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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

Gimme De Knee Bone Bent
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Just as the music of the slaves fascinated white northern ears, their dances fascinated white northern eyes. Homer's engraving captures the varied responses of Union soldiers, from amusement and delight to detachment and disdain, as the escaped slave dances in the firelight to the tune of an old black man's fiddle. The dancer's movements resemble a Scottish jig; Homer, like his Yankee compatriots, may not yet have mastered the niceties of black southern movement, which he was seeing for the first time. Still, his picture embodies nicely the major confrontation of the body language of the African-American South and that of the European-American North.

This intense interaction would continue in ever-widening circles throughout the next 100 years, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. It began with the exodus of thousands of former slaves to the North and West. It expanded as blacks migrated to the jobs of the industrial cities during and after World War I. And it evolved into a push for integration that had physical as well as well as legal implications.

For if the 20th century has seen black students entering once-white schools and black officials serving in once-white courthouses, it has also seen African-American body language assume center stage in the nation's evolving history of sport and dance. It is no surprise that the "Charleston" -- with all its angular movements so reminiscent of African dance -- moved north with poor black migrants from South Carolina early in the century and soon became fashionable in rich white communities.

Nor is it surprising that American modern dance, created largely in the urban North during this era of enormous social movement, owes more than it yet realizes to roots that are black and southern, and ultimately African. During the first half of the 20th century, pioneer American dancers found it both possible and exciting to work closer to the ground, to plant their feet and bend their knees, to thrusts their hips and point their elbows. And when troubled critics explained that these "new" movements had been "discovered," because American dancers and audiences are a step removed from the balletic traditions of Europe, they were half right. They could have added, had they realized, that although America was still a segregated society during the first half of the 20th century, all of its inhabitants, black and white, were moving closer to the continent of Africa in body movement all the time.

And in the second half of the 20th century, the beat went on. In the midst of the national trauma over social integration, a white boy named Elvis from Tupelo, Mississippi legitimated the pelvic movements learned from his black neighbors. By the early 1960s, without any order from the Supreme Court, hula hoops were helping white Americans learn to swing their hips. Anthropologists called it "diachronic motion" (going two directions at the same time), and the rest of us called it -- appropriately enough -- "hip." Now, hula hoops are nostalgia items, and moonwalking is done by school kids rather than astronauts.

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