Hoodoo religion and American dance traditions: rethinking the ring shout.

Author:Hazzard-Donald, Katrina
Position:Report - Dance review

More than any discipline in the academy, Black Studies explores unseen and overlooked connections between African American life, culture and sociocultural movement in the United States. Uniquely placed as an interdisciplinary enterprise, Black Studies is not restricted by ideological confines which dictate a disciplines approach and focus. Because it challenges many traditional paradigms and their assumptions, Black Studies has the potential to discover both new approaches and new truths while pointing to future research. Such is the case with African American folk religion and dance.

Neither the literature on American dance nor the literature on Hoodoo (1) has considered the possible role of African American folk religion in the development of American dance traditions. Dance scholars such as Lynne Emery, Robert Ferris Thompson, Sally Banes, Kariamu Welsh, and Jackie Malone have given no consideration to the role of the Hoodoo folk religion on American dance development. Likewise, the scholars who research Hoodoo have narrowly focused their work so that there is little room for other than historical considerations. This type of narrow focus is reflected in the work of Hoodoo scholars like Yvonne Chireau. Therefore, the intent of this article is to give preliminary examination to the idea that a now nonexistent institution, which I call "the old Hoodoo religion," played a significant role in American dance development.

African American social and vernacular dance has been the wellspring from which nearly all popular American dance, as well as significant theatrical dance, has been drawn. Where it has not been the sole inspirational source, as is the case with theater dance, it has been of significant influence in the dance creation process. From its appearance in North America, African American dance has been intimately responsive to its sociocultural environment; dance gives abstract visual representation to significant moments in African American community cultural history, while articulating esteemed values and nourishing the African soul.

Enslaved Africans brought their traditional dances to North America with them. Primarily sacred, these dances, upon arriving here, quickly underwent modification which broke with specific ethnic African traditional cultural meaning. The original African institutional and ceremonial context, as well as the structure and function of the dance, were disrupted by enslavement.

Independently reconstituted by bondsmen who clung to cultural memory as a means of psychological survival, the dance was reconfigured and adjusted to the new physical and social environment. African traditional dance was modified and forced to adjust to both the new conditions of labor imposed by enslavement and the psychological necessities imposed by its attendant practices.

The African dance vocabularies varied from one African ethnic group to another; but these sacred dances all conformed to an overarching African aesthetic in dance which included the use of angularity, mimicry, multiple meter/polyrhythmic sensitivity, segmentation and delineation of body parts, as well as asymmetry. (2) These aesthetic organizing principles were common and familiar, as were certain principles of structural organization. The two most visible organizing structures were the circle and the line. All the Africans landed in significant numbers in North America were from cultures which ordered their dances using these aesthetic principles and organizing structures. The most popular European "contra dances" and European "longways" dances organized the dancers in parallel lines according to gender as did many traditional African group dances. Europeans and Africans had the line formation in common and it was therefore, familiar to both peoples finding themselves in North America.

Enslaved Africans, in North America, allotted both temporal and physical spaces for individual expression in both circle dance and line dance formations. Within the circle formation, that space was located within the circle's center. In the line formation the space was between the two lines. When an individual stepped into the allotted space, they commanded the surrounding community's attention and support. In the sacred circle, the center was a vortex of spiritual energy and power which represented a separate and sacred realm, one not of the material realities of enslavement. It represented a reality which connected one to the ancestors and reconfirmed a continuity through both time and space. Within the circle, the interaction between the individual and the community was mediated by sacred spiritual forces evidenced in spirit possession. Not so with the line. The allotment of individual space would not disappear either after the African sacred dances began to secularize, or after Africans took up European secular dances, but would over time expand as the sacred circle structure gradually disappeared in most locales and the Shout took up new vestment. As a result of its flexibility and successful adaptation in the secularization process and because of its similarity with the European line dance formation, the African line would remain untransformed and would retain its original African formation.

The few sustainable circle dances which Europeans and white Americans retained eventually disappeared, leaving only circular segments in "square dances." Their clear preference was for "longways" or line dances. On March 19, 1651, John Playford published the first English dance book, English Dancing Master, which contained fourteen circle dances in a collection of forty-two. (3) Unlike the circle, the line was familiar to both the enslaved Africans and their European captors.

The African American dance circle formation had an indisputable sacred identity that continued in spite of the line losing all indications of an earlier sacred existence. It was from the African sacred circle, that the first truly African American dance was born: the "Ring Shout." The Ring Shout was a counter-clockwise, sacred circle dance that appears to have been done universally among African American bondsmen, and later among freedmen. "The Shout," as it was known, used subdued stepping and hopping footwork performed with a system of gesture, spirit possession, individualized sacred dancing and specific music, particularly vocal shouting.

The music accompanying the Ring Shout was performed by the Shouters themselves. Singing, tapping sticks, hand claps and foot stomps provided the musical backdrop, while subtle jerking motions in the dancers' bodies provided an additional rhythmic anchor to the Shout. Shouters would later add other instruments as the worship became modernized and adapted to demographic changes in the African American population.

The Ring Shout appeared on antebellum plantations, as well as in urban areas. It frequently puzzled whites who often viewed it with suspicion, disgust, fear and misinterpretation. It was always performed in a sacred context that was separated, by both day, time and location from Sunday church services, usually midweek in an open clearing in the woods, in a "praise house" or in a location other than that used for church services. The practice of "shoutin" would prove to be incompatible with the internal structure of a Christian church; its fixed pews prevented the "shouters' from convening the circle. It was this internal church architecture, with its often fixed, stationary and linearly organized in pews, with front facing alter and pulpit, that contributed to the destruction of the circularity of the Ring Shout. Frederick Law Olmstead leaves us this observation:

On most of the large rice plantations which I have seen in this vicinity, there is a small chapel, which the Negroes use as their prayer house. The owner of one of these told me that, having furnished the prayer-house with seats having a back rail, his Negroes petitioned him to remove it because it did not leave them room enough to pray. It was explained to me that it is their custom in social worship, to work themselves up to a treat pitch of excitement, in which they yell and cry aloud, and finally shriek and leap up, clapping their hands and dancing, as it is done at heathen festivals. The back rail they found to seriously impede this exercise. (4) Unlike Christian church, the "Shout" had no preacher, and did not adhere to the same order of service as church. The Ring Shout enabled multiethnic Africans, in a particular locale, to combine in an inter-ethnic assimilation ritual that supported the nascent common identity of the African American. (5) Enslaved Africans were ethnically a diverse group, had different national origins and did not participate in a single culture. The Ring Shout would challenge and dissolve that cultural and ethnic uniqueness.

Like dance in West Africa, the African American Ring Shout was seen as a sacred enactment performed in a sacred context; this was also true for the African American Ring Shout; but, what was the context of the Ring Shout? The earliest accounts of the Ring Shout do not locate the sacred circle in a Christian context. Furthermore some writers have even described it as being a form of "idol worship," or as "primitive" and even "disgusting." A white observer leaves us this account of a "shout" where sacred circle was convened:

Tonight I have been to a "shout" which seems to me certainly the remains of some old idol worship. The negroes sing a kind of chorus--three standing apart to lead and clap--and then all the others go shuffling 'round in a circle following one another with not much regularity, turning round occasionally and bending the knees, and stamping so that the whole floor swings. In never saw anything so savage. They call it a religious ceremony, but it seems more like a regular frolic to me. (6) Writers, such as Frederick Law Olmstead, observed a "Shout," and states that there was a clear distinction...

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