Compiled from "Image of Perfection:
The Freestyle Dance of Matt Mattox"
by Bob Boross

African dance has contributed the following
characteristics to dance in America:

1. a flat footed gliding action, dragging and shuffling the feet
2. movement performed in a crouch, with knees bent and body bent at the waist
3. movement that generally imitates animals
4. movement that exhibits improvisation, allowing for freedom of expression
5. movement that is centrifugal - exploding outward from the hips
6. movement that is performed to a propulsive rhythm to give a swinging quality

The term "swinging quality" is important to understand and recognize as a defining characteristic of African rhythm. Whereas European music tends to accent the first and third beat of a bar of music, or accent all beats equally, African rhythms tend to accent the second and fourth beats. This gives the feeling of a rebound, or as if the second and fourth beats were an answer to the first and third beats. It is a bounce, like a bouncing ball, that rebounds and continually renews the energy of the beat.

Dolores Kirton Cayou, in her book Modern Jazz Dance, agrees with the Stearns characteristics but also adds the quality of "polyrhythm in body movements". This is the practice of moving individual parts of the body in opposing and separate rhythms. It is a feat of coordination and complexity. It is another of the important movement qualities that Africans brought to America during the slave trade that are still visible in the jazz dances of the twentieth century.

Roots of American Vernacular Dance

The American slave trade began in 1619 with the arrival of Dutch trading ships carrying a cargo of Africans to Virginia. However, Africans were imported as slaves to the West Indies as early as 1518. The retention of African culture by those in slavery was stronger in the West Indies than in America, as the Spanish and French rulers adhered to the more lenient view of dancing taken by the Catholic church. In America, the Protestant church strongly disapproved of dance of any kind. Therefore, dances that occured in the West Indies retained more of the African dance structure than did those of America. These dances can be classified as recreational or sacred. An example of a recreational dance is the Calenda. Accompanied by a rhythmic drum beat, a line of males would face a line of females and one dancer from each line would advance toward each other and jump and strike thighs in mid-air. Also danced was the Chica - where a female would perform an undulating and shimmering motion of the torso with feet planted firmly, waving a kerchief over her head, while a male performed similar movements in a vigorous fashion circling around the female. The Juba was a competitive dance where opponents would outdo each other in feats of skill, sometimes while balancing a cup of water on the head.

Sacred dances were based on the worship of religious gods. The goal of the dance was for the dancer to become enveloped, or "possessed," by the god so that it would speak through the dancer. Through the combined application of chanting, drumming, and dance, the dancer entered a world of the supernatural and experienced the superhuman traits of the gods. In this state the dancer would command strength and abilities far beyond that capable in a non-possessed state. Two examples are voodoo dances and Shango dances. Another type of sacred dance was performed by "shouters", where the dancers would sing, clap, and move in a circular fashion around a room until the desired state of possession was evoked. Traces of the African religious practice of possession, or voluntarily disengaging from reality through the application of the combined effects of music and dance, can be detected in the appeal of some forms of jazz dance.

In America, the dance movement of Africa was restrained mainly by two factors - the attitude of the Protestant church towards dancing as being immoral, and the restricted use of the primary African instrument (the drum). The church felt that dancing was sinful and any stimulation of the senses was to be avoided. This included any type of spontaneous dance for joy that was part of the African-American expression. Drumming was banned in 1739 following the Cato Conspiracy. This was an insurrection by slaves that was mounted with the aid of messages transmitted by drum signals. White plantation owners responded by banning all drumming, and it had the secondary effect of forcing slaves to search for other percussion options to accompany their dancing. The substitute instruments included quills (an assortment of pipes of different pitches), banjos, clapping hands and stamping feet, and the fiddle (violin).

Plantation Dances

Dances that occured on plantations could be for recreation or religious reasons. Although they were based in the African tradition, the European influences of the plantation owners gave the movement a distinct American appearance. Many dances imitated animals, like the Pidgeon Wing and the Buzzard Lope. There were ring dances performed at weddings and funerals. Some dances celebrated special occasions, like the Christmas holiday and the work-week ending Saturday night dance. An important category of dances are competitive dances. At a gathering in town or on the plantation, a special platform would be constructed and slaves would entertain white plantation owners with feats of movement ability, with the best dancer (or dancer's owner) winning a prize. The most well known competition dance is the cakewalk. This dance developed as a parody of owner's aristocratic manners by slaves. They witnessed the owners dancing quadrilles, cotillions, and other pattern dances, and imitated their stiff upper bodies while contrasting it with loose leg movements from African dance. Eventually, the owners began to enjoy watching the comic antics and held contests between dancers and plantations for the best dancer. It was customary for the winner to receive the prize of a cake. The use of improvisation as a way to display a dancer's individual traits was paramount in the development of the American vernacular dance.

Dance on plantations generally included the influence of European traditions. There was a place in America, however, where African dancing did flourish relatively free from outside influences. This was Congo Square in New Orleans. From approximately 1805-1880, dancing by slaves was permitted on a field northwest of New Orleans (Emery, 156). The area was populated with people of French and Spanish culture, and it had been just been acquired by the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The French and Spanish Catholics were more tolerant of dancing than the Protestants, and it was felt that by allowing the slaves a specified time and place to dance under proper supervision the slaves would be happier (i.e. more productive) and any plans for revolt could be monitored. Also, it was a way to prevent any secret voodoo dances from being performed. Here the Calenda and the Chica was danced to the accompaniment of traditional African drums.