Black History Month 2021: Dance Genres Rooted in Black Culture
Why do we celebrate Black History Month? Initially founded in 1926, and later recognized by the U.S. government in 1976, Black History Month was established by Dr. Carter G. Woodson with the goal of promoting and celebrating the accomplishments of Black Americans—which have long been overlooked in history lessons and textbooks.
This year, Sharing the Barre wanted to identify and celebrate ways that Black culture has influenced our dance styles today. Check out these five popular dance genres you may, or may not, have realized are rooted in Black culture.
Since the second half of the 20th Century, African dance massively transformed Western dance and ultimately influenced what we know today as Modern dance. And two Black American dancers, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, made immeasurable contributions to Modern dance based on their research done in Africa and the Caribbean.
And dance companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, continued to contribute to and transform the genre of Modern dance. Alvin Ailey holds an important place in the Modern dance world for being the choreographer of the ‘black modern dance.’ He trained in and learned from a variety of teachings (including the likes of Katherine Dunham) before creating his own company—which now is a renowned company for multiethnic dancers and choreographers.
When I was doing research for this blog post, the genre I was most surprised to read about was Tap. I spent 20 years doing flaps, shuffles, and riffs, and never once learned about the history behind each step. Tap dance originated in the U.S. in the early 19th century and is a fusion of African and Irish American dance styles. According to an article by the University of Michigan, when slave owners took away traditional African percussion instruments, slaves often turned to percussive dancing to retain their cultural identities—creating a unique form of movement and rhythm.
The origins of Jazz dance stem from the 17th century, when African people were forced to North America amid the slave trade. Staying low to the ground, knees bent, pulsating body movements, and body isolations are styles of African dance that can be seen in the Jazz genre. As slaves were forced into America, they were cut off from their families, languages, and traditions—resulting in an intermingling of African cultures. The movements of African dance: foot stamping, hand clapping, and rhythms were woven into what we know today as Jazz.
The dance genre most widely known for its roots in Black culture is HipHop—but did you know the rise of key HipHop elements can actually be traced back to one DJ? HipHop was rising in popularity through the 1970s and DJ Kool Herc can be credited with growing the genre into what it is today. At a 1973 dance party, Herc spun the same record on twin turntables, toggling between them to draw out the percussive 'breaks.’ New York DJs followed Herc’s lead and gradually finessed the technique and perfected what we now know as 'breaking.’
HipHop was inspired by African dance and thrived as a new genre performed on the street—it was a dance “for the people.” When it comes to movement, HipHop incorporates aspects of seemingly every other dance genre: from modern and jazz dance, to tap and swing.
Select Latin Dance, Including Salsa
If you practice the art of Latin dance, you most likely dance to music that has origins not just in Latin America, but also in Black African culture and the Atlantic slave trade—and chances are some of the songs are actually about the impact of global inequality and structural racism.
Rumba is a dance genre that originated from Black Cubans in the 19th century. According to “Race, Gender, and Class Embodied in Cuban Dance” by Yvonne Payne Daniel, after the Cuban revolution in 1959, many musicians from the island moved to New York, meeting up with other Caribbean and Latino cultures. Soon enough, different music styles came to life in New York City, eventually transforming into what we know as Salsa.
Celebrating Black Culture in Dance
What’s the takeaway? Seemingly every genre of dance has roots in Black culture, and specifically African dance.
From streets in the Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc grew the popularity of HipHop, to international stages and studios, where the likes of Misty Copeland and Alvin Ailey performed ballet and modern genres, the influence of Black culture can be seen at every angle of the dance world.
To close out Black History Month 2021, Sharing the Barre put together a list of organizations that support Black culture in the performing arts. We encourage you to click their links and learn more about their work :