African and African-American Dance is a broad term referring to the many dance styles from the cultures and countries of the African continent, but particularly Southern Africa. African dance most often refers to traditional social dance, and to ceremonial or religious dance—danced communal religious observances led either by priests or girots who perform ritual dance-dramas that share cultural traditions or community history through metaphorical statements expressed in music and dance.
African dance has also been an important influence on social dance in all parts of the African Diaspora, but particularly throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, and on modern dance since the second half of the 20th Century. Dance scholar, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, wrote in 1993, “Any serious attempt to study Black dance (in the United States) demands a study of African and New World Black cultures.”
African dance is polyrhythmic—the simultaneous sounding of two or more independent rhythms in drummers and dancers, the relationship of rhythm to movement is key. African dance is notable for the close, multi-directional relationships among participants, often called a conversation, between drummer and dancer, and also drummer to drummer and dancer to dancer. During stage performances the fourth wall often comes down, communication extending between dancer, drummers, and audience members.
African dances are performed in lines or circles of dancers. The body is used asymmetrically. All parts of the body articulate in African dance; arms, legs, and torso all appearing angular, bent, the body slightly forward. Shoulder and hip movement are notable. Feet are flattened against the ground in a wide stance. Steps include: scuffing, stamping, jumping and hopping steps. African dance is often said to be “earth centered;” even in jumping styles, (such as the Tutsi of Rwanda,) the orientation is towards the earth.
African choreographers today are trained and choreograph in many forms. South African ballet choreographer, Dada Masilo, and modern dance teacher and choreographer Germaine Acogny of Senegal, known as the mother of modern dance in Africa are two.
A number of U.S. dance companies have created a unique dance style by blending traditional African and modern dance. These include: PHILADANCO (Philadelphia), Step Afrika! (Washington, D.C.), and Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company (New York), to name only a few. The work of these companies would not have been possible without their deep engagement with several diaspora pioneer percussionists—Kimati Dinizula, Babatunde Olatunji, Olukose Wiles—who helped establish the performative style of the American African dance company. In 1978, Baba Chuck Davis, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Brooklyn, held the first DanceAfrica which, included Arthur Hall, Charles Moore, Chuck Davis, Dinizulu, and the International Afrikan American Ballet. Now an annual, Memorial Day weekend celebration, DanceAfrica includes performance by some of the countries top African dance companies, visiting guest companies from Africa, education events, and an African Bazaar.
Several, 20th century Black American choreographers established the groundwork for choreographers whose work references African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Anthropologists/choreographers Catherine Dunham and Pearl Primus pioneered the notion that there could be a Black American choreography that was different than that of contemporary Euro-American choreographers. Both were also PhD anthropologists pioneering the field of dance ethnography. Choreographer/teacher Lester Horton created a dance technique that is the foundation for the choreography and technique (with ballet and jazz,) of choreographer Alvin Ailey and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (founded in 1958.) Currently led by choreographer Robert Battle, AAADT is one of the most popular, and most seen, dance companies in the world. Ailey Dance has performed in 48 states, 71 countries, and on 6 continents. Ailey’s influential work has shaped generations of (particularly African-American) choreographers.
In 2ist Century United States choreographers who identify as Black Americans come from a wide range of traditions and choreographic approaches. It would do an injustice to all of their work to try and summarize it.
Authentic movement—is an expressive improvisational movement practice started by Mary Starks Whitehouse in the 1950s. Participants adhere to improvisational structures that allow for “free association of the body” followed by discussion governed by an established protocol.
Ballet—Developed from 16th Century court dance. The word “ballet” and the word “ball”—a dance party—are derived from the Italian “ballare” meaning “to dance.” Ballet has a specific, recognizable movement vocabulary that developed primarily in France initially from 17th century social dance movement. Classical ballets are composed in four main parts: adage, female and male variations, and the grand allegro. Ballet is usually accompanied by music. Satin, square-toed slippers called point shoes help female dancers rise to the tips of their toes, a hallmark of ballet. Female dancers wear costumes known as tutus—both short and long styles are constructed with layers of tulle. Modern ballet may be performed in a variety of costumes, including street clothes.
A number of periods of dance performance led to modern ballet:
The most famous members of the Ballet Russe were brother and sister Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer of Rite of Spring, (music by then unknown Igor Stravinsky) and Bronislava Ninjinksa, the company ballet master. A young George Balanchine began developing his ideas of neo-classical ballet while working for the Ballet Russe in the 1920s His partnership with composer Igor Stravinsky began here. Their Apollo (1928) is considered the first neo-classical ballet.
Belly Dance—has roots in India. Some think it may be one of the oldest styles of dance in the world. Belly dance is a “Western”-coined name for a traditional dance found in “West Asian” and northern parts of the African Continent. Other names include Arabic dance or “Oriental” dancing after the Orientalist paintings that depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. “Belly dance” is a translation of the Victorian era French name for the dance, “danse du ventre,” and is something of a misnomer. Belly dancing became (in)famous in the U.S. when the dancer, Little Egypt, performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Also known as cooch dancing, belly dance found its way into silent film, variety, burlesque, circus, seaside sideshows, and eventually Hollywood. These Americanized theatrical versions in turn influenced dancers in the Middle East shaping the dance performance as we know it today. For example, there is no documented use of flowing veils before the 1900’s and belly dancing’s appearance in film.
Belly dance takes different forms depending on country and region both in costume and dance style. New styles have evolved in the West as the dance’s popularity has spread globally. Belly dance movement originates in the torso and features the hips rather than in the legs and feet. The dance focuses on weaving isolations through different parts of the body, together they make sensuous patterns that move throughout the body.
Probably the greatest misconception about belly dancing is that it is intended to entertain men. But belly dance is most often performed among women, generally during fertility rites or parties preparing a young woman for marriage, situations where men are not permitted. Raqs baladi, (“local dancing” or “folk” dance), is the traditional, social style of belly dance. Danced by men and women in some Middle Eastern countries and the United States, most commonly at festive occasions such as weddings. Raqs sharqi (“eastern/oriental dancing”) is performed in restaurants and cabarets and is generally a solo, improvisational dance most often performed by women, but occasionally by men.
Contemporary Dance—means several things. First, and most generally, contemporary dance means all dance currently being created by living choreographers and performed at this time, no matter the genre. It is often specifically used to replace “modern” or “post-modern” in discussions of “avant-garde, process-based concert dance…that evolved” from the earlier forms.*
It is also the name of a specific, dramatic, virtuosic commercial dance form drawn largely from ballet and jazz, rooted in dance competitions, but now a style seen in concert dance, music videos, sports etc. Competition dance is a relatively recent development most familiar from television reality shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and others like it. While there are several categories of dance competition, contemporary dance is most often seen in “open competitions.” “Open competitions” require contestants to perform dances, usually rehearsed and developed in a compressed amount of time, and often in a variety of styles—acro(batics) ballet, jazz, hip hop, lyrical, and tap—in front of judges for awards ranging from trophies to monetary sums and professional or educational opportunities. Critic Gia Kourlas calls this type of contemporary dance “nonvirtuosic-virtuosic…a way of dancing that generally includes unison formations, swift kicks, rolls to the floor and cheap sentimentality. The formula has to do with speeding up movement when the music is slow and drawing it out when a song picks up its pace.”*
Third, Kwan says that in the “world dance market, ‘contemporary” encompasses “a range of practices: Western contemporary dance performed by non-Western dancers, ethnic dance fused with Western contemporary vocabulary and/or compositional techniques, or innovations on a traditional non-Western form.
*Kwan, SanSan, 2017, “When Is Contemporary Dance?” Dance Research Journal V49 N3 p48.
*Kourlas, Gia, 2010, “Time to Put Choreography Back on Its Feet” New York Times, September 2.
Dance (classical) in India—is an umbrella term for 8 or more styles rooted in religious Hindu musical theater styles. The theory and practice of all classical Indian arts can be traced back to the Sanskrit text the Natya Shastra. Dances are regional, all include music and recitation, and represent a unity of core ideas in a diversity of styles. All forms include both pure dance (nirta), solo expressive dances (nritya), and group dramatic dancing (natya.)
Dance in Japan—is largely connected with Japanese masked drama, told through dance, chanting, and music. All Japanese theater requires highly trained actors and musicians. Performers are trained from early childhood through an apprenticeship that can last a lifetime. In training performers learn specific ways of moving, and the stylized walk that allow them to portray a particular genre of character. Performers tend to specialize in a single character style throughout their life. Performers often continue to perform throughout their life. Older performers are considered to have greater depth in their understanding of their roles.
Dance in China—evolved from folk traditions.
Dance in the U.S.—is as varied as the people who live here. Unique social dance styles have developed, or been choreographed and taught, in the United States since the early 20th Century and the beginning of the Jazz Age. Dances like the Foxtrot, Charleston, and especially the Lindy Hop and its variants, hip hop styles today, are all U.S. dances with world-wide fans. Each style has its own unique history.
But 2 styles, both with origins in the British Isles, are identified as the “traditional” dance of the United States.
Contra Dance—originates from a mixture of English Country Dance, and Scottish and French dance styles from the 17th century. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world. Dancers form couples and join long lines down the length of the dance hall. Within the line, couples generally form sets of two. Throughout the course of a dance, couples progress up and down these lines, dancing with each other couple in the line. At times these “visits” to other couples can be quite complex. Dances are led by a caller who teaches the sequence of figures—a series of steps—in the dance before the music starts. The caller continues to “call” the “figures” as they arise during dancing. In a single dance, a caller may include anywhere from 6–12 figures repeated through out the dance. Contra dancers often dance to live music. While generally U.S. or French-Canadian traditional, “techno” contra dances are performed to techno music. The fiddle is considered the core instrument, though other stringed instruments are used, as well as the piano, accordion, and occasionally wind instruments. Music in a dance can consist of a single tune or a medley of tunes.
Square Dance or Modern Western Square Dance —differs from contra in that the dances are performed in squares of 4 couples who dance exclusively with each other. Directed by a caller as in contra, there is less teaching during a Modern Western Square dance; dancers are expected to have some knowledge of the calls. Separate lessons are available. In most other ways the 2 styles of dance are similar, but Modern Square is as likely to be danced to recorded music, and the music is not always “traditional.”
Flamenco—refers to both a musical form and a dance form originating in Southern Spain among the Roma (gypsys). Although they can be performed separately, the music and dance are considered a whole and flamenco concerts almost always include both. The oldest record of flamenco dates to 1774 in the book Las Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso. Danced flamenco is known for emotional intensity, proud carriage, expressive use of the arms, and rhythmic stamping of the feet. The elements of flamenco include: cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jalco (vocalizations and chorus clapping), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping). Flamenco footwork is often compared to tap and Irish step dance, but flamenco technique is different. (Some scholars believe that the footwork may have origins in Indian dance technique.) Castanets—wooden disks that fit between the thumb and forefinger of the dancer and can be rhythmically patted together—are closely associated flamenco.
There are 6 styles of flamenco. The flamenco most familiar to tourists was developed as a spectacle and is not considered “true” flamenco. Informal gypsy flamenco, danced during celebrations in Spain, is considered the most "authentic," if less technically virtuosic. Only in this form do arms curve around the head and body, often with bent elbows rather than extended, and hips are allowed to sway. Flamenco puro, the performance form considered closest to the gypsy tradition is always a solo improvisation. As the style developed, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was influenced by (and influenced) ballet. The form that evolved came to be known as classical flamenco. Danced largely upright, with a “proud” carriage and elongated arms, women’s backs are often held in a marked back bend with little movement of the hips. Modern flamenco is highly technical requiring years of study. The emphasis is on lightning-fast, absolutely precise footwork. Castanets, shawls and fans are frequently used despite purist’s protests. In the 1950s, dancer/choreographer Jose Greco, born in Italy to Spanish parents, raised in Brooklyn, pioneered a long-form style of flamenco choreography using a full company to tell dramatic stories, much like ballet. Flamenco Nuevo, a choreographed recent stylistic development, shows influences from other dance styles and is characterized by pared-down costumes . Men often dance bare-chested, women wear plain jersey dresses).
Young people are not thought to have the emotional maturity to convey the duende (soul) of flamenco. Flamenco dancers are thought not to hit their peak until they are in their thirties and many continue to perform into their fifties and beyond.
Hip Hop—is an umbrella term for 4 cultural phenomena that were developed in the 1970s primarily by black and Latino young people in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and later in California. MCing—now called rapping, is a musical form that focuses on complex word play and rhythm. DJing—the art of organizing music, often for dancing, recreates sound through the manipulation of recordings. The “break” is the rhythmic section of a song, its most danceable part that was exploited by DJs. Grafitti—is a stylized form of painterly “writing” and design originally found on sides of buildings and other urban surfaces.
A number of other hip hop dance styles have evolved from breaking. Three prominent styles, originating in different areas of the U.S. are:
All hip hop dance styles share certain key movements including:
Many hip hop pioneers object to references to their dance form as “street” or “urban” dance, preferring the use of styles specific names. Today, as these dance forms evolve both as concert forms performed by professional dancers and continue to develop on city streets, it is increasingly important to recognize their diversity and differences, as well as their common roots.
Irish Stepdance—is a dance performance derived from the traditions of Irish dance. Stepdance is characterized by a stiff upper body, quick precise movements of the feet creating clear rhythms. Arms must be kept still and hanging by the dancer’s side. Most steps are performed with slightly turned out toes. Each step is a sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps, which lasts for 8 bars of music and are traditionally performed on both the right and the left foot. The actual steps for each dance are unique to the dance school.
There are two types of stepdance defined by the type of shoes worn. Reels (4/4 time), light and single jigs (6/8 time,) and slip jigs (9/8 time) are considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Soft dance shoes,, similar to ballet slippers known as ghillies are worn. Hard shoes have wooden soles and make sounds similar to tap shoes. Hard sole dances include: Hornpipes (2/4 or 4/4 time) and the treble jig (slow 6/8 time). Most competitive stepdances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete in traditional set and group figure dances called céilí which are most commonly danced socially at festivals, but competitive céilís are more precise.
Costumes can be very expensive but are considered important for stage presence. Each performer tries to have a costume that is different and shows both their personality and represents their school or community. Female dancers in particular often curl their hair into ringlets before each competition and many dancers invest in curled wigs that match their hair color. Poodle Socks are worn with the dresses and shoes. These are white socks that stretch to mid calf with distinctive ribbing.
Jazz Dance—is an American performance dance technique and style. It emerged in the early twentieth century in vaudeville and burlesque and is based in African American social dance. Over time, a clearly defined genre emerged that also blended ballet and modern. A theatrical dance style, jazz is most often associated with musical theater. More recently competitive dance, cheer squads, etc have incorporated elements of jazz dance. Notable jazz choreographers who have contributed to its development include: Jack Cole, Bob Foss, Eugene Louis Faccuito, Gus Giordano, and ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Latin Dance—is the name ballroom studios gave to the 5 styles of competitive dance derived from the cultures of Mexico, South America, Central America and the Caribbean that have been set and are taught in the ballroom studio. The dances include: Samba, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, and Jive. Although their heritage is from the traditions and cultures of Latin American (Samba, Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba), Hispanic (Paso Doble is said to be a representation of a bull fight,) and the U.S. (Jive), all the dances share an exaggerated expressiveness and intensity and energy, although each has distinct traits and practices.
The connection of these dances to their dances of origin is often tenuous. Social Latin dances, what is also sometimes called “Street Latin,” are seen in clubs, parties, wherever members of a particular community gather. These dances often resemble the ballroom versions only in the most basic sense. They include: salsa, mambo, cha cha, merengue, rumba, bachata, bomba, plena, cumbia, samba, danzón, and the Argentine tango. (In the ballroom canon tango is considered a smooth dance.) Disco grew out of dances like mambo.
Both social and competition/ballroom Latin dance are considered “spot dances”—dances performed in place. They all involve a shift through the hips, sometimes called “Cuban motion,” and are notable for the importance of a sharp rhythmic awareness. Because these dances are kindred only in the context of Western ballroom dance, they should in no way be considered related.
Liturgical dance—refers to dance that is incorporated into religious observance as an expression of worship. It is also known as Praise dance though some people believe this only refers to improvisational forms of dance worship. Some notable examples include the dance of the Shakers and that seen in some Baptist churches, though it is not limited to these.
Modern dance—developed at the beginning of the 20th Century primarily in the United States. It is generally performed barefoot and costumes vary widely. Hallmarks of modern dance movement include movements expressed through tension and release, the use of the floor as an equal partner in the dance, and individualized dance vocabularies. Beginning in the late 1960s everyday movement, social dance movement, and movement from other vocabularies not considered dance are often incorporated into choreography. Modern dance today has prominent companies and creators throughout the world.
Swing Dance—is a recent umbrella term describing the partner-dances that developed to jazz swing music beginning in the 1920s and reaching a peak in the 1930s and ‘40s. While a number of dance styles—the Shag, the Peabody, the Balboa, for example—pre=dated swing-music, it is young, African-Americans dancing in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, drawing on the dancing of their forebears, that develop and codify the form. Based on the “swing out”, an 8 or 6-count phrase during which partners vigourously balance and reflect each other in a variety of rock-steps, kicks, slides, and other embellishments with an emphasis on improvisation, all performed vigoursly, swing-style dances were one of the first social dances during which male and female dancers performed equal roles in the dance. “Jitterbug” also can mean all forms of the dance, but it is most often associated with the East form. “Jive” is the name given to the style performed in ballroom competition. "Lindy Hop" is the classic New York style dance performed at the Savoy Ballroom, the name is attributed to Savoy dancer "Shorty" George Snowden.
Tap Dance—is a form of theatrical dance characterized by the use of shoes with metal plates on the toes and heels—tap shoes—that strike the floor in percussive sequences of rhythms. The tap technique originates from movement that allows the creation of these sequences. Tap dance’s roots are in the fusion of percussive dance styles, in particular early African-American social dance, English clog dancing and Irish jigs. The earliest descriptions of tap dance dates to the mid-1800s, but the form is likely older. The form developed through the minstrel show, variety, and the musical. Current tap styles include: rhythm, aka jazz tap, which focuses on musicality. Rhythm tappers consider themselves to be a part of the jazz tradition. Classical tap marries European "classical" music with American foot drumming; it allows for a wide variation in full-body expression. Broadway tap is rooted in English theatrical tradition. It focuses on formations, choreography, and generally less complex rhythms. Post-modern tap, the most recent expression of the form, incorporates abstract expression, thematic narrative, and technology