Black Dance is Beautiful
The Importance of Black Dance
In this blog post, I hope to discuss the importance of Black Dance, and what makes this cultural expression more than just a means of physical movement. In our Anthropology class, we have been discussing body techniques and how we use our bodies in different social situations, groups, and places. Historically African Americans have used their bodies as a means to show unity, skillful art, and passion. For decades we have used our bodies as a means of storytelling. When you see a group of young boys dancing in perfect synchronization over sounds of rhythmic beats, it means more than just “looking cool” or being on-trend. After observing several displays of popular dances performed by my younger brother and his friends such as the Wop, Jerk, Shuffle, Milly Rock, and the ever so popular Whip and Nae Nae, I found myself intrigued more than ever about how traditions like this started.
I would like to begin by stating a few facts about the dance I observed by my brother and his friends. One, the performance was outdoor and was completely improved. The boys had little to no discussion before breaking out into a full dance. Two, though the dance itself came out of the blue, the moves within the dance were executed with perfect unity. Everyone knew exactly what movie came next as if they had been rehearsing together for weeks. Three, though I was watching the performance, the boys were not aware of me being there and didn’t care too much about my opinions or what I was doing physically while they were dancing. It was as if they were in their bubble and the dance was for them and their social context alone. Though I was invited to observe, my presence didn’t disrupt the intimate aspect of socially interacted among friends. And lastly, I couldn’t help but notice that the boys were all laughing, shouting, singing, and smiling while they were dancing. There was no sense of formality at all. It was a happy physical expression of art and more simply, togetherness.
Though these informal dances that are performed with a group of friends, usually outdoors at parties or events, are often seen as trendy movements that are only performed for fun, they have a lot more context and historical meaning than that. Watching all five of the boys move in perfect synchronization was an eye-opening experience. Everyday young black boys and girls are learning and performing the same dances that they created for one another. It’s a form of communication and unity like no other. I related these kinds of dances to an anthropologist we’ve talked about before in a previous class, Katherine Dunham. Katherine was an African American woman who was a major influence on black dance in the early 1900s. The modern styles we have today are derived from her early styles of dance she formed through studying African and Caribbean cultures. If you watch any performance videos of Katherine you can see the correlations between her style and some of the more popular dances today.
Another major point I found interesting is that usually black dances do not start in the same fashion as dances from other cultures. Where you might learn the waltz or the salsa in a professional dance setting steeped in decades of tradition, most black dances that gain popularity are started within the community itself. Friends come together and make up their dances that quickly become recognized and adopted by the entire community. Another important thing to note is how social black dance is. Often with other forms of dance, there is a single performer or a group of performers and a silent observant audience. However, with black dance, there is a larger sense of unity between the dancer and the observers. The audience is often excited, and shouting and cheering on the performer and will even at times join in the dancing itself. The “stage” is not limited to a certain area as the dance spills across a wide range of space. There is also more room to improve and freedom with the body. Other forms of dance, take ballet, for example, have strict lines of movement and structure for the body to exist within for a “good” performance. These boundaries are blurred within black dance and the more loose and free your body can be, the more the audience will appreciate your skill. When I think of prominent figures in black dance I think of people like James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Beyonce. All of this artist exist within what some people may see as a “contemporary” style of dancing. While there may be at time hints of more formal styles of dance within their performances, they are largely jazz, hip-hop, and R&B inspired which are predominately black forms of music.
While there is a large sense of community within black dance there is also a large sense of competition. Dance battles are a huge part of hip-hop and breakdance. In these styles of dance, you can observe the performers moving their bodies with intensity and aggression. Their facial expressions are often very powerful and their attitude can be felt with every movement. On the other hand, the dances being preformed can also be light-hearted and even humorous at times. In a lot of ways, black dancing is a lot like acting more than anything else. There's a story being told, emotions being expressed and felt, and the performers utilize every part of their body and their performances. I feel this is why you see such large groups of African Americans dancing together in a perfect synchronization at events like parties, weddings, or even family reunions. It’s an all-encompassing art form that brings people together.