A video compilation documenting noted African-American artists performing the many idiom dances that comprise the family of Blues dances. These include film clips from television shows, films, and documentary excerpts (such as from the Spirit Moves by Mura Dehn). While some of the music you may hear is Jazz and Swing (even Charleston), it's important to note the aesthetic of the movement that is present in the dancer's body: the rhythmic expression, asymmetry, stretch and lag, grounded/athletic posture, and the improvisational quality which are essential to the aesthetics of Blues movement.
NOTE: This is a work in progress.
Al Minns and Leon James
Al Minns and Leon James were a prominent American Lindy Hop and Jazz dance duo. Al and Leon are most famous for their film and stage performances in the 1930s and 1940s both on their own, and as part of the Harlem-based Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. They appeared in the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races. They also appeared on US television programs in the 1950s and 1960s, highlighting the Jazz dances they and their cohorts helped to pioneer at the Savoy Ballroom in New York, as well as working throughout their lives to promote the dances to new generations.
Here is a list of some of the Blues dances they perform in this video:
0:40 - The Mooche (very fast!)
0:46 - The Shimmy
1:35 - Snakehips
2:30 - Wobble? (a variation?)
The Spirit Moves featuring Sandra Gibson, Leon James, and Al Minns
Known as “Boogie”, Mildred Pollard was Born in Atlanta in 1919 and moved to New York at five years of age. She began dancing at the Savoy Ballroom where she joined Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in 1937, at the same time as Al Minns, Joe Daniels, and Joyce James. After Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, she went on to become an incredible solo Blues dancer named Sandra Gibson in her post-lindy hopping show business career. Gibson is known both for her lindy hopping and for the footage of her blues dancing in Spirit Moves. She is usually partnered with Al Minns.
Gibson won the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop competition with Al Minns.
Jacqui Malone, from her book Steppin' On The Blues writes:
"According to Albert Murray, blues idiom-dance movement has nothing to do with sensual abandonment. 'Being always a matter of elegance [it] is necessarily a matter of getting oneself together.' Practitioners of this style do not throw their bodies around; they do not cut completely loose. A loss of coolness and control places one squarely outside the tradition."
In this video, Sandra Gibson does a solo performance showcasing her expression of Blues movement. Later, she is joined later by Al Minns and Leon James in a trio performance. Towards the end of the video, Al Minns performs sans clothing except for a loincloth-like piece (infamously known as the "Diaper Dance"). The idea or purpose behind this is to show the movement of the body without the obstruction of clothes for the purpose of the documentary. In a separate segment, he later exhibits his mastery of movement on the social dance floor.
Earl "Snakehips" Tucker
Earl "Snakehips" Tucker (1905–1937) was an American dancer and entertainer. Also known as the "Human Boa Constrictor", he acquired the nickname "snakehips" via the dance he popularized in Harlem in the 1920s called the "snakehips (dance)". Tucker frequented Harlem music clubs and was a regular at the Savoy Ballroom. He built his reputation by exhibiting his odd style of dance, which involved a great deal of hip motion. Tucker would make it appear that he was as flexible as a snake, and eventually the dance became his calling card. He became popular enough to eventually perform at Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club.
The Snakehips dates back to southern plantations before emancipation.
Riding this wave of popularity, in 1930 he appeared in Benny Rubin's 16 minute short film Crazy House, a comedic introduction to residents at the fictitious "Lame Brain Sanitarium". Tucker's 2-minute dance number, performed in a shiny white shirt and shiny, baggy gold pants, displays his amazing dance innovations, his style a precursor to modern street and stage dance. His name appears in the opening credits only as "Snake Hips". In 1935, Tucker appeared in a short film called Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. The film was inspired by a Duke Ellington composition, and included clips of Ellington composing, as well as Billie Holiday singing and Tucker doing the Snakehips.
Hootin' Blues by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee featuring the Piedmont Triple Step Blues dance
Here's a film clip that features Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee performing a Piedmont Blues style song, "Hootin' Blues" (possibly at the American Folk Blues Festival). The dancers in the video are dancing the Piedmont Blues Triple Step.
Barrelhouse Blues by Katherine Dunham
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."
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).
The first video is an excerpt from 1938 (without music) documenting Katherine Dunham herself performing the piece with her partner. The second video is a modern reprisal performed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble as seen from the television program Dancing In the Light, 2007 by Kultur Video.
Read more about Katherine Dunham here.