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HISTORIC ESSAYS

From Slave Ships to Center Stage
By Zita Allen
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"Ring Shout"
The "Ring Shout."
Hunched low to the ground, flat feet pounding the earth with rhythmic intensity as they moved counterclockwise in a circle, a group of men and women wearing the drab, tattered, everyday clothes of southern plantation field hands danced. Their only musical accompaniment was the crisp sound of their hands clapping time and the low, guttural rhythms rumbling in their throats. They had no audience. They danced for themselves and one another. It was the end of a day spent picking somebody else's cotton, cleaning somebody else's house, caring for other folks' children. This was their time to come together and thank God they had survived another day.

Every part of their bodies danced, from their shuffling feet and bent knees to their churning hips and undulating spines, swinging arms, and shimmying shoulders. Even their necks bent like reeds to balance heads rolling from shoulder to shoulder before pulling upright to reveal faces filled with the joy and the ecstasy of dance.

Former slave Silvia King, speaking to an interviewer from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, recalled how she and other slaves on a Texas plantation used to sneak to attend church in the woods, far from the watchful eyes of whites: "Black folks 'ud git off, down in de crick bottom, er in a thicket, an' sing an' shout an' pray. Don't know why but de w'ite folks sho' didn't like dem ring shouts de cullud folks had. De folks git in er ring an' sing an' dance, an' shout; de dance is jes' kinder shuffle, den hit gits faster an' faster as dey gits wa'amed up; an' dey moans an' shouts, an' sings, an' dance. Some ob 'em gits 'zausted an' dey drop out, an' de ring gits closer. Sometimes dey sing an' shout all night, but at der brake ob day, de nigger gotter git ter de cabin an' git 'bout he buiziness fer de day. De w'ite folks say de ring shout make de nigger loose he haid an' dat he git all 'cited up an' be good fer nuffin' fer a week."

King was describing the "Ring Shout," one of the many dances performed by African slaves that writer Ralph Ellison called "America's first choreography." These dances were part of an unbroken chain connecting the rich cultural heritage of the slaves' African villages to 17th-century southern plantations or Congo Square in New Orleans; later to smoke-filled southern juke joints and urban honky-tonks, dance halls, and Jazz Age night spots; and finally to the contemporary concert dance stage.

Africans in America have always danced, even before they set foot on the shores of the Western Hemisphere. During the years of the European slave trade, over 40 million shackled Africans were herded into the cramped damp holds of ships and spirited across the Atlantic. On the way, they were forced to "dance" on deck. In his 18th-century book, AN ACCOUNT OF THE SLAVE TRADE ON THE COAST OF AFRICA, Alexander Falconbridge, the surgeon on a number of slave ships, described the brutal practice known as "dancing the slaves" and the merciless cat-o'-nine-tails floggings awaiting those who moved too slowly.

This dance was nothing more than a wretched form of exercise motivated by greed and the fact that a fit slave fetched a higher price on the auction block.

Ironically, the men and women who survived the Middle Passage and made it to the New World would be among the principal forces determining the way millions of Americans and their descendants would dance, no matter whether their ancestors came from the West Coast of Africa, the steppes of Russia, the emerald shores of Ireland, England, France, Spain, or elsewhere. The "Ring Shout," "Buck and Wing," "Jig," "Pigeon Wing," "Cakewalk," "Buzzard Lope," and countless others inspired the dances -- sacred and secular -- that swept across America. The slaves' low-to-the-ground, bent-knee stance and fluid, articulate pelvic movements, combined with remarkable isolations, syncopations, and improvisations, would leave their stamp on everything from the "Turkey Trot" and "Fox Trot" of the early 1900s to the "Charleston" and "Black Bottom" of the 1920s, the "Lindy Hop" of the 1930s, the "Jitterbug" or "Swing" that followed in the 1940s, and break dancing, hip-hop, and today's free style. And, of course, they had a strong influence on the evolution of America's jazz, ballet, and concert modern dance.

Still, for years, scholars failed to notice the vibrant cultural heritage that flew in the face of insistent assertions that African slaves stepped ashore in America with nothing of value but what African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called insignificant "scraps of memories." However, for a few, like pioneer anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits, the dances of African slaves and their descendants were part of a wealth of "Africanisms" that were shaping a distinctive American culture. In THE MYTH OF THE NEGRO PAST, Herskovits pointed to numerous African-American traditions strikingly similar to those from the "heart of the slaving area" -- the Gold Coast, Dahomey, Nigeria, and to some extent Benin -- luring anthropologists in search of evidence of retentions, syncretism, acculturation, and counteracculturation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, this was no more than an unpopular notion nurtured by the vigorous scholarship of a faithful few, including Herskovits and African Americans Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. But today, after countless years of tireless research and meticulous documentation, according to advocates like Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson and Duke University's Peter H. Wood, the question is no longer whether American culture shows evidence of African retentions, but how much African influence can be found in American music and dance.

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