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African-American Dance and Women

African-Americans are credited with having been highly influential in shaping the history of dance in the United States. Since the introduction of the "cakewalk" launched social dancing in the 1800s, African-Americans have been responsible for nearly every popular dance phenomenon (Dance, 1991) in the United States. Emery (1988) traces the evolution of African-American dance to the African roots of this particular population, to the period of slavery in the Caribbean, and through to the years immediately following Emancipation in the United States. Emery (1988) contends that during slavery and its immediate aftermath, African-American dance represented a means of relaxation and celebration that was in part a defiance of White dominance and a cultural expression of an uprooted people.

Among the contributions of African-Americans to dance are popular dances of the past, such as the cakewalk and those of the minstrel show as well as dances associated with voodoo and other celebratory rituals (Long, 1989). African-American dancers, both male and female, have advanced other forms of dance such as jazz, social dancing, and the ballet. This brief report will examine the contributions of a select group of African-American women to dance in the United States.

Two of the greatest trend setters in African-American dance were Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, both of whom emerged to prominence in the 1940s. Emery (1988) states that it is the efforts of these two women that facilitated acceptance of the Black dancer as a performing artist.

Earlier, however, the cakewalk dancer, Aida Overton Walker, played a major part in popularizing the cakewalk for White audiences eager to transgress racial boundaries by associating with authentic ethnic forms (Krasner, 1996). The cakewalk originated from tribal African festival dances. Though an original dance form, it often involved parody and caricature. Many African-Americans rejected...

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