“What Do You Dance?” begins the story of the evolution of a uniquely American form of movement with African slaves on a southern plantation hunched low to the ground, feet pounding the earth with rhythmic intensity as they hum, clap, sing, and dance the “Ring Shout” — one of the dances writer Ralph Ellison called America’s first choreography.
As the dominant strain in a cultural synthesis of Irish clogs, Scottish jigs, English reels, Spanish fandangos, Caribbean rhythms, and more, African dances left an indelible imprint on American dance. The story of their influence unfolds against the backdrop of American history, tracing Africans through slavery, the Great Migration north, the culturally rich Harlem Renaissance, racial segregation, and the Great Depression. For many Americans, African dance, from the plantation “Ring Shout “and “Cakewalk” to the Jazz Age “Charleston,” “Black Bottom,” and tap, was a liberating force from the rigid restrictions of European dance and culture. And in the early 1900s, when American choreographers Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis created a revolutionary alternative to Europe’s classical ballet, African-American dancers played a role in this “aesthetic dance” movement.