The Weekly Watch
Dancing Around the Issues
This is the old-time dance weekend on the mountain. I won't be around till this evening. So, I thought we would take a break from the news and I would share with you a little of what I know about old-time southern dance and music. The music and the dance go together...usually one time through the tune, one time through the dance. In the past just hearing the tune told you which dance to do. Southern music and dance is a cultural amalgam. It builds on a base of British country dance and tunes, illustrates the influence of the French quadrilles with square dances, cranks up the drive with African rhythms and slave dances like the Calenda and Chica, and finally includes a dash of native American dance with calls like “single file Indian style”. This is the dance form of working people...a barn dance. These people hadn't studied with a dancing master, so one person called or prompted the figures....circle, line, square, couple, and set dances are among its many forms. Both the dance and the music are cooperative efforts.
Square dance is probably the most familiar form of country dance...
The quadrille was the most popular dance in the 18th and early 19th centuries. After 1803, New Orleans dances employed both an English quadrille (contredanse anglais), preferred by Anglo-Americans, and a French quadrille (contredanse francais), the Creoles’ dance of choice. In the English quadrille (“country dance”), men and women faced each other in two long lines, and danced most often to a reel. The French quadrille was danced in squares of four couples, and employed a man to call out the variation of figures, or dance steps. Both English and French quadrilles required a constant changing of partners, a style very different from later dances such as the waltz and the modern “animal dances” of the 1910s, in which dancers joined in couples.
In New Orleans’ transition from French to American control in the winter of 1804, ballrooms became cultural battlegrounds for Creoles and Americans, who argued over which quadrille would be danced. After one ball devolved into a violent altercation, authorities enacted a compromise in which dances alternated English quadrilles, French quadrilles, and waltzes throughout the evening. Observers of Congo Square in the early 1800s noted that creolized Africans and African Americans also danced quadrilles, which were popular among black dancers throughout the Caribbean in the 19th century.
Here's a one minute look-
Quadrille, fashionable late 18th- and 19th-century dance for four couples in square formation. Imported by English aristocrats in 1815 from elite Parisian ballrooms, it consisted of four, or sometimes five, contredanses; like the contredanse (q.v.), the quadrille depended more on the cooperative execution of intertwining figures, or floor patterns, than on intricate stepwork. Each of the quadrille’s sections was danced with prescribed combinations of figures, such as the tour de deux mains (“two-hand turn”), in which the couple held hands and turned; or the chaîne des dames (“ladies’ chain”), in which opposite women first passed each other by the right hand, and then each gave her left hand to the opposite man, who turned her into place beside himself. The quadrille was frequently danced to a medley of opera melodies. The lancers, a variation of the quadrille, became popular in the late 1800s and was still danced in the mid-20th century in folk-dance clubs.
The Quadrille becomes Americanized into the square dance...quite a different flavor from the more formal approach in the previous clip. Here's a dance in Portland (3.5 min)
The primary source of this evolution is the African influence in both music and dance. 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.
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
Within the all-white theatrical world there was a singular exception to the total absence of black performers: the brilliant and innovative African American dancer, William Henry Lane, or Master Juba.
William Henry Lane, born a free black around 1825 in Providence, Rhode Island, had already attracted attention with his dancing by the age of 10. Marion Winters writes that Lane “learned much of his art from ‘Uncle’ Jim Lowe, a Negro jig and reel dancer of exceptional skill, whose performances were confined to saloons, dance halls, and similar locales outside the regular theaters.” He would soon adopt the stage name, Master Juba. 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.
Most people have never heard of Master Juba due to the fact that his important dance contributions sadly go hand-in-hand with performances that reiterated racist stereotyping. He performed in minstrel shows, an American entertainment in the 19th century that consisted of comic skits and dancing in blackface.
Yet, what most people look at skeptically – a black freeman performing in minstrel shows that lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy and overly happy-go-lucky – was actually an achievement for a black man in his time. In the antebellum era when blacks were not allowed to perform with whites, Master Juba was the first to attain acceptance and notoriety as an entertainer. In his career he performed with four well-known early minstrel companies and later became the first expatriate black dancer, moving to Europe and never returning to the United States – a huge accomplishment. He was the first known dancer to combine quick footwork with traditional African rhythms, leading to the creation of tap dance and elements of step dancing. http://www.danceinforma.com/2014/02/05/went-15-black-dancers-changed-ame...
He made his name in the clubs and music halls of Manhattan in the 1840s where he was nicknamed the King of all Dancers. And it is a fortuitous coincidence that one of the greatest chroniclers of his day, Charles Dickens, nicknamed Boz, would cross paths with Master Juba. 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. Juba died in London in 1852.
Popular social dances of the 20th century such as the Charleston and Cakewalk are descended from these slave dances 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.
There was also some influence from first nations dancing.
Here's a 6 min circle dance from the Campbell Folk School with elements of native figures
Although the Cherokee of the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee speak an Iroquoian language and have animal dances, they emphasize corn dance ceremonies. The Creek, Yuchi, Seminole, and other tribes of the southeastern United States greatly emphasize the summer green corn harvest ceremony, or Busk. Before the removal of many of those tribes to reservations in Oklahoma, they acquired a few dances outside their own traditions. They carried the stomp circling to its utmost development by winding the line of dancers into a spiral or even into four spirals at the four corners of the dance ground.
The Music Drives the Dance
...and they start out young (3 min)
ONE of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group. A joyous celebration of life and free sexuality was coupled with improvisation as lyrics were constantly updated and changed to keep up the groups' interest. The percussion of the African music began to change the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing. The introduction of the banjo to the Southern Mountains after the Civil War in the 1860s further hastened this process. Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a 'slave instrument' until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or 'bom-diddle-diddy' produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.
The instrumental tradition of the Appalachians started as anglo-celtic dance tunes and eventually was reshaped by local needs, African rhythms, and changes in instrumentation. The fiddle was at first the main instrument, often alone, as a piano would have been too expensive to purchase. Originally the tonal and stylistic qualities of the fiddle mirrored those of the ballad. The 'reel' is generally thought to have developed in the Scottish highlands in the mid-eighteenth century. In the 1740s, Neil Gow, a Scottish fiddler, is credited with developing the powerful and rhythmic short bow sawstroke technique that eventually became the foundation of Appalachian mountain fiddling. More modern repertoires took shape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the waltz showing up at the beginning of the 1800s. Square dances slowly developed out of mostly a middle or upper class dance tradition, based upon the cotillion; black cakewalks were a burlesque of formal white dancing; and the Virginia Reel was a variation of an upper class dance called Sir Roger de Coverly (said to be George Washington's favorite dance). Start at 6 min and watch a round or two of the dance if you would like.
I wish they would teach people to walk not skip. Good dancers walk from one figure into the next allowing the dance to flow.
Irish immigration also added its own flavor. The sound of the pipes and their drones added a double-stop approach where two strings are usually played together. Popular music - such as ragtime - at the turn of the century started the rocking of the bow, another distinctive Appalachian feature. Players began to use tunings different from the standard classical - sometimes one for each tune - to heighten the 'high lonesome' sound. Many tunes acquired words, so the caller could take over and give the fiddler a break by singing the calls. Dances changed: American squares and promenades featured a change of partners more often than their British counterparts, as it was often a couple's only chance to meet in such isolated communities. It also kept down the fights although, by the 1930s, liquor and fighting had ended most southern mountain dances.
The mix of African and Irish step dance lead to clogging with square dance figures added. It starts in homes where the furniture is moved to make room and the fiddle drives the dance (6 min)
TUNES changed a lot, first with the introduction of the banjo after 1860, and then with the popularity of the guitar, starting in 1910. Early tunes tended to be more rhythmic as the fiddler was often playing alone. With the luxury of percussive rhythm from other instruments, tunes became more elaborate and melodic. Having a chordal structure also evened out irregularities as the guitar produced the even backup of a measured beat. The guitar also greatly redefined singing traditions in the same way. It evened out rhythms and gave singers a 'floorboard' to mount their songs. Bands that used exclusively to play tunes gradually added songs, mostly from popular and commercial sources.
All through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this music was truly 'folk'. Singing was used for personal and group enjoyment and continuation of historical narrative. Instrumentation was used for dances and contests; food and drink and enjoyment were considered enough recompense. Contact was limited regionally as travel was difficult. But late nineteenth century industrialization produced mobility, and the advent of recorded sound in the 1920s brought popular music to the mountains. Mail order and mass production made instruments more accessible. Radio stations started barn dances with live performances of local talent, and styles began to cross over.
Southern squares and Appalachian circle dances can be done with crooked or uneven tunes. They are typically called with patter...
Allemande left with your left hand, it's back to your partner with a right and left grand, hand over hand around the track, meet your partner and promenade back, make your feet go whickity whack, Swing your partner when you get back...
Kinda like bad poetry, but the calls add to the rhythm. Contra dance is a different story. These dances are prompted rather than called with patter. They fit the music. Contra tunes are 32 beats - two A parts and two B parts of the tune. So here's an example, a dance by Gene Hubert from SC called "Rolling in the Hey"
A1 - circle left / swing your corner
A2 - circle left / swing your partner
B1 - lines forward and back / Ladies chain half way
B2 - ladies start the Hey (weaving the line in your set of 4)...new couple
(dance starts again with the next couple up or down the line)
So these dances repeat the same figures. One time through the tune, one time through the dance. You keep your partner and dance with different couple each time (unless you work your way up and down the line to return to a previous couple)
Now a days the contra or line dance is the most popular form. Here's one of my favorite dance halls in the country...The Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo NP in DC. The band is playing more refined music than what you would hear from a southern band but the caller is a southerner from Atlanta, and the dance forms are the same...(3 min)
Dances typically end (and often begin) with a waltz (1,2,3 timing) as a couple dance.
The Atlanta dancers have put together a nice intro to contra dance...
Here's a few folks from the Atlanta Dance Community explaining why they dance..(8 min)
Many of them will be at our dance this weekend, and this clip gives you a feel for the nature of the dance community.
As a teen I worked with an older man and we played music together. He told the story of working all day in the field and then going to a barn dance down the road. After playing the dance he said he was so tired that he would climb into the back of the wagon cause the mule knew the way home. He would sleep till the mule stopped and they were home. So many times over the years that story came to mind especially on those long road trips when I wished I could crawl into the back of the wagon and let the mule carry me home. This dance isn't so bad...just 15 minutes from the house.
So swing your partner and thank the band. Thanks for reading and dancing around the issues with me today and most Sundays. Did you miss the news? If so drop your favorite item in the comments below. Do any of you country dance? I would love to hear about your experience and dance community. All the best to all of you!