SFDH Logo (tiny)

The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Roots of American Dance
By Fred Vajda

[ Home | About | Encyclopedia | Links | Publications | Members ]

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

AMAN Hoedown

BACKGROUND

We, the American people, have been examining our heritage lately, and at the risk of becoming "root" bound, let us also take this short look over our shoulders at the origins of our American dance. Our personal origins are from hundreds of cultures worldwide, as are and should be, our dance origins. Our dance traditions followed the same paths that our immigrant ancestors did and entered America on their heels, customs free. Here in America, the many immigrant dance forms met and mixed. The dances of today are a product of this mixture, yet are continuing to change and evolve with the times.

The development of our distinctly American dances required cultural exchange among the newcomers. Some nationalities did not readily share their dances and saved them for special occasions of their own. Others seemed willing, nay, eager to dance at any given chance. Irish-Americans and Afro-Americans fit handily into this second grouping, although Afro-American slaves were careful to change the manner of their dancing whenever whites were in attendance. Because of their exuberance and widespread appeal, Irish and Black dance forms were mixed and danced on the minstrel show stage, at hoedowns, kitchen junkets, and on street corners throughout 19th century America. The distinctly American shuffle dancing that evolved exists today as Tap Dance, Soft Shoe, the various forms of Clog, Breakdown steps in mountain style (Appalachian) Square Dance, the "jigging" steps of the New England Contras, and certain steps in Rock dance. The original forms may be seen today for comparison at Irish hard shoe step-dance competitions at Black Circle or Ring Shouts (prayer meetings).

Another method of cultural exchange occurred whenever a popular European dance arrived on these shores. These dances were not necessarily brought by immigrants but were usually spread by dance instructors and promoters. These itinerant dancing masters would travel about the countryside teaching the newest dances in various localities. In cities, they would hold "assemblies" or large balls where they would teach, call, and prompt the newest Contredanse, Country Dance, Allemande, Cotillion, Quadrille, Lancers, Waltz, Galop, Reel, Polka, Czardas, Minuet, or Schottische through the years. Some took and some didn't. Most were subject to adjustments by the community for a better fit. Among the country folk, the music was changed, the name mispronounced until it had changed, two popular forms were combined, parts of a new dance were used in an old traditional dance, or traditional steps used in a new dance. Just like dungarees, a dance wasn't practical unless it could put up with a lot of patching and use, or be handy, in different social situations. Out of these influences came our Barn Dance, Cakewalk, and much of our social dancing; and the ethnic communities throughout America have adopted many of these social dances as their own today.

Once a distinctly American form was established, it might mix with other distinctly American dances to produce something new and different. This happened in Early California where the Fandango, filed with dances of Spanish/Native American descent, met the Americanos and the sailors, with Hornpipes, Jigs, and Reels of Black/New England/Kanaks (Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia) descent. A good time was had by all with Zapateados and double shuffles raising the golden dust, but no lasting changes occurred, the moment passed. On the other hand, modern Western-style Square Dance was born in a similar type of get-tother. New Englanders, with their style of Quadrille and Contra, Southerners with their Mountain-style Square Dance or Country Dance, other Southerners with memories of a Creole or Quadroon ball, Texans with their Texan/Mexican Polka Quadrilles, all met and traded good times in the days of the cowboy. Local callers kept the many styles alive into the 20th century when a mid-century revival succeeded in standardizing the form and spreading it worldwide. Today, Square Dance is constantly adding new movements, music, and calling styles to please today's dancers.

Square Dance has not been our only export in dance. From the imported cultural material, we have manufactured many new dance products and distributed them worldwide. Tap Dance, Jazz Dance, and Show Dance through the movies and Broadway musicals are international. The Boston, the Barn Dance, and the Foxtrot have graced the programs of Ballroom Dance competitions in England and elsewhere. The Cakewalk swept the world at the turn of the century (they even danced it in Tahiti). Later American dances to go abroad have been the Texas Tommy, the Charleston, the Lindy Hop (Jitterbug), and the Rock-and-Roll. The most widespread and popular international dance today is an American export: Rock. Rock dance, the result of cultural mix and exchange through the years of evolution, contains the elements of the past catalyzed by the feeling and style of today. It illustrates the evolution of the American dance.

This article can only touch upon the subject of American dance, its origins, and evolution. A proper presentation would fill several volumes. I have endeavored to summarize how some dances have evolved in the past. In the remainder of the article I will select a few ethnic groups of major dance influence and describe their contributions. There are many groups I reluctantly exclude, notably: the French, French Canadians, and Acadians from Canada; the Hispano-Americans throughout the Southwest, South, and California; the Scandinavian-Americans and German-Americans; and especially the Scottish-Americans and Irish-Americans. We are indebted to these and to so many other contributors for the fullness of our dance history and culture. Let me continue then at the beginning with those who danced here first.


NATIVE AMERICAN DANCE

A Native American is any subsequently unfortunate soul who happened to be standing (or dancing) on land anywhere in the domain of the Great Spirit at the time the Europeans began their frequent runs on the area. The same area that was later mapped (with no penchant for accuracy) in 1512 by Amerigo Vespucci who humbly named it after its recent discoverer, himself. Today we know Amerigo overlooked less publicized discoverers from Europe, some predating him by up to, say, 3,000 years. The modern Native American, however, dates his racial fate from around Amerigo's time.

Our bite of this large area, laden as it was with forests as thick as a green salad, with bison steaks, smoked salmon and corn, will consume the present day United States to its borders. The Sandwich Islands will be the the appetizer. The Native American residents of this area also may have come from abroad and brought their culture along. If the theory of the Bering Straits is true, then Asia figures prominently in this cultural history. Evidence of early man, however, discovered in California, my mean that someone had already been here for a million years before the migration. Many Native Americans today would be curious to know who had met their ancestors at the Bering Strait upon arrival. The seafaring Polynesians of Tahiti in their great and swift double-canoes did indeed discover and settle lush Hawai'i. Yet their stick navigation charts also included the West Coast of America and they may have had some influence on the art forms, dwellings, drums, vessels, and clothing of the communities along the Northwest and California coasts. The influences of the Asians and the Polynesians on Native American dance are only a matter of speculation today – the ravages of time, with the assistance of the U.S. Cavalry, have taken their enormous toll.

The written accounts of Native American dance through the years have shown a wide variety of dance forms and ceremonies among the several tribes. In the Plains, the annual or intermittent Sun Dance was one of the more widespread and revered religious ceremonies. It lasted for two to ten days and for certain men it involved sweat baths, isolation, meetings, and self-mutilation. This last was a test to draw courage. The man was tied from wooden pins skewered into his chest to a pole via rawhide thongs, Maypole-style. The brave then danced around the pole until he broke free of his thongs. The Sun ceremony still exists, although the Sun Dance is danced no more. The Plains Mandan was a tribe having many light-skinned members when first discovered by white men in 1738. Legend said they were descended from a Welsh or lost Viking ship of settlers. Their Bull Society Dance to lure the bison closer has been described as a wild, frenzied ceremony with the men in bison masks and skins. The women of the White Cow group would also hold a Bison dance that consisted of chanting to a swaying side step. The mark of this women's club was a high cap of white bison hide. Today, the Mandans are gone. The blow came from smallpox delivered with the goods from a riverboat in 1838. By 1839, only 31 Mandans survived. With what we know now of the Celts in New England and Vikings in Nova Scotia, we can only say that perhaps legends held truth.

The California natives, aside from running around naked and eating whatever was handy (evidently still a California tradition), had very few notable dances. One notable dance, however, that still exists, is performed annually at the Hupa reservation in Northern California. This is the Hupa Leaping Dance, danced in August or September. This dance is open to visitors.

Many festivals and ceremonies are danced privately today. Many others are not danced any more at all. Yet dance is becoming a larger part of life in today's Native American communities. You may wish to attend some of the Native American festivals open to visitors. There are many throughout the Southwest. The largest is in Flagstaff, Arizona. All of the Arizona tribes perform and dance there.


ANGLO-AMERICAN DANCE

Although the Spanish settled Saint Augustine, Florida, well before the English Jamestown or Massachussetts Bay and Plymouth colonies were established, their influence on dance in America was minimal at the time. Williamsburg did have an impact on English Colonial days, as did Charleston; later, Boston and Philadelphia. These were the seats of culture where the "Publik Assemblies" were held for enjoyment of the Minuet, an old Galliard, a Courante, a Gavotte, or even a Branle (also known as the "brawl" or Country Dance). These court dances came to us through England and are definitely part of England's contribution, although only a small segment of society benefitted from them. Let us concentrate, however, for a moment of the Country Dance.

The Country Dance is a folk dance usually done in a circle for as many as will, with partners. It is also done in longways, circle-eights, twelves, etc. It may have immigrated to America during the English settlement and headed for the hills because that is where it was found, unchanged, without evidence of court manners, three centuries later! It is still done in all its forms in the Appalachian Mountains. Today, in the mountains, they call it Square Dance. Let us follow the evolution of the Country Dance a bit further to understand just how interesting their term is. The Country Dance in its longways form became popular in France during the 18th century and came back to England with a new name, Contredanse. This was changed to the English term, Contra, by which it is called today. The French also liked the circle-eight form of the dance and it returned as the Cotillion with many figures. Over the years, a popular form of the Cotillion, with a five-figure pattern, became known as the Quadrille. It is believed that a mixing of the Quadrille and its courtly manners, with the Mountain square dance resulted in our modern Western-style Square Dance. Yet, the Quadrille is usually traced back only to France and as a result, I have never seen this described as a meeting of Father (the Country Dance) and Son (the Quadrille).

England has continued to contribute dances throughout the years. Many of our ballroom and social dances have come to us through her. Additionally, the Rapper Sword Dance, with Lancashire Clog, is said to be alive in the Appalachians, but I have not seen proof of this. The Lancashire Clog steps have, however, been present there. In the past twenty years or so, England has sent us some of her variations or our own Rock/Rock 'n' Roll dance. Yet, no contribution has been as great or as long lasting as her gift to us of the Country Dance.


AFRO-AMERICAN DANCE

The peoples of Africa, forced to emigrate to the Americas, have endowed their new home with the wealth of their many cultures. Of all the immigrant cultures, the Afro-Americans have contributed the most to our dance and music. Virtually every dance and music form extant in the United States today has benefitted from these contributions and endowments. All too often, the contribution has survived in a dance without acknowledgement or recognition of the contributor. Occasionally, the African movements are misunderstood. Yet, whether recognized or not, the African and Afro-American movement has excited, inspired, and captivated America and a large portion of the world.

The slave trade covered a great portion of Africa, but most of the slaves sold in North America and the West Indies came from West Africa. The preferences by planters were along these general lines: The Portuguese colonies preferred slaves from Senegal; Spanish planters preferred Yorubans; the English preferred Ashanti; and the French colonists were supplied with Dahomeans. Once here, the Africans adopted the deities and attitudes of their conquerors, as was their custom. Keep in mind that the Latin/Catholic had snappier music and a more lenient attitude than the English/Protestant. The Ashanti quickly changed his ways entirely because of the smaller English plantations, prohibitions on dancing or drumming (which were important to Ashanti worship), and no similarities between Protestantism and their own religion. The Dahomean, on the other hand, allowed to pursue his own music and dance, found in the Catholic Church a great deal with which to identify. The Dahomeans were the original voodoo (vodun) worshippers and their snake god Damballa seemed similar to the picture of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, so St. Patrick's Day became a day also to the Damballa with the music and dance for his worship. In this way, the African and Catholic religions fused and African dance and music lived on.

Voodoo grew in the French colonies of Haiti and New Orleans. Here, in the ceremonies danced naked by Black men and women, the dance traditions were preserved. As more whites moved into New Orleans in the early 1800s, an area was set aside for religious and social dancing in order to stem the growth and influence of voodoo. Voodoo prospered, but now, every Sunday in Congo Square, the Black population had a place to meet and dance the Conga, Counjaille, Bamboula, and the cultish Calinda. Every Sunday the Voodoo Queen would oversee the meeting, wearing appropriate finery. Although the dancers would be wearing clothes and be more restrained in their movements, the dancing was the same as that at a voodoo rite.

Congo Square remained through the 19th century and so did the dances. As the century drew to a close, the African movements have survived through the years. The Calinda, for example, came from the West Indies as a Contra dance. Opposing lines of men and women would advance toward each other with a great deal of body movement. Upon meeting in the middle, they would slap their bellies and thighs and eventually retreat. This dance survives as a couple dance. In the 1940s, we called it Boomps-a-Daisy; last year, we called it the Bump. Rock Dance then, is as traditional as any folk dance, having preserved the African movements within the accepted social dance form of the day.

The slaves of the Protestant planters, however, were not to be forgotten. They couldn't drum, so they clapped their hands, patted their feet, slapped their bodies, and used their voices as instruments in polyrhythmic harmonies to produce almost the same results. They couldn't dance but they could walk in a circle while they sang and patted Juba. A leader would call verse to the people while they responded the chorus. The result was almost the same as the shuffling-stomp circle dance they had done in Africa. Over the years, the influence of the Methodists and Baptists eroded and the body movements returned. During that time there were two periods of white religious revival and this form of shuffle dancing, the Ring Shout, was adopted at the camp meetings and by the newly formed Shaker Society as part of the worship service.

This "stomp" dancing with its many steps and intricate rhythms formed the basis for the distinctly American form of Clog dancing. Later, as mentioned above, this form of flat footed dance met the Irish style of Clogging up on half-toe. Together they formed the 20th century form, Tap dance. Today, the flat-footed style is danced in conjunction with Mountain-style square dance or by very old Tap dancers. Tap dance can be seen in all those wonderful old movie musicals on television. And you know what? I think Tap dance is here to stay, in one form or another!


DOCUMENTS


Printed in Folk Dance Scene, July/August 1977.


This page © 2018 by Ron Houston.
Please do not copy any part of this page without including this copyright notice.
Please do not copy small portions out of context.
Please do not copy large portions without permission from Ron Houston.