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HISTORIC ESSAYS

From Slave Ships to Center Stage
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HMS BROOKES
HMS BROOKES diagram.
In his classic FLASH OF THE SPIRIT, Thompson described the features that define African influence in dance: the "dominance of a percussive performance style; a propensity of multiple meter, overlapping call and response; inner pulse or keeping a beat indelibly in mind as a rhythmic common denominator in a welter of different meters; suspended accentuation patterning or offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents; and songs and dances of social allusion; music which, however danceable and 'swinging,' remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living."

Historians Marshall and Jean Stearns were even more direct in their book JAZZ DANCE. They identified the six basic characteristics of African dance: "1) danced on naked earth with bare feet, often flat-footed, favoring gliding, dragging or shuffling steps; 2) frequently performed from a crouch, knees flexed and body bent at the waist like a hunter crouched for the kill, 3) imitates animals in realistic detail, 4) places great importance upon improvisation, allowing freedom of individual expression, 5) centrifugal, exploding outward from the hips, and 6) performed to a propulsive rhythm, which gives it a 'swinging' quality."

From the beginning, even as they struggled to survive the Middle Passage, the African captives, for whom dance had been intricately interwoven into their lives, developed, essentially, two different types of dance. There were dances the slaves performed for themselves -- movement hymns to unseen gods, celebrations marking momentous occasions, and tributes to treasured traditions -- with every rhythm and step reconstructing sacred ties to a world that resonated within the very marrow of their bones. Then there were dances meant to titillate and entertain their European captors and owners. Both powerfully reflected the tenacity of a culture.

Naturally, the conditions under which the Africans lived in the early years of the New World depended on a number of factors, including which European country controlled the territory, the ratio of blacks to whites, and the presence of other enslaved or indentured people, not to mention the region's terrain. (It is no secret that certain types of environment, namely, lush mountainous areas, provided the necessary cover for successful rebellions and slaves hell-bent on escape.) The crop that shaped the agricultural economy of the region was also a major factor determining the degree to which Africans retained different aspects of their cultures.

Sugar, often described as "a rich man's crop," was so labor intensive, with such a relatively small window for harvesting, that slaves on plantations where it predominated were often literally worked to death, because owners deemed it cheaper and more expedient to bring in fresh workers than to treat slaves humanely. Ironically, for those who survived, each new shipload of Africans renewed contact with language, songs, dances, and religion and rekindled memories, which, despite tribal distinctions and differences, served to reinforce their own native culture. Beginning in the 1940s, anthropologists turning their attention to this issue found the strongest evidence of African culture in Cuba, Brazil, and the Caribbean, where sugar was king and slave traffic had been most frequent.

Historian David Lowenthal, in his book WEST INDIAN SOCIETIES, discussed how the differences among the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch "ideas about race, slavery, freedom, and equality," as well as the agricultural economy of slaveholding territories, affected both the daily lives of Africans and the survival of African culture. Of course, debates over the relative severity of various systems of slavery are a waste of time. Slavery in any degree is an inhumane institution. Still, it must be noted that differences did exist and that they affected the nature and degree of the survival of African religion, music, dance, and more in this new and brutal environment.

African cultural retentions in America were shaped in no small measure by the fact that after legalized race slavery became the norm -- nudging out the less-profitable indentured servitude that had caught both Europeans and Africans in its net -- slave owners concentrated primarily on breeding to replenish their labor supply, rather than purchasing fresh shipments of men, women, and children from Africa. In his essay "Black Dance in American History" in the American Dance Festival booklet, THE BLACK TRADITION IN AMERICAN MODERN DANCE, historian Robert Hinton says, "Few Africans were brought into the United States after the middle of the eighteenth century. By the end of the legal slave trade in 1807, the slave community had developed an 'Afro-American' culture that would help blacks survive the strengthened southern commitment to slavery resulting from the rise of 'King Cotton' in the early nineteenth century." In different parts of America, a fusion of African culture with that of various European immigrants was evident in varying degrees.

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