History of Black Dance: The Origins of Black Dance

The Cakewalk at the Alhambra, 1904

The Cakewalk at the Alhambra, 1904

The term black dance describes a range of styles whose origins include the tribal dances of Africa, the slave dances of the West Indies and the American Deep South, the Harlem social dances of the 1920s and the jazz dance of Broadway musicals. Black dance has often been bound up with social and rights issues.

The history of black dance in Britain is relatively young and the first black British dance company, Ballet Nègres, was formed in 1946. However black dancers from the USA have been touring to England since the early 19th century and black musicals from the States were popular on the British stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Africa and the West Indies

The two main origins of black dance are African dance and the slave dances from the plantations of the West Indies.

Tribes or ethnic groups from every African country have their own individual dances. Dance has a ceremonial and social function, celebrating and marking rites of passage, sex, the seasons, recreation and weddings. The dancer can be a teacher, commentator, spiritual medium, healer or story-teller.

In the Caribbean each island has its own traditions that come from its African roots and the island’s particular colonial past – British, French, Spanish or Dutch. 18th-century black dances such as the Calenda and Chica were slave dances which drew on African traditions and rhythms.

The Calenda was one of the most popular slave dances in the Carribean. It was banned by many plantation owners who feared it would encourage social unrest and uprisings. In the Calenda men and women face each other in two lines moving towards each other then away, then towards each other again to make contact - slapping thighs and even kissing. The dance gets faster and faster and the movement more and more sexual. It is thought that the Calenda and the Chica come from the courtship dances of the Congo.

Popular social dances of the 20th century such as the Charleston and Cakewalk are descended from these slave dances.

Music sheet cover, Jim Crow performing at Surrey Theatre, July 1836

Music sheet cover, Jim Crow performing at Surrey Theatre, July 1836

Minstrel shows

Some of the first black dancers to tour to England were the black minstrel performers from the USA. Records show them appearing at Vauxhall Gardens and in London theatres from the mid 19th century. Black minstrel Billy Kersands performed for Queen Victoria, who was said to have much admired him.

The first minstrel performers in the USA were white performers, who smeared their faces in burnt cork and danced and sang in imitation of black people. The dance they performed most widely was a mixture of an African ring dance and an Irish jig. Two stereotyped minstrels developed – the Clown and the Dandy. These comic caricatures ridiculed black people, but black performers too began to black up as minstrels.

Famous black minstrels who performed in Britain included the Bohee Brothers, Billy Kersands and Juba.
Billy Kersands specialised in the soft shoe dance and another dance called the Buck and Wing. His comic talent lay in the fact that he was a huge man yet danced with an extremely light step. The Bohee Brothers, who also danced the soft shoe dance, played the banjo at the same time. They were said to have taught the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) how to play the banjo.

The song 'Oh England Is de Grand Place, or the Real Jim Crow', written by Alfred Bunn and sung by the comedian and singer Paul Bedford was performed in the pantomime Harlequin Gammer Gurton at Drury Lane.

The song was a parody of 'Jump Jim Crow', a song which became a huge-19th century hit in the United States. It was first performed in 1828 by the white comedian and minstrel Thomas Dartmouth Rice, blacked up as an African American.

He was not the first white man to use burnt cork to black his face and appear as a black man. As early as 1767 a New York act was billed as 'a Negro dance, in character'. It was Rice, however, who popularised the act and made a fortune. He performed throughout America, where both the song and the dance became a national craze, and also in London and Dublin.

The popularity of the minstrel show in the late 19th and early 20th century owed much to his success. According to Rice, his posture, movements and song were based on those of an elderly, lame, black groom he had once seen. As a showman, he would have exaggerated and distorted the movements, not reproduced them exactly. Rather than giving a true picture of a  black slave's dance, Rice helped create the caricature which was passed down through the minstrel shows.

Newspaper article relating to Master Juba, Illustrated London News, London, England, 1848. Museum no. 172935

Newspaper article relating to Master Juba, Illustrated London News, London, England, 1848. Museum no. 172935

Master Juba

Master Juba, alias William Henry Lane, was born in Rhode Island, USA. He made his name in the clubs and music halls of Manhattan in the 1840s where he was nicknamed the King of all Dancers.

Charles Dickens, visiting New York in the 1840s, attended a performance of Juba’s and wrote afterwards that Juba was ‘the wit of the assembly and the greatest dancer ever known’.

He was famous for dancing the jig and toured to London in 1848 with Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders. He appeared at Vauxhall Gardens on 1 July 1848 in an evening’s entertainment that also included Tom Barry the clown who sailed down the river Thames in a wash tub drawn by four geese.

Juba died in London in 1852. The name Juba comes from a dance derived from Africa via the West Indies. The dance is very rhythmical, using lots of stamping and clapping.

Dance in musicals

Two US musicals to visit the UK at the end of the 19th century were to spark a craze for the popular dance, the Cakewalk.

The Creole Show

Magazine article relating to The Cakewalk at the Shaftsbury Theatre (1888-1941), 1903

Magazine article relating to The Cakewalk at the Shaftsbury Theatre (1888-1941), 1903

The Creole Show was the first all black musical and had premiered in New York in 1889. The show starred 16 black women as chorus girls. The black leads were Dora Dean and Charles Johnson who performed the dance, the Cakewalk, as the finale.

The dance came from the mocking dance created by slaves in the West Indies to imitate the way that white people danced. In the Cakewalk the upper body was stiff but the legs were fluid. It was danced to Ragtime music made popular by Scott Joplin. The syncopated rhythms of Ragtime music developed from the rhythms of West African drumming.

In Dahomey

The musical In Dahomey came to London in 1903 from New York. It was the first all black musical to reach the London stage. The show played at the Shaftesbury Theatre and featured the comic duo of writers Bert Williams and George Walker.

In Dahomey was a huge success in London and the Cakewalk and Buck and Wing dances that featured in the production became the latest dance hall crazes in the UK.

The lyrics were by a well known poet, Paul Dunbar, and the music was by Will Marion Cook. He was a pupil of Antonin Dvorak, the famous Czech composer.

The show hadn't had much success in America. It had failed to attract audiences and closed after only 53 performances. However, London enjoyed the unfamiliarity of its lively leading men, Bert  Williams and George Walker, and it remained at the Shaftesbury Theatre from mid-May 1903 until Boxing Day that year.
Rhoda King, Jessie Ellis, Birdie Williams and Ida Gigas were members of the chorus of In Dahomey, which boasted a cast of over 100.

The show was heavily publicised. Photographs of the production showing the prettiest chorus girls appeared in all the illustrated magazines and the front of the theatre was covered with posters and photographs.

At this time, there were few black people to be seen in the West End, so the management made sure that the performers were seen walking up and down Shaftesbury Avenue to increase public interest in the show.

Two scenes from In Dahomey at Shaftesbury Theatre, The Sketch magazine, 1903. Museum no. 131655

Two scenes from In Dahomey at Shaftesbury Theatre, The Sketch magazine, 1903. Museum no. 131655

In Dahomey chorus members at Shaftesbury Theatre (1888-1941), The Sketch Magazine, print cutting from a magazine, London, United Kingdom, 1903. Museum no. 131655

In Dahomey chorus members at Shaftesbury Theatre (1888-1941), The Sketch Magazine, print cutting from a magazine, London, United Kingdom, 1903. Museum no. 131655

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