What makes blues dancing different from other dances?
“...the dance hall as a temple where rituals of purification, affirmation, and celebrations are held. It is a place the the “blues idiom” dancer disperses hard times or adversity as she or he stomps the blues. At the Saturday night function, the music and dance serve as potent counter statement to blue moods; and the dancer’s response to the music is actually a lesson in how to live. “ the blues-idiom dancer like the solo instrumentalist turns disjunted into continuities [and] is not disconnected by intrusions, lapses, shifts in rhythm, intensification of tempo, for instance, but inspired by them to higher and richer levels of improvisation.What the customary Blues-idiom dance movement reflects is a disposition to encounter obstacle after obstacle as a matter of course” Dance-beat improvisation is “ so much a part of many people’s equipment for living that they hardly ever think about it as such anymore.” 17 (pg 27) Steppin’ on the Blues
Blues dancing when you really look at it is a cultural representation African American values movement and history all within a dance. Some of this can be traced back to Africa, but changed once the Africans became black Americans. Many values developed here in America and are unique Black American values. These values and ideals shaped the dance to be very unique from other dances from other cultures. Blues was the precursor for other styles of Black vernacular dances and many of the same values can be found within them.
Understanding the people who created the dance can only enhance your Blues dancing experience. It adds depth and meaning to what you were doing and gives perspective on what it means to be alive in a culture other than your own. This introduction can give you an overall understanding of the ideas that shape large parts of the dance
Cultural valued aesthetic and personal traits
Since the dance is so closely influenced by the culture it was formed from, there are some values and expectations that are intertwined into the dance. Before we discuss what it means to dance with a partner it’s important to talk about your personal responsibility. Not only is dancing alone, or solo an important aspect, but Blues values every dancer on their own first.
First there is the idea of balancing tradition and yet, innovating your chosen art form. Black Americans dislike the idea of ignoring where you came from to simply do as you wish. It's not only disrespectful but it ignores how the culture innovates. By working within traditional rules and pushing have an individual impact, the dance/culture progresses but never loses sight of what makes the activity important and unique.
The second idea is of coolness. Black American coolness is different than the way other cultures define coolness. It's less about being aloof and more about mastery and control over yourself and expression. Although most black arts are improvisational, they aren't about letting go with lack of regard. It's to showcase your personal development and understanding of your art with such ease it looks not thought out and second nature. Mastery is being perfect with little effort seen by onlookers.
Lastly as a dancer there is a certain responsibility to the music. For (some) African tradition dancing to music is more than moving. It is feeling the music in a deep way that can’t help but to move you. Dance is an external reflection of how the music is moving you on the inside and a visual representation of the music. You, as the dancer, are just another layer to the music. A layer that when added helps move those watching and listening like the music did to you. Adding to the greater story of life, hardship, tradition and family. It is not enough to just do the movements mechanically but to find within yourself what you want to express within the music and to share, as a gift to the world. It’s better to do so within your personal means of being expressive, even if that is in a “technical” way less impressive than to be the perfect dancer moving within a personal bubble untouched by the music, the tradition and the community with you.
Keeping in mind the values we talked about above with your relationship to the music and what it means to be a dancer of black vernacular dances. All black american dances have a value of being able to dance alone. This is in part because of the importance of the relationship to you and the music, and part because it’s important to be able to freely move to fully express. Solo dancing is the purest way to fully express the music and can be seen in all black american dances. Without restraint of having a partner, a person can improvise and achieve personal mastery of their own body in way that is significantly more difficult with a partner. Solo can be done with interacting with a partner without touch too, as long as it allows each person to fully express on their own.
Solo in particular because it’s the most expressive is a great place to start with getting in touch with “The Blues” within you. As I mentioned before being moved by the music is important in this dance but this also means emotionally too. The Blues is more than just being sad, it is a celebration of perseverance, hardship, life, sadness and honoring what you DO have. Expressing where you are emotionally in the moment can be a way to connect with the Blues. Celebrating triumph over hard times can be the Blues. Enjoying a moment of vulnerability with yourself (and maybe a partner) can be expressing the Blues. To dance without feeling means you are technically correct but missing an important aspect.
Lead and follow dynamics
With keeping in mind the values of you as your own dancer it actually makes sense that Black Americans also valued lead and follow dynamics differently than other dances. Add in some Black traditional male/female dynamics and there is a totally different dynamic. On one hand Black culture doesn’t have the same sexism as White american Culture. Although not quite matriarchal traditionally both partners in a relationship had different but equal, if not leaning towards the woman, power dynamic. This is in part because slavery forced families to separate and as such both men and women had to be able to take care of themselves and loved ones within the ways they previously knew how. Although in time the family unit came back together, the division of labor and power remained. Since both partners have their own power it makes sense that there more conversation and less one side talking and the other listening. Both dancers should be their own dancer according to the values above, and then, they have their own roles to fill within the partnership. The lead’s role is to generally direct where the pair will be and some basic overarching plans. While the Follow is meant to add in the flair, shapes, and rhythms of the dance. Together the pair works together to create something special and unique building off of each other.
Traditionally like all Black america dances they are taught in the context of the culture. Since dance and music are intertwined into the fabric of Black american culture, often those within it don’t realize they learned to dance at all. If they choose to pursue dance they learn in a unique way. They learn through community, through watching and personal development. To learn something is to experience failure in a hands-on way over and over again while the community shapes you and your personal expression develops. Together from seemly unimportant tasks and the community creates a unique way for one to learn not only the Black American values and therefore Blues values, but also how to do the dance. Passed on by the oral tradition it can even be hard to quantify, or codify this style of learning but it does work.
Why context is fun to learn
Since there is a drastically different culture that blues originates from it’s easy to imagine how it can be so very different. Doing the dance without these concepts in mind just stops you from seeing the full richness of the dance. The depth and meaning gets lost and it turns into a simple dance with “no rules” . on the basic level this is true but to fully appreciate it one must see beyond that. If you are interested in the more movement/physical aspects of what makes the dance Damon Stone wrote a great, very technical, article on Blue Idiom dances seen here;http://damonstone.dance/articles/blues-idiom-dance-stylistic-groupings-of-vernacular-dance-created-with-blues-music/ He goes over more of that ‘whats’ of the dance where here we introduced some of the ‘whys’.
Although some of this information came from personal experience and reflection and conversations on culture, two books helped achieve these conclusions. Black and White Styles in Conflict and Steppin’ on the Blues.