While researching the history of black dance, I found out how African-American dance first arrived here during the slave trade. Like so many stories from slavery times, it’s an ugly, shameful part of our American history.
The slaves were held in close quarters with only enough food to barely keep them alive. Men and women were kept naked and there were no toilets. Vomit and excrement filled the holds where they “lived.” When the holds needed to be cleaned, if weather permitted, the slaves were brought on deck to be exercised so that they might appear healthier and produce a higher selling price. These exercise sessions were referred to as “dancing the slaves.” Sailors were often hired on the slave ships if they were able to play a musical instrument just for this purpose. Once dance had been a joyous expression of freedom and culture; in captivity, dancing became a sad lament expressing their feelings about being ripped from their beloved native country.
Nevertheless, African dance continued to flourish among slaves in the South. Weddings, funerals, harvests, births, holidays and other life-cycle events were all accompanied by dances from the motherland.
Eventually, both drumming and rhythmic dancing were banned by white slave owners who were afraid that slaves were communicating from plantation to plantation, through the beating of drums and tapping of feet. Some slave owners permitted dancing only if the dancers did not lift their feet off the floor, thus not making a sound. The dancers were only allowed to shuffle along to music. Could that have been the birth of the negative stereotype that blacks shuffled when they walked? If so, it was not blacks who created that stereotype. It was a product of the cruelty of human bondage.
Many of the dance traditions brought from Africa continue to this day. Funeral dances often involved a march accompanied by music and a circle dance around the grave.
Fast forward to hundreds of years later when I was an attendee at the extraordinary funeral of Honi Coles, the legendary tap master. Mr. Coles was a dancer of superb elegance who danced with virtuoso speed. Our own tap luminary and a legend herself, Brenda Bufalino, brought Honi and the Copasetics here to make a documentary entitled “Great Feats of Feet.” (The Copasetics was formed in 1949 by 21 accomplished tap dancers in and around show business in memory of one of the greatest black entertainment icons, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.)
When Honi died at the age of 81, several New Paltz residents who had appeared in the documentary accompanied Brenda to the funeral, which was held at noon at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Lexington Avenue at 54th Street. St. Peter’s houses a four-story high organ with an indescribable sound. When we entered the church, Honi’s favorite song, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean?” was playing.
This was a funeral like no other that I have every gone to or will ever go to. Coming from a Jewish tradition where everything to do with death and burial is somber — no music, mirrors covered in the home of the mourning individual to prevent vanity — I felt copious amounts of Jewish guilt for enjoying the funeral as much as I did.
Honi’s funeral was packed with love and great performances. Then New York City Mayor David Dinkins spoke on behalf of Honi Coles, as did Gregory Hines. Savion Glover danced. He ended his performance by doing a black flip over Mr. Cole’s coffin.
Mr. Cole’s compatriots, colleagues and friends, and the remaining members of the Copasetics, provided the most awesome moment of the day. In grey mourning coats, top hats, spats and tails, slightly bent over from age, but still full of spirit, the iconic tappers began to circle around the coffin, dancing. At first they just walked in a circle, gradually adding a tap, then adding another and another until they were tapping out intricate complex heavenly rhythms as beautiful to hear as to see.
I wonder if the Copasetics knew about the circle funeral dances of American slaves hundreds of years ago. If they did not, I wonder if the memories of the funeral circle dances are embedded in their DNA and brought from the past to the future like a precious heirloom.
Once again I will be celebrating Black History Month with the men of Figures-In-Flight Five Dance Company and the general population of prisoners inside of Woodbourne Correctional Prison where I will present a talk on the history of black dance.
So many Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, emotionally and deeply resonate with black dance and black music. We all must have somewhere in the far reaches of our past a memory of Africa as well.
Of course we do. Modern man first appeared in East Africa 200,000 years ago.
It’s proven in the oldest fossils ever found and in our DNA/genetics, that scientifically shows every population originally migrated from East Africa and then dispersed throughout the world.
In more recent times we have African-Americans to thank for much of our music and dance. Remove African influence from these two art forms and we would be left with so much less to sing, so much less to dance about.
Writer’s note: Black dance history is being made by the men of Figuresinflight 5. This is the first trained modern dance company comprised mainly of incarcerated African-American men inside of prison walls.