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Black feet danced from one end of this country to the other.

They jitterbugged, bumped, messed around, and walked the dog.



We Are A Dancing People

By Sandra L. West


He worked with her until he felt sure that he had given her a baby,  a baby which would weigh her down and destroy her balance so that she would dance no more.Jean Wheeler Smith

That She Would Dance No More. Black Fire (1968): 499.

We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself (1789): 7.


Jesus. Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy. These and other ill-named slave ships knifed through Middle Passage waters with sad cargoes of kidnapped Africans, roughly between 1500 and 1880. The ships were vessels for far more than an unpaid labor force. They unwittingly transported African culture to the shores of the New World, as is evidenced in slave narratives, the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and dance steps you may be doing yourself, this very day.


Many thousands are now gone, but all was not lost in the Middle Passage. The 5th grade teacher of Harlem bibliophile and historian Arthur (Arturo Alfonso) Schomburg  (1874-1938) staunchly believed that blacks had no history, no heroes, and no great moments. He was not alone in his view. 


Even so, it is unmistakably clear that African culture infused European-American culture and completely constructed something brand new: an African American civilization. This civilization’s gifts to the world include, but are not limited to, poignant sorrow songs, and a sense of personal style. Black people gave the world an inimitable graceful way of "walking the walk" and a melodramatic way of "talking the talk". Dancing was also among the gifts. We are a dancing people.


Africans danced on slave ships. Their steps were ordered by the whips of captors. As they marched and jumped to the crack of the whip, Sowu or Focodaba steps crept in from sheer recollection, ripe with African memory of purposeful, spiritual, ceremonial ensemble movement – that subsequently transformed into modern African American ensemble dances not unlike The Madison of the ‘60s and the Electric Slide of the ‘90s.


Alex Haley (1921-1992) documented in his 1976 classic family saga Roots, “…Kunta and most of the men tried to keep acting happy as they danced in their chains, although the effort was like a canker in their souls” (175). In the lap of this melancholy, The Limbo came to light. Before dancing, slaves were crouched and crunched in small quarters and exercised “up” higher and higher as a bar was raised until they were standing, which is exactly how The Limbo is performed today in the 21st century of 2005. The Limbo flourishes still in the Caribbean, in Brooklyn, New York and East Orange, New Jersey West Indian street festivals, and in African American social gatherings where it is asked, in high spirits, “How low can you go?” (Diedrich 41-42).


Once on Western land, African dance became peppered with European influences. The stimulus came fresh from the imaginations of black slaves that watched their white owners perform waltzes ala Vienna in the big house. The black dance art that emerged from this unlikely marriage was not always purposeful as was the Sowu “dance of life” from Ghana or the Focodaba initiation dance from the old Mali Empire, now Guinea.

Black dance could be haughty, and it could be decadent. One need only mention the Georgia Grind to know exactly how it was lustily executed. But black dance was always impressive.


Spiritual or super-sexed, Black American dance was undeniably African and Southern American.  Dance styles traveled up north strapped to the feet of immigrants during The Great Migration, an exodus that peaked in the 1920s and again in the 1940s. Modern readers can trace African and African American popular dance steps through the reading of 1800s slave narratives and Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s) literature. The names of early dances include the 1930s Texas Tommy. By the 1970s, the slippery, sliding Slop was in style.


Black feet danced from one end of this country to the other. They jitterbugged, bumped, messed around, and walked the dog. They danced at the Renaissance Ballroom on 138th Street in Harlem and at the Terrace Ballroom on Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey. While folks were dancing, others were documenting what was happening on the dance floor.


Thus, dance titles and steps became part of Harlem Renaissance literary texts, musical manuscripts, newspapers and historical documents. Surely you, dear reader, have heard tell of The Cakewalk, Georgia Grind, Ballin’ The Jack and Walkin’ The Dog, Lindy Hop, Juba and Charleston, Black Bottom and The Mess Around, Big Apple and Trucking, Shimmy, and Steppin’ on the Cootie. If not, roll up of the parlor rug and put your dancing shoes on.


The Cakewalk, a dance of the late 19th and early 20th century, originated as a slave dance contest in the antebellum south. Slave couples, eager to win the sweet cake offered as a prize by the slave owner, dressed in their finest clothes to stylishly bend or “rare” back, as far as their bodies would flex, and kick into a high-stepping promenade. The Cakewalk was a parody of the “civilized” minuet or waltz done by white plantation owners who were, themselves, parroting the social mores of proper Englishmen. After the Civil War (1861-1865), black minstrels continued the tradition of staging the Cakewalk as the grand finale of their performance.


By the 1890’s, the dance was so popular that a national Cakewalk Jubilee was held in New York City. A number of new black musical revues included the dance as a major attraction in their shows, including Clorindy--The Origin of the Cakewalk (1896) produced by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944).


The origin of The Cakewalk was “civilized” but songs about it could be crude and hurtful, complete with racial slurs, as this Ben Harney ditty from the 1890s period proves:


Put a smile on each face

Every coon now take your place      

And then away they went

All on pleasure bent

The harps were ringing

In ragtime they were singing

And they all bowed down to the    

 King of coons

Who taught the cakewalk in the sky (Morgan 26)

The Cakewalk deeply affected the racial pride of diplomat James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). Johnson co-wrote Lift Every Voice And Sing (aka The Negro National Anthem, 1900) with his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), but he also wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) in which he specifies dance as well crafted by his people, an art with so much integrity and dignity that its influence spread and “has taken up the time of European royalty and nobility.” (Gates 812). In this scene from The Autobiography …, a young cigar maker is on vacation at a seaside resort in Florida, right before he relocates to Harlem to write songs.

 “ … it was at one of these balls that I first saw the cake-walk … A half-dozen guests from some of the hotels took seats on the stage to act as judges, and twelve or fourteen couples began to walk for a sure enough, highly decorated cake … The spectators crowded about the space reserved for the contestants and watched them with interest and excitement. The couples did not walk around in a circle, but in a square, with the men on the inside. The fine points to be considered were the bearing  of the men, the precision with which they turned the corners, the grace of the women, and the ease with which they swung around the pivots. The men walked with stately and soldierly step, and the women with considerable grace … This was the cake-walk in its original form, and it is what the colored performers on the theatrical stage  developed into the prancing movement now known all over the world, and which some Parisian critics pronounced the acme of poetic motion.” (Gates 811)

Not as well mannered as The Cakewalk was The Georgia Grind. In it, Dancer #1 brushes against and grinds into the body of Dancer #2. Dancer #2, not to be outdone, grinds back. One might say the main idea behind this dance is to cause sexual friction and arousal. The name of the risqué Georgia Grind appeared in the text of a rent party (End Note 1) invitation during the Harlem Renaissance years. It read: “Let your papa drink the wine/But you come to Cora’s and do the Georgia Grind.” (Lewis 107)

Another sexually-alive dance floor move was Ballin’ The Jack. The dancer puts hands on bent knees and moves the lower body around in a suggestive, sexually explicit manner. Ballin’ the Jack had a rowdy reputation and the literature, both modern and older, expresses this.

In a Frankie-and-Johnnie scenario from Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir (1983) by South Carolinian Mamie Garvin Fields (1888- ) and granddaughter Karen Fields, an enraged boyfriend shoots his girlfriend in the vagina because she dared execute Ballin’ the Jack in public when he was not around (Fields 139). Ballin’ The Jack also found its way into the annals of African American drama, The Dry August (1949) written by Charles Sebree (1914-1985).

Teddy    Go on tell me … I like to hear. Tell me some more about your Chicago trip.

Willie B.  I’ve told you just about everything I know about it.

Teddy   I could hear about Chicago forever, and never get tired of it, even if it ain’t all true.

Willie B.  (sitting on the rock besides Teddy) Well, you take that time I was down on State Street. It was lit up like day, but it was night. The music was coming from every  place. People balling the jack and eagle rocking to beat the band …

(Sebree 661)

Ballin’ The Jack was related to a 1960s dance, Walkin’ The Dog, that a friend of mine, the late Clyde Chapman of Newark, New Jersey, dearly loved to perform when we were teenagers and everyone else was doing The Jerk and The Monkey. His dance was a sight to behold because he was reed thin, over six feet tall, loved all European classical music and would not get up to express himself physically on the dance floor unless this particular 45 record  was going and Rufus Thomas, who recorded the hit, yelled out from the depths of the black vinyl    Walkin’ The Dog !  Then, dear Clyde, with imported silk ascot gracing his neck and a Kool cigarette dangling from the corner of his aristocratic mouth, would do his thing, and I would have to shade my 16-year-old eyes from the barefaced explicitness of it all.

Walkin’ The Dog wasn’t in the same category as The Lindy Hop, a dance I saw at Aunt Helen’s house on 54 West 119th Street, though both had plenty of oomph. My aunt could cut the rug (End Note 2) on a tame version of The Lindy Hop. Helen Foy relocated from Falling Creek, North Carolina to Harlem in 1927, and The Lindy Hop exploded onto the urban dance scene at the Manhattan Casino in 1928. You could say Aunt Helen and The Lindy Hop were cousins. In addition to the Manhattan Casino, the dance made a name for itself at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, per Harlem’s poet laureate Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in his autobiographical The Big Sea.


The lindy-hoppers at The Savoy even began to practice acrobatic routines, and to do absurd things for the entertainment of the whites, that probably never would have entered their heads to attempt merely for their own effortless amusement. Some of the lindy-hoppers had cards printed with their names on them and became dance professors teaching the tourists. The Harlem nights became show nights for the Nordics. (226)

White photographer, arts patron, and author of the notorious novel Nigger Heaven (End Note 3) written in 1926, Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) discusses the history of Negro dance in his 1930s novel Parties, and brings racism into the equation.

Every decade or so some Negro creates or discovers or stumbles upon a new dance step which so completely strikes the fancy of his race that it spreads like water poured on blotting paper. Such dances are usually performed at first inside and outside of lowly cabins, on levees, or, in the big cities, on street-corners. Presently, quite automatically, they invade the more modest nightclubs where they are observed with interest by visiting entertainers who, sometimes  with important modifications, carry them to a higher low world.

This process may require a period of two years or longer for its development. At just about this point the director of a Broadway revue in rehearsal, a hoofer, or even a Negro who puts on “routines” in the big musical shows, deciding that the dance is ready for white consumption, introduces it, frequently with the announcement that he has invented it.

Nearly all of the dancing now to be seen in our musical shows is  of Negro origin, but both critics and public are so ignorant of this fact that the production of a new Negro revue is an excuse for the revival of the hoary old lament that it is a pity the Negro can’t create anything for himself, that he is obliged to imitate the white man’s revues. This in brief, has been the history of the Cake-Walk, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom. (Van Vechten 183-184).

Citing the “religious ecstasy of the dance”  -- and showing off a writing style that served him well as a New York Times music critic  --  Van Vechten describes Lindy Hoppers as “embroidering the traditional measures with startling variations, as a coloratura singer of the early nineteenth century would endow the score of a Bellini opera with roulades, runs, and shakes.” (Van Vechten 184)

In addition to my Aunt Helen, now 96 years old and physically unwilling to Lindy Hop, there was another lover of the energetic dance: Malcolm X (1925-1965), when he was a crime-bound teenager known as Detroit Red, born Malcolm Little. The former Nation of Islam (NOI) minister, intellectual giant, and charismatic human rights leader wrote with great energy about The Lindy Hop in his autobiography, and how he and his dance partner Mamie claimed The Roseland floor when Basie’s band was seriously on the case.

 … Count Basie turned in the showtime blast, and  the other dancers moved off the floor, shifting for  good watching positions, and began their hollering for their favorites … The Count’s band was wailing. I grabbed Mamie and we started to work. She was a  big, rough, strong gal, and she lindied like a bucking horse. I remember the very night that she became known as one of the showtime favorites there at The Roseland.

A band was screaming when she kicked off her shoes and get barefooted, and shouted, and shook herself as if she was in some African jungle frenzy, and then she let loose with some dancing, shouting with every step, until the guy that was out there with her nearly had to fight her to control her. The crowd loved any way-out lindying style that  made a color show like that. It was how Mamie had become known. (64).

If you happen to be a connoisseur of vintage films – especially of gangster movies set in Chicago streets and speakeasies -- you have had to have seen The Charleston performed. The roots of the Charleston are in The Juba, sometimes called “patting juba,” an old minstrel dance with plantation origins, most likely originated from an African dance called guiouba (Fine 20). On the plantation, drums were outlawed because they were a communicative device. Thus, the enslaved Africans used their hands, knees and thighs to clap to a rhythmic beat. They had no lemon, so they made lemonade.

In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative, he describes patting juba: “striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing” (260).

Poet Jon Michael Spencer in Self-Made and Blues-Rich, a 1994 poetry collection dedicated to music, writes a poem, Master Juba, that is vivid in theatre history and dance metaphor:

In search of fame and fortune to pay for my board and room,

I was forced to jump jim crow-

Mimic Jim Crow, Zip Coon, and Jim Crack Corn for a minstrel show.

Charcoaled my already black face to ridicule my own tired race.

With a riddle, a fiddle, a jawbone, a tambo,

I walked for a cake to the twangin’ of an o’ banjo

While singin’ The Cake Walk in the Sky” with a skip and a shake.

Now that-

That takes the cake ! (23)

In the 1920s The Juba evolved into the Charleston. In 1925 on the campus of Washington D.C.’s Howard University, these two dances merged into and/or contributed to the “stepping” done by Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities, though not all agree with its lineage. Stepping or foot-stomping is a syncopated line or circle dance performed by black fraternities and sororities in initiation or pledging rites. Line dances are often dances of “the folk.” Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (1890-1948), author of the militant poem "If We Must Die," describes a line dance in the Caribbean country town of Jubilee from his 1933 novel Banana Bottom. 

The women chose the partners, calling names formally:Miss Lamb will take Mister Kidd as partner. Then shuffling places, changing partners, and the master of ceremonies calling: “Hold ! Let go ! March ! Right through ! Change back ! Line-up!  (McKay 83)

Some early black dances were named for their point of geographical origin. The Black Bottom is a case in point. The Black Bottom originated as a round dance in a rural jook joint (End Note 4) in Nashville, Tennessee. The black neighborhood in this rural enclave was dubbed “black bottom,” as it was more than likely at the bottom of the economic structure of that municipality, near the railroad tracks, and its residents black and at the lower or last rung of the social pecking order.

The dance traveled via The Great Migration straight to Broadway into a musical named Dinah (1923). Folklorist, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston  (1891-1960) and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) questioned the authenticity of Broadway’s version of the dance, especially after it had been interpreted by on-Negro dancers. She wrote: “When the Negroes who knew the Black Bottom in its cradle saw the Broadway version they asked each other, “Is you learnt dat new Black Bottom yet?” Proof that it was not their dance.” (Gates 1030).

The Black Bottom was oh so fashionable during the Harlem Renaissance that songs were written in its honor.  Irish Black Bottom was sung by Chick Webb band vocalist Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996), who later became the “First Lady of Jazz.”  "I Don’t Need Your Black Bottom in My Dance Hall" was sung by voluptuous stage star Ethel Waters (1896 (?)-1977), who in the late 20th century, in the august of her years, became an evangelistic singer in the Billy Graham religious crusades. A prime example of the seduction woven into the songs is in Shake It, Black Bottom, vocalized by blues singer Anna Belle in 1928:

you can shake

just like it would a tree

The way you shake it

it’s pleasing me

Just let me tell you

a thing or two

A plenty of people shake it

but not like you (Jewell 43)

The Black Bottom, mentioned in Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, was a call and response dance – like The Madison and the Electric Slide. It was revived in the 1970s as The Four Corners, testimony to the fact that good dance steps never die. The Black Bottom involved slides and wobbles and goes into the gyrating subordinate dance, The Mess Around, as noted in this steamy dance scene from Infants of the Spring (1932) written by Wallace Thurman (1902-1934). Thurman also held the title of editor of the irreverent Harlem Renaissance literary magazine Fire!

After having had several drinks, he threaded his way back into Eustace’s studio. It was more crowded and noisy than before. Someone was playing the piano, and in a small clearing the ex-wife  Of a noted American playwright was doing the Black Bottom with A famed Negro singer of spirituals. “Ain’t I Good?” she demanded of her audience. “An’ you  ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” With which she insinuated her scrawny white body close to that of her stalwart black partner and began    performing the torrid abdominal movements of the “mess-a-round.”  (Thurman 110)

The uninhibited Black Bottom dancer would slap or pinch his buttocks in time to the music. Quite possibly, the Black Bottom is the dance described without specific title in Quicksand (1938) by Nella Larsen (1891-1964). In this tragic mulatto novel, Helga visits white relatives in Denmark. They all attend a circus where loose-as-a-goose black American entertainers sing, dance, and “cut the fool.”  It is an incident that disturbs Helga who sees these grinning, gyrating people as “the worst of the race.”  She fluctuates between racial shame and homesickness, and considers leaving her doting aunt and uncle and her new life of leisure, even if she is considered merely a second-class-citizen “Negro” back home.

 Larson writes: “More songs, old, all of them old, but new and strange to that audience. And how the singers danced, pounding their thighs, slapping their hands together, twisting their legs, waving their abnormally long arms, and throwing their bodies about with a loose ease! And how the enhanced spectators clapped and howled and shouted for more ! Helga Crane was not amused. Instead she was filled with a fierce hatred for the cavorting Negroes on the stage. She felt ashamed, betrayed, as if these pale pink and white people among whom she lived had suddenly been invited to look upon something in her which she had hidden away and wanted to forget.” (182-183).

Moving from Denmark back to New York, we know New York City as “The Big Apple” so it stands to reason that The Big Apple dance may appear to have originated there. However, Columbia, South Carolina claims this group circle dance, circa 1936. In nightclubs – as was done in Boston when Malcolm X was a lindy hopping adolescent – all the bandleader need do was holler out “Cut The Apple!” – the call – and dancers fell into circles of 8 to 10 people each – the response – a very African-inspired group dance.

The Big Apple dance survives in a 1939 WPA essay (End Note 5) written by Vivian Morris titled Swing Clubs: “The Harlem Swing Club gives a dance and Jam Session every Sunday night during the winter season in this hall. The musicians who provide the excellent swing music are all members of Local 802, American Federation of Musicians-and the people who attend regularly are of all types and ages, the majority being young black girls and boys who love to dance the Lindy, the Tutti Fruitti and the Big Apple.” (Morris 300)

The Big Apple was a vehicle for other steps. As the bandleader called out the names of various moves, the dancers would break from the circle and respond with frenzied versions of Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Trucking. Trucking involved a routine with raised index finger, then the dancers would step forward and pivot. Trucking made its way into contemporary culture by Motown’s  legendary male singing  group, The Temptations, who had a hit song “Keep on Trucking, Baby,” circa 1960s-1970s.

Trucking had a stand up style, but The Shimmy was totally unsophisticated. Everything just hung out. Highlighted in the 1960s film Beach Blanket Bingo, the slinky Shimmy had been a favorite of a voluptuous blond bomb shell of a singer named Mae West (1893-1980) who sang "Everybody Shimmies Now" in the 1918 film of the same name. The Shimmy was the benchmark of Earl “Snakehips” Tucker (1905-1937) who began his dancing career at Connie’s Inn on 7th Avenue in Harlem. Tucker was the most eccentric dancer of the Harlem Renaissance.

Snakehips Tucker danced like a boneless boa constrictor. The origin of his presentation is documented in Negro: An Anthology (1934). In the anthology, essayist John Banting writes about dance styles in Harlem and how Gilda Grey’s shimming chemise dress motivated Tucker. “ … Gilda Grey … popularized the “Shimmy:” but only “seeing is believing” when Earl (Snakehips) Tucker and his partner, Bessie Dudley, quiver from top to toe or make a circular hip movement (rather similar to a danse du ventre) called “barrelhousing.” (Cunard 202).

Dance scholar Lynne Fauley Emery notes that Tucker’s dance originated from the Shake Hip, an old southern Negro dance, which in turn originated from The Congo Dance done in Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana by slaves of Congolese heritage (Emery 164, 235).

When Tucker danced, he dressed for the speeding occasion: a loose white silk blouse, scarf tied at the neck, and bell-bottom pants with a tassel attached to the low waist, a tassel that twirled faster and faster as the routine progressed. Not many photographs exist of Tucker, possibly because the ascending velocity of his elastic, gyrating body made it difficult to document via still photography. But, Harlem Renaissance illustrator E. Simms Campbell (1906-1971), famous for the red-headed Cutie cartoon, reportedly sketched Tucker’s unusual routine on paper.

Dance scholars Jean and Marshall Stearns describe Tucker’s bizarre style: “ … As he progressed, Tucker’s footwork became flatter, rooted more firmly to the floor, while his hips described wider and wider circles, until he seemed to be throwing his hips alternately out of joint to the melodic accents of the music.” (Stearns 236). If one looks at the contemporary, long-running television show, Soul Train, not only is there the famous  “Soul Train Line,” but one might see variations of Tucker’s Shimmy.

Poet McKay paints The Shimmy into Home to Harlem, his urban realism, bestselling novel of 1928.  In this one small paragraph, McKay describes female leg, clothing fashions for males and females, racial slurs, and lots of frenetic shimmying.

They danced, Rose and the boy. Oh, they danced ! … They reared and pranced together, smacking palm Against palm, working knee between knee, Grinning with real joy. They shimmied, breast to     Breast, bent themselves far back and shimmied Again. Lifting high her short skirt and showing her     Green bloomers, Rose kicked. And in his tight Nigger-brown suit, the boy kicked even with her. (McKay 93)

The Shimmy slinks into the fiction of folklorist Hurston and short story writer Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934). In Hurston’s prize-winning short story, Muttsy, that was published in Opportunity of August 1926, she writes about a young naïve girl up from south being at Ma’s, in a rooming-house kitchen “…Everyone in there was shaking shimmies to music, rolling eyes heavenward as they picked imaginary grapes out of the air, or drinking.” (Hurston 122).

Fisher was a Harlem medical doctor whose family migrated from Connecticut. Currently, his work is rediscovered, just as Hurston’s was in 1960 by award-winning novelist Alice Walker (The Color Purple).  In an excerpt from the much anthologized The Caucasian Storms Harlem (1927), Fisher paints a portrait of a gyrating Harlem, even adding names of dances that may not be so familiar to us now:  

After a while I left it and wandered about in a daze from night-club to night-club. I tried the Nest,    Small’s, Connie’s Inn, the Capitol, Happy’s, The Cotton Club. There was no mistake; my discovery was real and was repeatedly confirmed. No wonder my old crowd was not to be found in any of them. The best of Harlem’s black cabarets have changed their names and  turned white … And what do we see ? Why, we see them actually playing Negro games. I watch them in that epidemic Negroism, the Charleston. I look on and envy them. They camel and fish-tail and turkey, they           geche and black-bottom and scrunch, they skate and buzzard and mess-round-and they do them all better than I! This interest in the Negro is an active and participating interest. It is almost as if a traveler from the North stood watching an African tribe-dance… (Gates 1187)

Truly, black folk are a dancing people. They/we stand one foot in each continent. Even as African Americans bask in the beauty of their dancing genius, there are dissenters … folks who wouldn’t and folks who couldn’t.

“The Negro race is dancing itself to death,” Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. (1865-1953) roared from Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1914. “You can see the effect of the tango, the Chicago, the turkey trot, the Texas Tommy, and ragtime music not only in their conversations but in the movement of their bodies about the home and on the street. Grace and modesty are becoming rare virtues.” (Anderson 74)

The people’s poet, Langston Hughes, attended all the best parties and was rhythmic when he chronicled the pulse of black America but on the dance floor, no:

“ … he  never got beyond a shuffling two-step,” reveals his official biographer. (Rampersad 174). The surprise of the era – or maybe not – was three-piece suited Countee Leroy Porter Cullen (1903-1946) who wrote classic verse such as "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" and was hailed “genius” by Harlem Renaissance architect W.E.B. DuBois, yet whose get-down dance skills, especially The Charleston, were the envy of his peers.

Journalist Sam Fulwood III makes a confession about his 1960s Duke University days in Waking From The Dream: “ … I hated dancing, the most important skill needed to make it on the black social scene. I never mastered all those intricate steps that had to be coordinated with hand, head, shoulder and even eye movements. I much preferred slow dances that required less energy and virtually no effort …" (Fulwood 70).

Illustrious composer Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) could always give us just what we needed to know, in a single musical line, and his comments about black dance are just as complete as his sacred heart and jazz compositions. He wrote about dance in his first ever published essay, “The Duke Steps Out,” for Rhythm magazine (1931). “ … When we dance it is not a mere diversion or social accomplishment. It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to the elemental by eternal rhythm, and the dance is timeless and unhampered by any lineal form.” (Tucker 49).

As the urbanite saying goes “that man has never lied.”  I was waiting for a #39 bus recently, on the corner of Broad and Market in Newark. Like in most urban cities, someone was blasting music, rap. It was much too loud. You could not hear yourself swallow. There were two year olds, on that same corner, clasping their mother’s skirts, just coming in from one of the downtown day-care centers. There were young black males concluding a shift at the local fast food restaurant. There were older heads, like mine, finished teaching or library research for the day, taking the bus two or three stops to the local soul food place before going in. Grandmothers clutched shopping bags.

As the music lifted into the air, I noticed that everyone was swaying, as if in a trance. Everybody on that corner was black, and when the music spoke, every body responded. So The Duke is quite right. Even Equiano affirmed, very early on, in his 1789 slave narrative, “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.” (Bontemps 7)

The art of Black dance survived the Middle Passage holocaust, began anew and, like the poor earthworm, just keeps on inching along. Timeless and unhampered.   

End Notes

(1) Rent party.

As found on pp 279-280 of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance “ … rent parties were held (and in some communities are still held) to help raise money to pay rent and avoid the ugly spectacle of a family seeing its belongings tossed out onto the street for lack of payment.”

(2) Cutting the rug.

As found in Appendix A on page 379 of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance“Rug Cutter. A great dancer; probably a humorous caution about wearing holes in the carpet.”

(3) Nigger Heaven.

 Nigger heaven, also the title of Carl Van Vechten’s novel, refers to segregated theatre balconies. During the time of American apartheid, black people could not sit wherever they wanted to sit. They were forced into the balcony section, closest to the sky – nigger heaven – and white people sat in the orchestra seats, separate and unequal.

(4) Jook joint

A jook joint, also known as juice joint (see Appendix A on page 378 in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance ), was an after-hours club or speakeasy. According to page 312 of the Encyclopedia … the speakeasy was …  “Privately operated and illegal, clubs known as speakeasies were run in the back rooms and basements of homes in the United States throughout the 1900s in the North, Midwest, and West. When Prohibition made the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol illegal in the United States from 1919 to 1933, speakeasies sold alcohol clandestinely and often continued to do so in areas where alcohol remained prohibited or restricted by local law.”

(5) WPA

As found on page 367 of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, “With the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 and decreased support from patrons of the arts, writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance often remained productive largely by participating in the federally funded Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the Works Progress Administration designed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of his New Deal program.”


Story, Rosalyn M. And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Works Cited

African Healing Dance with Wyoma and the Dancers and Drummers of Damballa. (Video) Boulder,Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 1997

Bontemps, Arna, ed. Great Slave Narratives. Boston, Beacon Press: 1969.

West, Sandra L. (with Aberjhani). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York, Facts on File, 2003.

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Sandra L. West, a member of The Harlem Writers Guild, published a memoir What’s In A Name, Ghana Mae Jane?  in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of Obsidian III: Literature of the African Diaspora. Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing Writer to Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers University.

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Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance

By Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 17 September 2005




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