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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

From Minstrel Show To Concert Stage
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Minstrel Program
Minstrel show poster.
America's schizophrenic relationship with African Americans on stage and off was reflected once again by the "Tom Shows," which rose to prominence as the minstrel show's exploitation of derogatory African-American stereotypes declined in popularity.." The name comes from the fact that they dramatized Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous book UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. The trend was triggered by the surprise success of a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that opened in Troy, New York in 1853. It spawned a number of clones, and some form of this play ran for the next 50 years. At one point, there were as many as four theatrical troupes doing a version of this story about man's inhumanity to man at the same time. The fact that the ensembles were all-white didn't seem to bother the audience, but in 1877 a few years after the Civil War ended, the well-known Negro minstrel Sam Lucas was the first African American to play the African-American character, Uncle Tom.

Meanwhile, blackface was making its slow exit from the theater. Bert Williams, the famous African-American comedian, worked in blackface until he died in 1922. Al Jolson, a Jewish singer, made his Hollywood film debut in blackface. Even Fred Astaire did a blackface number called "Bojangles of Harlem" in SWINGTIME (1936), one of the nine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie musicals. Well into the 1950s, it was still possible to glimpse this American theatrical tradition in guest appearances by old-time veteran performers on popular TV variety shows.

Even before the turn of the 20th century, one theatrical production signaled a change in direction in African-American dance and theater, when blackface was eliminated altogether from the 1889 all-black musical "The Creole Show." The show's finale introduced a popular vernacular dance that would blaze the trail for social dances spreading from southern plantations to juke joints to Broadway and instant popularity. According to dance historian Jean Stearns, "The impact of the 'Cakewalk' at the turn of the [20th] century was tremendous." It was a dance craze on stage and off, in high society and among ordinary folks. When society's favorite African-American entertainer, Tom Fletcher, was teaching the dance to Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public were rushing to Coney Island to enter "Cakewalk" contests. This was the first of many crazes to be started by African-American shows. A stream of black theatrical productions with names like "The Octoroons," "Oriental America," "A Trip to Coontown," "Clorindy --The Origin of the Cakewalk," and "Jes Lak White Folks" culminated with "Darktown Follies," described by one historian as "the only bright spot in Negro musical theatre for nearly 10 years, until 1921."

If as Marshall and Jean Stearns report, "The decade between 1910 and 1920 can be identified primarily as the period in which America went dance mad," then the dances America went mad for had their humble beginnings in some backwater southern town's dimly lit jook joint or in the funky, urban honky-tonks. "Dances in the jooks included the Charleston, the shimmy, the snake hips, the funky butt, the twist, the slow drag, the buzzard lope, the black bottom, the itch, the fish tail and the grind," according to Katrina Hazzard Gordon in JOOKIN', her insightful study of African-American vernacular dance.. Jooks grew out of the Reconstruction era just before the Great Migration, when a massive wave of blacks moved to the industrial North. They were fleeing the heightened terror and increased lynchings stirred by the Ku Klux Klan and those southern whites seeking to regain the "supremacy" they had lost in the Civil War. They were also rushing toward the promise of employment and a better life. "The jook was the only dance arena of its time that successfully accommodated the emerging regional culture among black freedmen," Hazzard Gordon explains. Zora Neale Hurston considered the jook's "smelly shoddy confines" a kind of cultural incubator that helped give birth to the blues. But that wasn't all.

From these humble beginnings, many dances made it into the mainstream spotlight. Often thanks to the efforts of ballroom dancers like Vernon and Irene Castle, the dances underwent a rigorous sanitizing process. They were cleaned up and toned down, made respectable enough to be embraced by the white mainstream. To the discerning eye, however, their African roots were still unmistakable.

The "Turkey Trot" rolled into New York in a musical called "Over the River," accompanied by a song entitled "Everybody's Doing It." The leader of the pack, this dance craze heralded a legion of successors. It was everywhere, thanks to the enthusiasm of the 1920s version of Generation X. Before it was sanitized enough to be welcome in polite society, magazines like HARPER'S WEEKLY reinforced parents' concerns that their children were "trotting" to hell at afternoon tea dances with articles such as "Where Is Your Daughter This Afternoon?" The "Turkey Trot" had clearly made it when the Castles performed it in the 1913 Broadway hit "The Sunshine Girl."

Sanitizing vernacular dances was serious business. A list of "Ten Demandments" published in an edition of DANCING TIMES that ticks off "Dos" and "Don'ts" for everything from "balance" to "body sway" shows just how serious. Dancers were told that their weight "should always be forward," gentlemen should place their "right hand in the middle of a lady's back," and "both elbows should be kept well up"; they should not bend their knees "more than you can help," and always keep the feet "perfectly straight" and the legs "close together when one foot passes the other." As African-American dances invaded the country, these rules went out the window. American dance would never be the same.

In the early part of the 20th century, vernacular dances like the "Charleston" and "Black Bottom" made an express trip from juke joints and dance halls onto the stage and screen, with precious few stops for refinement and stylistic barriers along the way. Consequently, the infectious power of the black vernacular dances was undiluted, their "aesthetic magnetism" more concentrated when they invaded the inner sanctum of white society, proving as historian Jacqui Malone says, "In the United States all social barriers are vulnerable to cultural styles."

Copyright © 2001 by Zita Allen

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