ABOUT BLUES DANCING
You mean "Blues" is a dance? Yes, it is. In fact, it is an entire family of several dances (such as the "Slow Drag" and the "Fishtail") that are aesthetically, culturally and musically connected. Like Swing dance, Blues dance originated and evolved from African rhythms and movements. However, Blues dancing was never widely practiced as a "social" or performance dance in the United
States outside of the Black communities; so it developed and thrived in smoky juke joints and at Blues house parties and rent parties, giving it a more intimate feel. Because Blues dancing lacked wider social approval and appeal, it remained strongly entrenched in African principles of movement, not only in the motion of the hips, but in the characteristic creation of, and dancing within, a boundary.
Blues dance is strongly tied to Blues music, and many aspects of Blues dancing (for example, call and response, emotional intensity, and tension and release) are directly related to the music to which it is danced. There are many types of Blues music (rural, urban, up-tempo, slow, electric, delta, modern), and also many types of Blues dance, all with very different nuances and emotions. Early Blues dances often contained very simple one-step or two-step patterns; some examples of such early Blues dances are the "Cake Walk" and the "Black Bottom." Other Blues dances such as the "Slow Drag" and the "Mooche" have also been passed down to us relatively unchanged from the original forms. In its modern context, Blues dance incorporates many aspects of these original dances as well as incorporating ideas from modern concepts of partner connection, improvisation, and natural body movement.
Blues is also an emotion that you bring to your dancing. Blues dance, like most Black vernacular dances, enables intense individuality in expressing the music, emphasizing that the music, not the dancer, leads the dance; the dancer is simply the interpreter. Blues dance demonstrates the passion of the entire range of human emotions - from sadness to joy - not just sensuality. If you don't have a visceral reaction to the music, your partner, and the environment, then you are missing the true beauty of Blues dance.
Some observers and dancers who have not studied Blues dance other than by simple observation often overlook the nuances of the dance. To their eyes, the sensual appearance of the dance may overshadow its basis and structure. Blues dance at its best is rooted in subtle physical communication and connection between your partner, yourself, and the music and therefore is almost
impossible to learn to execute well simply by watching. Learning to Blues dance enables the dancer to more fully understand dance concepts such as simplicity, clarity, creativity, expression, intensity, and musical and emotional interpretation that are critical to advanced social dancing of any kind.
*Image: Blues, 1929 by Archibald J. Motley Jr.
Photo of jook joint dancer by Bill Steber
Barrelhouse Blues - excerpt (1938)
Choreography by Katherine Dunham
Performed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble
(from the television program Dancing In the Light, 2007, Kultur Video)
Anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham set this concertized jazz piece that incorporates vernacular movement to the slow drag -- a couples dance common to juke joints and honky-tonks. The dancers' pelvis-to-pelvis bumping and grinding provoked John Martin, a leading dance critic of the time, to call it an "incredible vulgarity."
Barrelhouse Blues (original)
Choreographed by Katherine Dunham in 1938, Barrelhouse (also known as Barrelhouse Blues and Florida Swamp Shimmy) is one of the first of what she would come to call her Americana works. Based on the Shimmy from the Florida Gulf Coast, Dunham once explained that the duet is about "a beat old woman who goes to a dance to recapture a moment of her lost youth." After a performance in 1955, dance critic Walter Terry wrote "The marvelous 'Barrelhouse,' in which Miss Dunham and [Vanoye] Aikens do a Florida swamp shimmy, had to be encored and deservedly so, for this is an insinuating, sexy, and delightfully humorous dance which every Dunham fan cherishes in his memory" (New York Herald Tribune, 23 November 1955).
Read more about Katherine Dunham here.