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Dance party! How Black people dancing shaped music and culture

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01.08.2021

I’m throwing a dance party today for all of you #BlackMusicSunday readers and listeners, and for myself. It’s my birthday! I was born Aug. 1, 1947, in Brooklyn, and while I have no plans to go out, I’ll be stuffing my face with cake this evening.

We can listen to music solo, at home, in the car, at concerts in large venues, or in more intimate clubs (COVID-19 restrictions notwithstanding), or at church. Music is the driving beat that moves our feet to dance.

My birthday will be filled with the sort of music that gets me out of the computer chair and dancing around the room, so join me on a trip down memory lane. Let’s talk dance music, including social dances that span decades, from the Lindy Hop my parents swung to, through the Twist, Mashed Potato, disco, funky Soul Train dance lines, salsa and Latin boogaloos, the Electric Slide, and of course, Congressman John Lewis getting down to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Won’t you join me?

Before I dive into the dance music that shaped my life, here’s a brief overview of the history of African American social dances, presented by Camille A. Brown for TED Ed in 2016.

My dancing days likely started in the womb. My mom and dad were born in 1918-19, and they grew up during a dance craze called the Lindy hop. While most people these days think of jazz as a cerebral, sit-down-and-listen sort of music, back in the day, jazz got you up and dancing.

Jumptown Swing has a brief introduction to the Lindy Hop.

The Lindy Hop is a partnered social dance that originated in the African-American communities of Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s and 1930s. It evolved with the swingin’ jazz music popular at the time.

Improvised sets of moves made their way into energetic social dancing and competitions in the Savoy Ballroom, a grand two-tiered ballroom in Harlem. It stood at 596 Lenox Avenue, spanning from 140th to 141st Streets and was a famed nightspot and hub for lindy hop. Unusually for ballrooms at the time, the Savoy was integrated.

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were a professional performance troupe of African-American dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. Founded in 1935 by Herbert ‘Whitey’ White, the group performed nationally and internationally, and appeared in Broadway productions and several feature films (for example, A Day At the Races in 1937 and Hellzapoppin’ in 1941). The group was ultimately disbanded around 1943 when most of its top male dancers were drafted to the US war effort.

Enjoy this short clip of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in 1941’s “Hellzapoppin’.”

By the time I was a preteen, my older cousins were still doing versions of the Lindy. They lived in Philadelphia, home to top Black DJs like Georgie Woods, who I wrote about last summer. It seemed like every week in Philly there was a new dance, tied to a new record being played on the radio. When I sat down to start listing all the dance crazes and accompanying tunes for this piece, the list got longer, and longer, and longer, with my husband adding more. I soon realized that it would be impossible to include them all.

While making my list, a tune that described its length perfectly popped in my head: “Land of 1000 Dances.” Written and performed by New Orleans singer/songwriter Chris Kenner, it was released in 1962, followed by a cover version from Mexican American Los Angeles rock band Cannibal And The Headhunters. The song then became a huge hit for Wilson........

© Daily Kos


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