural commentary. By the 1920’s black dancers were routinely seen as naturally competent tap, soft shoe, and jazz dancers. Yet black concert dance performers were pioneers in their field, before finding themselves widely successful.

The roots of black concert dance can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance which took place in New York during the beginning of the twentieth century. During The Great Migration some six million African Americans to northern cities. They were attracted by new industrial job opportunities that came available due to the start of the first world war, as well as eager to leave behind the jarring segregation laws of the south. When southern African Americans moved north they took with them their dance culture. Soon Harlem bloomed as the heart of black dance culture, with new dances frequently being invented in large Harlem dance halls. Harlem’s energy soon attracted uptown white people who began to come down to sit in the Harlem bars and spectate the black people dancing.

The adoption of black dance in the Harlem Renaissance lead itself into the first successful African American dance in theatre-Florence Mills’ hit performance in “Shuffle Along”. Her exhilarating performance lead to a long list of many talented African Americans taking to vaudeville performances, Bill Robinson, Josephine Baker, and Earl Tucker, just to name a few. Their thrilling performances lead to African Americans being a fixture of dance. From there the likes of Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, and Pearl Primus, pioneered a different type of successful dance that brought black culture to the forefront of the choreography.

Asadata Dafora was born in Sierra Leone in 1909 living there for twenty years before moving to the United States. At a young age Dafora keenly traveled around West Africa engrossing himself in the cultural music, dance, and folklore of its indigenous inhabitants. Upon arriving in the U.S. his first performances were as a concert singer in Harlem. However, Dafora was unsatisfied with these performances and wished to do more by bringing his heritage on the stage. . His production of “Kykunkor” did just that, putting African music, and dance front and center. The New York Times called, “one of the most exciting dance performances of the season” thus proving that a performance about African heritage with African dancers could be successful with the American public.

Similar to Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham too was born in 1909 however her roots where in a Chicago Suburb rather than Western Africa. As a youth she excelled in sports, being particularly good at track and basketball, before falling in love with dance during her high school years. She eventually went on to attend Chicago University, majoring in anthropology finding a unique connection between dance and peoples social and economic history. To help pay for her degree Dunham taught dance lessons in an abandoned store, and bringing her together with the daughter of Julius Rosenwald.

From there she gained the opportunity to travel to the West Indies which profoundly changed her dance career. After her trip to the Caribbean she spent time in New York as a choreographer for an all black dance unit staging several dances. In the late 1930’s, Dunham founded the nation's first self-supporting black concert dance troupe. It became widely successful visiting more than 50 countries on six continents. On top of that, Dunham founded her own school in New York in 1945 and developed an entirely new dance form, the ‘Dunham technique’. It is a modern dance technique combining classical ballet with body isolations discovered by Dunham during her trips to the west indies and influenced by her anthropology background. Katherine Dunham influenced all dancers with her black concert dance, pioneering cultural heritage though her anthropology roots, and a whole new dance movement with her Dunham technique.

In Katherine Dunham’s choreographed dance Ballet Creole, tells the story of how an evil spirit enters a celebration the two lovers and is then fought off. Katherine Dunham is the woman lover and she dances rhythmically to the drums thrusting her shoulders and looking as if the music is taking control of her. She begins to signify that the spirit is lulling her by spinning rapidly to everyone’s amazement, and then her lover breaks the spell by doing a kicking fighting like dance. The whole dance itself was very interesting and you can see how Dunham played to African culture with the drums, and the fighting dance. What the dance represents for African American culture is that having a choreographed dance about African Caribbean culture be so successful and authentic at the same time is a breath of fresh air, and goes against any stereotypes made by minstrels.

Pearl Primus, like Katherine Dunham, also had a background in anthropology but instead of using Carribean techniques she focused on utilizing ethnic African-based movement in her choreography. Primus was born in the year 1919 in Trinidad and moved with her family to the United States at the age of two. She attended Hunter College majoring in Biology and pre-medicine before deciding she wanted to be a dancer. Primus joined the National Youth Administration dance group as an understudy, then rapidly progressed until she won a dance scholarship with the New Dance Group.

Studying and working at the New Dance Group she began to immerse herself in research on primitive dances. After extensive research and performing as a professional dancer in New York, Primus moved on to preparing for solo concert by visiting the deep south. During her time down south she visited some seventy black churches, picked cotton, and lived with the sharecroppers, to better understand the retention of Africanism and African American religious ceremonies. After her time down south Primus erupted on the broadway stage in the mid 1940’s demonstrating a rich understanding of heritage in her performances. She formed her own dance company and traveled performing throughout Africa while also returning to the U.S. several times. Her choreography was unafraid to touch upon the subjects of slave markets and public lynchings. Primus’ powerful thought provoking dance pieces pioneered authentic African dance routines for black concert dance.

After watching “Strange Fruit” choreographed by Pearl Primus’ I was left stunned at just how intense the performance is. The dance is based on a single women’s reaction towards a lynching and you can tell through her twirling, falling, and reaching out just how much anguish she suffers The performer twists and contorts her body in a non-gracious way because there isn’t anything gracious about a lynching. The performance represents the tragedies that the African American Community had to go through with each brutal lynching that occured in the United States.

Overall, the dance typologies behind black concert dance come from a broad variety ranging from classic dance, the Dunham technique, and stylized cultural dances. It is easily noted the amount of neo-traditional dances that are performed in black concert dance, as seen in Dunham’s “Creole Ballet” where the dance is based of a Caribbean martial arts, and ring shout dance but it isn’t performed in its true context. Other techniques like the classic dance comes from the western ballet principles used in the performances of black concert dance. The Dunham technique is a fusion of parts of ballet mixed with isolating body parts, which can be found in caribbean and African dancing.

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