THE ROBES of Chuck Davis are full and pink, embroidered with golden threads. One of this country's most zealous promoters and teachers of African dancing, he stands tall and broad as an oak, punctuating his conversation with physical exclamation points as he demonstrates a step. "The 'buzzard lope,' " he says, and he curls his broad back and spreads his arms out like a happy condor, "goes back to the birds of Africa, to pickin' cotton, to ridin' on our mamas' backs.
"And we never danced with our arms around a girl's waist! That was a learned, enforced something. When Africans dance, they say: 'My loins are strong! I will bear you good children!' " Davis struts up and back, his wrists twisting sensuously in front of his pelvis. "We do the same thing now in the discos!"
Davis' segue from Africa to discos makes great sense today, when this country is splitting its rhythmic seams. Traditional African dancing, once scorned by whites and blacks alike, has become a source of pride and inspiration. The great black hoofers of the '30s, '40s and '50s have been rediscovered, and both tap dancing and jazz are back with a vengeance. The sounds of salsa, disco, reggae and rapping blare from suitcase-size radio/tape players and Sony Walkmen, and each form of music has its movement counterpart. It all stems from an ancient tradition, and the dancers--while they may not be aware of it--are affirming this tradition, from the up-and-coming hoofers to the "Soul Train" enthusiasts to the teen-agers gone bonkers over breaking (a bravura form of competitive street dance in which gangs of young boys spin wildly on their heads and shoulders).
"The reasons behind the practices were lost because of time and displacement," says Davis, "but were somehow preserved through movement. The body remembers . . . but the connections must be made."
Those myriad, often mystical links that exist between African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American movement, music and overall culture have just begun to be documented.
"Dance Black America," a four-day marathon of lectures, discussions, films, demonstrations, classes and performances that took place recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (in conjunction with the State Universities of New York) provided a forum for all those anxious to celebrate those connections. At the same time, it allowed for a venting of much anger and frustration, an inevitability among those who have been doubly disenfranchised as blacks and as artists. And the conference made sure to place great emphasis on education and practical matters like funding, programming, criticism and training.
These three themes--affirmation, anger, education--run like a river through the Afro-American dance experience. THE CONNECTIONS:
Start with the drums of Africa, calling the people to worship, celebration, to planting or birthing rituals. Add the dancers, answering that call with stomping feet, unhinged pelvises, swiveling hips and tremulous buttocks.
Follow those rhythms and movements across the ocean, on slave ships; see them seep into foreign, often hostile cultures and defiantly resurface in: Haitian Voodoo ceremonies; social and street dances like the Mambo, Cakewalk, Charleston, Snake Hips, Lindy Hop, Shimmy, Black Bottom, Jitterbug, Mess Around, Bunny Hop, Jerk, Frug, Hustle, and the current Electric Boogey and Smurf; commercial theatrical forms like the minstrel show, vaudeville and the Broadway musical; concert works by choreographers ranging from Alvin Ailey to Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp; and in the unlikely realms of baton-twirling, drill teams, roller-skating and rope-jumping.
To trace the path of African movement from its roots to its current flowerings is to confront the cultural, political and artistic history of black people everywhere. Traditional African dancing is not entertainment, and it's not "art" either. Dancing is a part of daily existence, welded to music, religion, ritual, labor, healing and death. So vital a role does movement play in the culture that, even when divorced from its origins, it lives on to create new forms.
When drums were banned in colonial Africa (and later in the United States for fear of slave revolts), rhythmic accompaniment was provided by clapping, and by a special routine of slapping various parts of the body that came to be known as Patting Juba. The Cakewalk grew out of the slaves' imitations of their masters, and went on to become a social dance craze. Even the slave traders acknowledged dancing as a life force by making the captives on board their ships dance--for "therapeutic" reasons.
Perhaps the finest connection-maker at work today is Robert Thompson, a slightly disheveled, mustachioed Yale professor who delights in comparing, say, a slide of Renoir's "Dance in the Country" painting (European, sexist, man thrusting, woman yielding) with one of a couple doing the mambo (African in origin; they dance independently, yet together). Or a shot of an African village (huts arranged in a circle, each part of a whole) viewed simultaneously with that of two women and a man dancing in a circle (same structure).
Thompson's most salient analysis is that of a traditional gesture that figures in much African dancing and art: the left arm and hand thrust down at the hip, the right hand up and out. While the left ties down and stops evil, the right evokes change, new beginnings. Trace that simple stance through time, says Thompson, and you discover it to be a sign of divorce in certain societies, a precursor of baton-twirling and a classic song-and-dance move. "Stop! In the Name of Love!" sings Thompson, and his outstretched, flattened palm conjures up a magical union between The Supremes and some eternal African goddess.
"We're heading towards a new renaissance that makes the Harlem Renaissance look like tiddlywinks," he says.
"IT IS NO mistake being a black man in America, but it is inconvenient." --Bert Williams, turn-of-the-century black entertainer
There is no way to talk about the history of black dance without acknowledging the extreme anger and bitterness shared by so many of its creators and practitioners. It would be easy to attribute these feelings to prejudice, and leave it at that general level, but the situation is far more complex than that.
Certainly prejudice, or, as choreographer Rod Rodgers describes it, "a racism that defies history, education, and information," has thwarted and humiliated scores of black artists throughout the ages. From its first appearances in the New World, dancing of African origin was mocked and condemned. "Their dancing is most violent exercise," wrote a minister in 1774 after attending a "Negro Ball" in Maryland, "but so irregular and grotesque, I am not able to describe it." In 1899, the Musical Courier editorialized: "Society has decreed that ragtime and cake-walking are the thing, and one reads with amazement and disgust of historical and aristocratic names joining in this sex dance, for the cakewalk is nothing but an African danse du ventre, a milder edition of African orgies."
With the development of innately black forms like the minstrel show came the plundering and co-opting of such forms by white producers and performers. In his seminal study "Jazz Dance," Marshall Stearns describes the situation in this way: "White entertainers who worked in blackface imitating the Negro fought to preserve their jobs by keeping the Negro out of work. The result was doubly disastrous. 'Blackfaced white comedians used to make themselves look as ridiculous as they could when portraying a "darky" character,' says George Walker a famed black entertainer, partner of Bert Williams . 'The one fatal result of this to the colored performers was that they imitated the white performers in their make-up as "darkies." Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself.' "
Only a few of the gifted black tappers appeared in Hollywood feature films, and when they did, they were usually cast as porters, janitors and other servile roles. Black "class acts," like the elegant exhibition ballroom team of Norton and Margo, were difficult for white American audiences to accept, so these performers played to black houses and occasionally toured Europe.
These days, the prejudice shows itself in subtler ways: cuts in funding, blind spots on the part of programmers, almost virtual exclusion by ballet companies. Concert choreographers like George Faison and Louis Johnson have, out of financial necessity, turned their efforts toward more commercial ventures. A political artist like Eleo Pomare says he has been labeled "Angry Black of Sixties" and insists that such categorization has severely limited his career.
Today's black dancers raise their collective voice against prejudice of all kinds, but there are other resentments and hostilities that splinter the community into various factions. Why, ranted one conference participant, must white scholars and historians rip off our art forms for their purposes? How, asked a student, can a young black choreographer like Bill T. Jones sell his people short by identifying himself as "post modern" rather than "black"? What, someone demanded of two black woman critics, is your first priority? Black dance, or dance in general?
The most vexing but also the most fruitful of all these questions was asked several times: Why don't more blacks take responsibility for their own history? Why, wondered Rod Rodgers, do people accept the belief that "current equals hip"? The research is there to be done.
Just listen to the words of Dr. Pearl Primus, acclaimed dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and author:
"Dance has been my vehicle, my strength, my freedom and my world . . . It has allowed me to go around, scale, bore through, batter down, or ignore economic and social woes . . . Dance eases my frustration. It is my medicine. Dance is my fist to fight prejudice . . . I dance not to entertain, but to help people understand each other . . . Dance is part of the complex of living."