"The Fish Tail," "Struttin'" and "The Slow Drag" are only a few of the dances that have traveled through time with blues music. As dance evolved, the Afro-American elements became more formal and diluted, the British-European elements more fluid and rhythmic.
Dance moves passed down through generations were revised, recombined, and given new flourishes. The cyclical re-emergence of similar elements marks the African-American dance vocabulary.
During the post Reconstruction period (1875-1900), as Jim Crow Laws were passed in the South, dance steps once linked to ritualistic or religious dancing also acquired a more secular identity. Where by and large slavery had inhibited the retention of specific African tribal culture, the dances of working class and lower class blacks relinquished some of their Euro-American characteristics in during this time. Meanwhile, "dances became more upright and less flat-footed. As dance became more associated with sexuality and the free consumption of pleasure, which in the jook still had some communal ties to group dancing, the partnering relationship became more isolated and individualized. The "sport" and the "good-time gal" were people of the moment. Hip shaking and pelvic innuendo were now more of a statement to one's partner than to one's community.
W.C. Handy, who wrote some of the first published blues songs, documented his earliest experience with what may have been blues, and dancers reaction to it, at a dance circa 1905 in Cleveland, Mississippi. At one point Handy was asked to "play some of our native music". Although "baffled" he had his band played "an old-time Southern melody", after which he was asked if a local band could play a few numbers. That group consisted of "just three pieces, a battered guitar, a mandolin and a worn-out bass" (Handy described the group as "a Mississippi string band") and played "one of those over-and-over again strains that seem to have no very clear beginning and certainly no ending at all...It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps "haunting" is a better word for it...The dancers went wild.
Handy also described the reaction to his band, which included violin, guitar, string bass, clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone, and trumpet, playing his song "Mr. Crump" in 1909. "We were all settled into our chairs. I flashed the sign and the boys gave. Feet commenced to pat. A moment later there was dancing on the sideways below. Hands went in the air, bodies swayed like reeds on the banks of the Congo...In the office buildings about, white folks pricked up their ears. Stenographers danced with their bosses. Everybody shouted for more.
While playing mostly one-steps, polkas, schottishes and waltzes for colored patrons at Dixie Park in Memphis, Handy noted a reaction to the habanera rhythm included in Will H. Tyler's "Maori". "I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm...White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat." After noting a similar reaction to the same beat in "La Paloma", Handy included this rhythm in his St. Louis Blues, the instrumental copy of Memphis Blues, the chorus of Beale Street Blues, and other compositions."
Handy also elicited an enthusiastic reaction from colored dancers at the old K. of P. Hall with "a sort of Italian climax with a tricky rhythm" at the end of the first four bars of his "Memphis Blues". "During the playing I noticed periodic shouting from the floor, and a great roar of voices broke out when we came to a certain point in the piece. "Set in it", I heard them say. "Set in it!". Others told me of hearing happy little squeals among the Negro dancers for whom they played the piece.".
Writing about the first time St Louis Blues was played (1914), Handy notes that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues...When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightening strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."
The great Delta blues player Johnny Shines, who was born in 1915, recalled that "mostly you played for the dancers... They were doing two-steps and quite a few waltzes in those days.
"So far as what was called blues, that didn't come till 'round 1917...What we had in my coming up days was music for dancing, and it was of all different sorts" - Mance Lipscomb, Texas guitarist and singer
'Blues dancing' - continued in African American communities throughout the United States. In fact, the very nature of a vernacular dance culture ensures the survival of socially and culturally useful or valuable dances. Many of the steps specific to dances associated with popular blues songs of the 1920s were adapted for new musical structures in jazz, and new dance forms like the lindy hop. Early African American blues dances were very simple in their core movement and allowed for a wide variety of musical interpretation, embodying a black aesthetic approach to rhythm, movement and melody which permeated black music. They were often a simple one-step or two-step and though some movements may have been adapted and integrated into some mainstream popular dances, blues dancing as a distinct dance genre and social practice never became a specific focus for white America in the way that dances such as the Lindy Hop and Charleston have.
According to Albert Murray, blues idiom-dance movement has nothing to do with sensual abandonment. "Being always a matter of elegance [it] is necessarily a matter of getting oneself together." Practitioners of this tyle do not throw their bodies around; they do not cut comletely loose. A loss of coolness and control places one squarely outside the tradition.
The Funky Butt, Squat, Fish Tail, and Mooche are all performed with hip movements. Similar dances were popular in New York City by 1913. When dancers at the Jungles Casino-"officially a dancing school" "got tired of two-steps and schottiches...they'd yell: 'let's go back home!'...'Let's do a set'...or 'Now put us in the alley!' I did my Mule Walk or 'Gut Stomp' for these country dances.", according to pianist James P. Johnson "The dancers were from the Deep South."
Funky Butt - "Well, you know the women sometimes pulled up their dresses to show their pretty petticoats-fine linen with crocheted edges-and that's what happened in the Funky Butt...When (Big)Sue arrived at my father's tonk, people would yell..."Do the Funky Butt, Baby!" As soon a she got high and happy, that's what she'd do, pulling up her skirts and grinding her rear end like an alligator crawling up a bank."
Snake Hips is a movement in which the knees are moved forward and back, first one knee then the other, while keeping the feet together. As in Ball the Jack, in which the knees are held together, this results in a rotation of the hips.
The Strut resembles a basic dance of the Negro folk, part of the African American vernacular, similar to, or even "virtually indistignguishable" from dances seen in South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria. Strutting was often associated with cakewalking. "You had a lot of strut in the Cakewalk-lots of fellows walked like that just for notoriety-and they could really show off." "George "Bon Bon" Walker was the greatest of the strutters, and the way he promenaded and pranced was something to see," and was "the man who turned the Strut into the Cakewalk.
A common misconception within contemporary swing dance culture is that a blues dance must necessarily be slow, sensual, and emotionally intense. Yet, as with blues music, a blues dance may reflect loneliness, longing, sadness, anger and joy, as well as love, lust, and bawdiness and range across tempos and musical styles. Blues music is about common experiences. It is a sharing of human condition that is accessible to all, and at some level, and can be include one or more feelings from any point on the spectrum of human motion. The same can be said about blues dance.
The revival of Lindy Hop in the 1980s and 1990s has prompted complementary interests in other dances from Black vernacular dance traditions of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In America Lindy Hop today, after the revival, Lindy exchanges, with their emphasis on late night programs of social dance events, saw the introduction of 'blues rooms' to these events in the late 1990s. While the amount of Blues music played at these events varied widely the name and what Blues music was being played led to dancers patronizing blues music clubs and holding house parties that played a varying amounts of blues and blues-rooted music. In the late 1980s the Herräng Dance Camp began featuring an all-night "Blues Night" dancing party on Wednesday nights, which exposed swing dancers from all over the world to the idea of slow dancing to blues, jazz, and early rhythm & blues.
There are now blues dancing communities throughout the international swing dancing community, though local communities vary, reflecting local social and cultural values and contexts. The spread of blues dancing has been largely a result of individual dancers traveling between local communities and establishing blues scenes, individual teachers holding blues dance workshops in different cities and countries, and through the online community of blues dancers facilitating the spread of knowledge and music and encouraging dancers to found local blues dancing communities.
Blues dancing in swing dance communities today may range from traditional blues dances to much less historically grounded forms. Traditional styles and steps have gradually been reintroduced by teachers and dancers with an interest in the history of the form, some of which have been expanded or adapted to suit the needs and interests of contemporary dancers, and new dances have also been created, echoing these historical styles and traditions. Additionally, a freestyle form of partnered dancing - usually at slower tempos - has slowly developed alongside this process of rediscovery and popularizing of blues dance traditions. Partially based on the principles of partner connection, aesthetics and approaches to rhythm and timing of Lindy Hop, this burgeoning form often combines elements of West Coast Swing, Foxtrot, Argentine Tango, and general club dancing. Its growth has, arguably, been largely a result of the lack of established moves or basic steps. This style of free-form slow dancing has much in common with other dances such as Modern Jive, it does not bear most of the Africanist stylistic elements that define the historical family of blues dances, though its acquisitive 'step stealing' approach to borrowing from other dance traditions to suit the needs and interests of dancers is very much a feature of historical Blues dance and vernacular dance in general. These newer dances often offer interesting and intriguing interpretation of emotionally intense music, where the melody and harmonies are given precedence over rhythms.
There are ongoing debates within blues dancing and swing dancing culture today about what constitutes 'authentic' or 'true' blues dancing. Some hold the position that a blues dance that does not possess the stylistic, aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of Africanist dance cannot qualify as blues dance. Others argue that a blues dance which has had very little creative contribution from black dancers or draw from the base of movement they created, does not qualify either. Yet a third position might hold that a blues dance is simply dancing to blues music, regardless of the steps performed or whether they involved partnered or solo steps, or whether the steps and movement are aesthetically tied. It is certainly the case that even non-black dancers, moving to music which is not blues, performing steps which have no Africanist features or historical tradition consider what they do 'blues dancing'.
San Jose Mercury News, Calif., Mr. Roadshow column: Cure on tap for idiot in 18-wheeler weaving out of I-880 carpool lane.
Apr 26, 2007; Byline: Gary Richards Apr. 26--Q Too bad I missed the opportunity to contribute to your recent columns devoted to carpool-lane...