All Eyes on African American Dance — by Jennifer Smith

Cultures all over the world have individual artistic expressions that set them apart. One of these unique gifts that varies between people groups is the art of dance. African tribal dances began to shape and define their culture long before it transferred to America. Modern day African American dance has been revolutionized into a creative expression of talent and movement. These exceptional stylistic qualities can be seen in specialized dance companies like that of Alvin Ailey. The heart and soul that comes out through their artistic talents compels generations everywhere.

African tribal dances are often thought of as ancient relics of the past. In fact, many tribes continue this tradition today. Dance plays a very important role in the lives of the African people. Not only does it serve as a wonderful way to pass time, it is part their cultural expression. Dances celebrate every large event for them including birth and marriage. Tribal dances are used as part of many African religious ceremonies. They believe it can ward off evil spirits, send worship to their gods and provide prosperity.

The slave trade brought with it the merging of several tribes and cultures. Enslaved Africans continued to dance as a part of their individual expression as well as a way to hold on to part of their homeland and culture. This caused many of the tribal dances to influence one another as various groups of people danced as one. The original tribal dances were prohibited and unappreciated by many slave owners in the South. In order to conserve their love for this activity, they began to change and adapt the dances they knew to fit the confinements of America’s South.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, African Americans began to shape and define a new dance that was native to America while carrying with it pieces of their heritage. The extravagant tribal dances were reshaped into dramatic creative movements that involved full body movements. In the mid nineteen hundreds, African Americans began to take center stage by holding on to their roots and creating an entire new style of performance and dance.

One of the most influential minds of this developmental period was Alvin Ailey. After studying dance in a general setting, Ailey began his own creations that suited his athletic body and involved spirit and feeling. He opened his own dance studio in 1958 and it is still present today known as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. His successful company began as only seven dancers who combined their talents to begin a new era of dance devoted to the African American theme. These grand productions depicted the lifestyle of African Americans along with portraying some of their important beliefs.

African American dances today come in many forms, but the modernized versions that were preserved and created by reformers such as Ailey still exist. Candace Ricketts, a member of a professional dance company in Tennessee, studies some of these techniques through Jazz dance. Her studies teach her to use more than her feet when dancing and combine passion and feeling. Miss Ricketts describes the dance as a feeling of “being free” and isolating each part of the body for unique and dramatized movements.

Modern dance in America is far different from the Tribal dances that can be seen around fires deep in the heart of Africa. However, it is a beautiful art that has been changed and reformed and pieces of it exist in what we see now. The talent for improvisation through dance reflects inner qualities and a rich culture. Their movements are clearly an artistic expression of inner creativity, not just footwork

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