History of African Dance

Benna Crawford
African dancer

What do Alvin Ailey, Ashanti warriors, Al Jolson, and Alexander Hamilton have in common? African dance. The moves, rhythms, and rituals so central to tribal life survived slavery and cultural appropriation to influence western society and choreography while remaining a vibrant component of African tradition today.

Indigenous Moves

Africa's many tribes each developed their own unique dances, typically accompanied by vocal and percussive music that varied from tribe to tribe. The dances fell into three main categories: Ritual (religious), Ceremonial, and Griotic (storytelling).

Ritual Dance

The spiritual infuses every aspect of traditional African life. In Zimbabwe, the Mbira was an all-purpose performance, danced by the Shona people to summon ancestors, beseech the tribal guardians, temper droughts and floods, honor death anniversaries, seek guidance in tribal and family disputes, and even install a new chief. Ritual dance is a unifier that enhances peace, health, and prosperity.

Ceremonial Dance

Ceremonial dance is performed at events such as weddings, anniversaries, rites of passage and coming of age celebrations, the welcoming of visitors, the culmination of a successful hunt, and other happenings shared by the whole tribe. The Maasai jumping dance is performed by the young men of the tribe, who take turns leaping as high as they can to the music, in order to showcase their stamina and strength.

Griotic Dance

A griot is an African bard, a tribal historian and storyteller. Griotic dances are story-dances, the oral history of a people set to movement and music. The Lamba or Lamban was danced only by the tribe's djeli or griot. Today, African dance troupes perform the exuberant, once-exclusive moves.

Enduring Characteristics

The dances are syncopated, sophisticated and sensual. They make use of the whole body, with a particular focus on elaborate isolations, and angular and asymmetrical moves. Shuffling, scuffing, stamping, and hopping embody the daily rhythms of tending fields and animals, elevating mundane activities to sublime choreography. African dances are particularly good at using polyrhythm -- two or more simultaneous rhythms with torso, arm, leg, and head articulations to match. Elements of pantomime simulate nature, such as the fluid flight of an egret or the deliberate stomping of an elephant. These gestures capture the spirit of the life force depicted; they are a spiritual, not a literal expression. They are also an art form that endures in all the dance derived from the earliest African roots, dance forms that are still evolving today.

Slavery and Adaptation

The slave trade imported entire cultures to islands in the Caribbean and to the plantation regions of the mainland. The Caribbean, in particular, was a potpourri of ethnicities and cultures that influenced the dances from Africa. During the 18th century, those influences would have been colonial French, Dutch, British or Spanish.

Tribal dances remained an important touchstone for the slaves, and hybrid dances, such as the Calenda, emerged. The Calenda featured two parallel lines -- one of women and one of men -- with an approach-and-away pattern that started without touching and then sped up as it added thigh-slapping, kissing, and other contact. Plantation owners found the frenzy of the dance alarming and in some places, banned it entirely fearing the heightened emotions would lead to an uprising. But the Calenda went on to inspire the eventual Cakewalk (originally a mockery of plantation owners) and the Charleston in the 20th century. Another reaction to nervous slave owners, who feared the high-stepping energy of traditional dances, was a precautionary switch from stepping to shuffling.

Popular Culture

The high energy and rhythmic appeal of the Africa dances and the hybrid versions that emerged from them inevitably transformed American popular dance -- Vaudeville, Broadway, and recreational. From Minstrel shows in the 1800s that featured blackface and caricatures delivered by crowd favorites such as Al Jolson, to the Charleston, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, and Twist, stretching across the 20th century, African dance changed the moves in America and developed into its own art form.

  • 1800s - Minstrel shows
  • 1891 - The Creole Show (Broadway, Cakewalk)
  • 1920s-1930s - All-Black Broadway shows (African shuffle dances merged with English clog dancing, and Irish jigs)
  • 1930s - 1940s - Tap incorporated shuffle dances, and African dance began to influence modern and ballet
  • August 6, 1960 - Chubby Checkers debuted The Twist on the Dick Clark Show and the gyrating frenzy was born

Mid-Century Modern

The twentieth century was a time of wild talent and innovation in the dance world, and the influence of African dance was paramount. Katherine Dunham, whose career spanned the 20th century, researched the anthropology of Caribbean dances and their African roots. She developed systems and movements under the umbrella of modern dance that continue to be used by dancers to train. Alvin Ailey, born in 1931, was a force of nature, incorporating traditional African dance, ballet, jazz, modern, spirituals. and gospel music in evocative and thrilling choreography. Ailey captured the story of the diaspora in singular performances such as his iconic Revelations. His company, now under the direction of choreographer Robert Battle, still relies on a powerful African influence for its most memorable performances.

Taking It to the Streets

Street dancing, breaking, hip-hop, and its many iterations (tutting, locking, popping, krumping…) is closer to its African roots than many of the African-inspired dances that came directly out of the slave experience. Hip-hop is a response to rap, which mimics the rhythmic spoken-word storytelling of the griots. The percussive movement features exaggerated isolations and a full-body response to the beat. And hip-hop bridges the street and the stage, as it is increasingly a staple of musical performances from Beyonce to Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda's race-bending portrayal of Alexander Hamilton in the eponymous musical features a fusion of Broadway jazz and hip-hop choreography that tells a story just as those danced dramas did, and still do, in tribal dances in Africa and anywhere in the world people move to music.

History of African Dance