The history of African-American social dance

This is the Bop. The Bop is a type of social dance. Dance is a language, and social dance is an expression that emerges from a community. A social dance isn’t choreographed by any one person. It can’t be traced to any one moment. Each dance has steps that everyone can agree on, but it’s about the individual and their creative identity. Because of that, social dances bubble up, they change, and they spread like wildfire. They are as old as our remembered history. In African-American social dances, we see over 200 years of how African and African-American traditions influenced our history.

The present always contains the past. And the past shapes who we are and who we will be. (Clapping) The Juba dance was born from enslaved Africans’ experience on the plantation. Brought to the Americas, stripped of a common spoken language, this dance was a way for enslaved Africans to remember where they’re from. It may have looked something like this. Slapping thighs, shuffling feet and patting hands: this was how they got around the slave owners’ ban on drumming, improvising complex rhythms just like ancestors did with drums in Haiti or in the Yoruba communities of West Africa.

It was about keeping cultural traditions alive and retaining a sense of inner freedom under captivity. It was the same subversive spirit that created this dance: the Cakewalk, a dance that parodied the mannerisms of Southern high society — a way for the enslaved to throw shade at the masters. The crazy thing about this dance is that the Cakewalk was performed for the masters, who never suspected they were being made fun of. Now you might recognize this one. 1920s — the Charleston.

The Charleston was all about improvisation and musicality, making its way into Lindy Hop, swing dancing and even the Kid n Play, originally called the Funky Charleston. Started by a tight-knit Black community near Charleston, South Carolina, the Charleston permeated dance halls where young women suddenly had the freedom to kick their heels and move their legs. Now, social dance is about community and connection; if you knew the steps, it meant you belonged to a group.

But what if it becomes a worldwide craze? Enter the Twist. It’s no surprise that the Twist can be traced back to the 19th century, brought to America from the Congo during slavery. But in the late ’50s, right before the Civil Rights Movement, the Twist is popularized by Chubby Checker and Dick Clark. Suddenly, everybody’s doing the Twist: white teenagers, kids in Latin America, making its way into songs and movies. Through social dance, the boundaries between groups become blurred.

The story continues in the 1980s and ’90s. Along with the emergence of hip-hop, African-American social dance took on even more visibility, borrowing from its long past, shaping culture and being shaped by it. Today, these dances continue to evolve, grow and spread. Why do we dance? To move, to let loose, to express. Why do we dance together? To heal, to remember, to say: “We speak a common language. We exist and we are free.”

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