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Rhythm and grooves 

When the Spirit Moves celebrates African-American dance

Mounting an exhibit about the history of African-American dance must have been a particularly tough assignment; the act of dancing, almost by definition, doesn't leave behind many artifacts. Furthermore, most curators and academics weren't interested in African-American history up until about 50 years ago. Collecting artifacts related to black history is a relatively recent phenomenon. Surprisingly the organizers (the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio) manage to find an impressive array of telling artifacts to display at the new exhibit titled When the Spirit Moves on view at the Atlanta History Center and Spelman College. The exhibit at the History Center begins by examining dance ritual in Africa with videos and displays of artifacts from African dance: Yoruba masks and various instruments including Sato drums and the balafon. Dance traditions are traced from slavery, through black minstrelsy and vaudeville into the 20th century. Displays show items from the time of slavery, when dance was restricted by white masters; from the time of vaudeville, when black dancers became the major draw for both black and white audiences; and on to the time of MTV. Along the way we see slave-made banjos, sheet music designed to accompany dance crazes during the Jazz age, a mock-up of a juke joint and photographs from early black Broadway.

The exhibit clearly accomplishes the difficult task of explicitly defining the characteristics of African and African-American dance, including what makes them unique and distinct from various forms of European dance. African-American dance involves various combinations of improvisation, polyrhythms, community, circle and line formation and competition, which were not as strong a part of the European tradition before contact with Africans.

The exhibit sets out to explore not just the history of African-American dance, but the ways in which that form of cultural expression has affected all of American popular culture. One of the most interesting things about the exhibit is seeing how quickly and radically various cultural symbols shift their meaning in America. The Cake Walk, a dance in which the dancer throws his shoulders back and steps high with both feet, was invented by slaves, we learn, as a parody of pretentious white behavior. But the image of the high-stepping black man was later used by whites as a negative stereotype of black behavior. Likewise, the image of the tap-dancing black man has long been considered a negative stereotype, but the form is reconceptualized in the Broadway show Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk as a repository of rhythm and history.

It's impressive to see how much of American popular culture has its roots in African-American dance. Dance crazes such as the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, Ballin' the Jack, competitive ballroom dancing, marching bands, vaudeville and juke joints all have their roots in the black traditions of America.

Works from the companion exhibit of African-American art inspired by dance on display at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art are suitably exuberant, and it's surprising how well it illustrates ideas from the history exhibit and vice-versa. Although most of the works are from the recent past -- the '70s, '80s and '90s -- the exhibit represents a wide range of styles and techniques within the theme of dance including abstract and figurative, sculpture and painting, high-spirited and subdued. Works such as Faith Ringgold's "Groovin' High" and Louis Delsarte's "Sammy Davis" are colorful illustrations of the playful and energetic influence of one art form on another. Works by prominent artists Benny Andrews, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden and William Henry Johnson are also highlights.

Both exhibits show how the spirit of African-American dance became the energetic instrument of inspiration for much of the most interesting cultural movement of the past two centuries.

When the Spirit Moves: The Africanization of American Movement on display through Nov. 7 at the Fay S. and Barrett Howell Gallery at the Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road. Adults $10, Children $4. For more information, call 404-814-4000.

When the Spirit Moves: African American Art Inspired by Dance on display through Nov. 18 at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College, 350 Spelman Lane. Admission is free. For more information, call 404-223-1482.

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