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The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms

by Emily Willette, Smith College

The Africanist Aesthetic and American Dance Forms


The history of globalization and cultural hybridization goes back through time as long as people from different places have been interacting with each other. Through trade of all kinds, people all over the world have been sharing their practices with others and taking in those of others. Since dance embodies many cultural attitudes, it is one way to look at the effects of globalization. Through slavery American dance was influenced by African dance, and in turn the African slaves were influenced by the dances already performed in this country. This can be seen in many dance forms created and altered in the United States.



The Africanist Aesthetic, as seen in American dance, is not any particular aesthetic of any one group of people from Africa, but rather is a blend of common elements across many different groups.  According to Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, this blending and creation of an African-American culture came about because of homogenization of slave life.[1] Since the beginning of slavery in the United States, groups of Africans had been split up. No one group with a common language or cultural practices were kept together, which lead to cultural hybridization even in the early history of slavery.  With the invention of the cotton gin, many plantations that had previously grown indigo or tobacco began to grow cotton because this device made it so much easier to produce. Since almost all slaves were doing the same work, the shared practices were the basis for what Hazzard-Gordon calls, “a fairly stable, homogeneous, dominant cultural variant.”[2] The final force that Hazzard-Gordon cites is the outlaw of the slave trade in the early 1800’s. Since no, or almost no, new slaves were being brought into the United States and the percentage of slaves that were born in the United States was becoming the majority, the people were becoming further and further removed from their home culture with and had no way to recover what had been lost.[3]

In addition to these factors, there was no way for the enslaved Africans to completely hold onto their cultural beliefs because slave masters actively tried to take it away from them. The main ways this was accomplished was through the banning of drums, and the introduction of mind/body dualism through Christianity.[4] The slaves were robbed of their communication methods, and introduced to the idea that sacred and secular were entirely different. This stripping of culture functioned as a form of oppression, since the slaves could not have an independent identity or autonomy when they weren’t allowed to participate in their cultural practices. However, many plantation owners held secular dances for their slaves.[5] These dances were very important to both the plantation owners, and the slaves. For the plantation owners, the dances functioned as a way to keep their slaves from rebelling. If they could have one part of their life that brought them joy, they were less likely to run away, or strike out and revolt against the plantation owners- it was a way to pacify the slaves. For the slaves however, it was a way to hold onto their culture and keep it from being ripped away from them. It also functioned as a form of rebellion in itself through satire that their white masters did not understand.  Because these dances were so important to the structure of slavery, the qualities and values they preserved can still be seen today. Cheryl Willis argues that, “the deep structure within a culture is found in the retention of characteristics of behavior that are not effected by time and geography; surface structure is effected by time and geography”[6] These deep structures are what we can still identify as the Africanist aesthetic hundreds of years later on an entirely different continent. Through the interplay of cultural denial and cultural allowances, and homogenization of lifestyle, slaves were able to develop a distinct African-American culture and sense of identity


What is the Africanist Aesthetic?


The Africanist aesthetic is a set of qualities in art, and specifically in this paper dance and music that come from African art. Robert Farris Thompson’s observations of art in central and western Africa and Kariamu Welsh Asante’s observations of dance in Zimbabwe identify common themes of African art. From these two authors, I have selected six characteristics that specifically relate to my discussion of the Africanist aesthetic in American dance.

The first quality is ephebism, or youthfulness. Robert Farris Thompson states, “People in Africa, regardless of their actual age, return to strong, youthful patterning whenever they move within the streams of energy which flow from drums or other sources of percussion.”[7] This quality is characterized by strength, flexibility, speed, and intensity in all parts of the body. Flexibility in this sense isn’t about extensions or doing splits, but rather a flexibility in the joints. Bent knees and elbows that indicate a readiness to adapt and change, along with isolations and oscillations of the pelvis with a straight but not rigid spine define this type of flexibility.[8] Ephebism reflects a cultural value on what youth has to offer.

The quality of “coolness” is also very prevalent. This often has to do with presenting a calm demeanor while simultaneously performing movement described in the previous section, but is about more than that. Coolness also has to do with visibility and clarity. A cool person is someone who presents themselves out in the open for everyone to see- there are no secrets in their movement and thus they have no secrets. In order to be cool, a dancer must also have intention in their movement. This intention makes the dancing clear, and leads to smoothness of movement. Farris Thompson states, “seams do not show, the whole is moving towards generous conclusions based on total giving of the self to music and society.”[9] Coolness is about having composure, but also giving everything to the dance.

Musical qualities and their connections to dance in Africa are very different from European ideas about those. First, rhythm is the important quality in the music which can be seen in the widespread use of percussion instruments. Every beat gets equal stress, and there are none that are underplayed.[10] This can create a very bold sound in music, with no sense of legato. Because of this, timing is also crucial.[11] The connection of music and dance is very deep, the two cannot be separated. In Zimbabwean dance, Welsh Asante noted that, “Both dancing and drumming require accompaniment.”[12] Neither is a complete form without the other, and they both require a human body. This reflects a more embodied and holistic sense of being as opposed to the dualism typical of European worldviews.

Polyrhythm and polycentrism are also central to African dance. Polyrhythm is the layering of different rhythms over one another and polycentrism is the idea that movement can initiate from any part of the body. These two qualities play together because different parts of the body dance to different instruments that are playing at different rhythms. Farris Thompson describes learning polyrhythm and polycentrism, “my hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.”[13] All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out. This method of dancing is another way of incorporating and valuing the entire body and bringing together the music and dancing.

Meanwhile, balance in asymmetry is a quality that comes from balancing ephebism, a “hot” quality, with coolness, but also maintaining balance when the body is in a physically asymmetrical stance. Hazzard-Gordon describes a specific instance of this in African worship, “Shango, or thundergod, devotees sometimes dance with a burning fire in a container on their heads.”[14] This particular dance is balancing of both hot and cold. In order to keep the fire from falling off their heads, there must be some restraint and focus on the body in relation to gravity.  Farris Thomson states that, “African design is, quite often rendered vivid by rhythmized, contrastive, changing elements within the pattern.”[15] Through opposites, artists create balance in their work. For the creators and performers, these contrasts are what make the art interesting.

Satire is also a very important quality in African dance. Barbara S. Glass writes about the Yoruba dance festival called Gelede, and notes that the dance is in part for, “Enacting and examining male and female roles in society, and satirizing any anti-social behavior of individuals.” [16] It can be used as a method of social control. It shows people what is allowed and what is not allowed often by exaggerating the unacceptable behavior. In this case it is being anti-social, which could be considered as going against the self-presentation required by being “cool.”

Even though these reference specific African examples, that does not mean these qualities in American dance are direct references to those instances. As previously described, they have gone through a process of hybridization with European culture in the United States, and have become a large part of the defining qualities that make American culture and dance different from European.[17] Many (if not all) types of dance created in the United States are influenced by African dance, even ones that are not considered African American. These qualities have often been overlooked because of racism and ignorance. Brenda Dixon Gottschild highlights how George Balanchine incorporated Africanist aesthetics into ballet to create a distinctly American ballet characterized by its angularity, speed, and intensity.[18] She also notes the importance of the connection to the earth in American modern dance through the rejection of shoes and rolling on the ground that has nothing to do with European concert dance and much more to do with Africanist aesthetics.[19]


The Africanist Aesthetic in Tap Dance



Cheryl Willis, in her article “Tap Dance: Manifestations of the African Aesthetic” outlines some of the major aesthetic qualities of tap dance in relation to the Africanist aesthetic. She identifies the attitude of tap dance as being, “visible, and smooth.”[20] These are clearly related Farris Thompson’s description of coolness in African Art. In this video, the Nicholas brothers embody what it means to be cool. Their dancing is incredibly clear. They are in perfect synchronicity and the sounds are not muffled at all. They always know exactly where they are going, and there is no hesitation. The way they keep their faces is also another element if coolness. They smile the entire time and present themselves to their audience, even when they are doing moves that could be potentially dangerous. They appear to be having fun when they jump over each other, and it doesn’t appear false. They never let on if they are getting tired, even if they probably are from the intensity of their dancing.

Tap dance is an excellent example of the interconnectedness of music and dance because the dancers make music with their feet. Neither the music nor the dancing can stand on its own in tap. Willis also describes the distinct musicality valued in tap dance. “The dancer does not dance on the beat of the music but establishes a rhythm that balances the music. The concept of stepping inside of the rhythms gives evidence to the polyrhythmic aspect of African music and dance.”[21] The Nicholas brothers dance with that type of musicality by dancing between the downbeats, and occasionally not making any sound on the downbeats. While this performance does not create polyrhythm in the sense of layering different percussive rhythms since the Nicolas brothers dance in synchronicity, it still is a layering of the accompanying music with the tap rhythms, creating a polyrhythm.

Willis also points out that tap is an ephebic dance style.  “Ephebism is manifested in tap dancers who are stealing the spotlight today… These men are bringing strong and youthful streams of energy into the dance and using this vitality to keep the tradition alive.”[22] The Nicholas brothers exude ephebism. They jump from table to table, ignoring the fact that they have a specific stage area. They aren’t competing for attention with other dancers, but they are not a performance one would be likely to talk through. The Nicholas brothers show their incredible flexibility by landing jumps in splits, yet it is not a straight split- the type of flexibility that Farris Thompson highlights. Their back leg is consistently bent. This may be a matter of ability, or a way to facilitate sliding up to standing, but it does show flexibility in the joints. This flexibility can also be seen in their buoyant stance. Their knees are bent slightly, and they easily bounce from floor to table, table to table, and up the stairs. Throughout the performance, the Nicolas brothers dance with an incredible amount of energy. There are hardly any breaks or parts that look less intense than other parts, and the dance actually gets more energetic toward the end when they jump down the stairs and over each other landing in splits.


The Africanist Aesthetic in Hip-Hop



The first video shows a dancer who dances with movement emanating from multiple sources at the same time, demonstrating polycentrism. Halifu Osumare, in her book about the Africanist aesthetic in hip-hop writes that “I contend that there is a physically ‘democratizing’ effect on the body because of various rhythms being distributed throughout the whole body.”[23] At 30 seconds into the video he is undulates his arms outward, circles his hips, and undulates his spine all at the same time. Not one of these parts dominates the other, and creates an effect that every part of the body is equally important and capable of dancing. In addition to this type of movement demonstrating depth in understanding of the music, it is also another example of the type of flexibility Farris Thompson refers to when he discusses ephebism. This dancer moves so fluidly, it almost looks like they don’t have bones, and “to say that a person dances as if she or he had no bones is one of the highest compliments a Liberian Dan, Nigerian Tiv, or Zairos Tanzi can bestow.”[24] By using polycentrism, this dancer is also showing that he has the strength, power, and flexibility associated with youth.

This dancer uses satire to simultaneously show what hip-hop is not supposed to be about, and how good he is at it.  Osumare writes that in hip-hop, “the self is examined, deconstructed, and reconstructed in the movement in relation to inherited principles of good form and the contemporary community”[25] The dancer examines what principals he values in his own dancing by pretending to be a robot from one minute on. Being a robot is about being automated, having someone else dictate how you are supposed to move and how you are supposed to function. These would not be considered principals in hip-hop, since such a huge part of hip-hop is individuality and being true to yourself. At the same he moves with impeccable timing and control. He shows what is unacceptable, while still embodying exactly what is idealized, so the audience finds it funny.


The second video is of the battle for third place at the Breakdance World Championships in 2010. The two dancers use a variety of freezes, flips, and spins to demonstrate their strength and skill. The freezes that get the most cheering from the crowd are those that are very asymmetrical such as those at thirty-two seconds, or a minute and twenty. They are more interesting than a straight handstand because their bodies are going in multiple directions at the same time.  Osumare references Sally Banes’ description of freezes in hip-hop, as “comparing and contrasting youthful male vitality with its range of opposites: women, animals, babies, old age, injury and illness… and death.”[26] By balancing their asymetical bodies, the dancers are also balancing their masculinity with any and all of its opposites. The dancers also balance their hot ephebism with their cool. They perform these incredibly strong moves full body moves, and alternate them with less powerful footwork patterns that demonstrate musicality. These asymmetrical freezes, and changes in intensity function as a way of balancing opposite qualities that Farris Thompson references as a way that African art is kept interesting.


[1] Katrina Hazzard Gordon, “Dancing Under the Lash: Sociocultural Disruption, Continuity, and Synthesis.” African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry. Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante, (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996)  109

[2] Hazzard Gordon, Dancing Under the Lash, 109

[3] Hazzard Gordon, Dancing Under the Lash, 108

[4] Hazzard Gordon, Dancing Under the Lash, 103

[5] Hazzard Gordon, Dancing Under the Lash, 109

[6] Cheryl Willis “Tap Dance: Manifestations of the African Aesthetic” Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante, African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996) 145

[7] Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974) 7

[8] Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 9

[9] Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 44

[10] Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 7

[11]Correct entrance and exit is important for the quality of the dance, but also for being courteous (Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 20)

[12] Kariamu Welsh Asante, ”The Zimbabwean Dance Aesthetic: Senses, Canons, and Characteristics” Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996) 206

[13]Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 16

[14] Hazzard Gordon, Dancing Under the Lash, 107

[15] Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 22

[16] Barbara S. Glass, African American Dance: An Illustrated History, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2007) 9

[17] Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996) 2

[18] Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Dance, 64

[19] Dixon Gottschild, 49

[20] Willis, Tap Dance, 148

[21] Willis, Tap Dance, 150

[22] Willis, Tap Dance, 155

[23] Halifu Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves, (New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 51

[24] Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, 9

[25] Osumare,The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop, 26

[26] Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop, 53


Works Cited

Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996)

Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974)

Katrina Hazzard Gordon, “Dancing Under the Lash: Sociocultural Disruption, Continuity, and Synthesis.” African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry. Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante, (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996)

Halifu Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves, (New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Kariamu Welsh Asante, ”The Zimbabwean Dance Aesthetic: Senses, Canons, and Characteristics” Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996)

Cheryl Willis, “Tap Dance: Manifestations of the African Aesthetic” Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante, African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996)

“Best Break Dancer in the World!!!!!!.” YouTube video, 1:53. Posted by “TheRealTvGuyz”. April 30th, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV-R05PwVWQ&feature=related

Breakdance World Championship 2010 – 1 on 1 – Battle for 3rd Place.” YouTube video, 6:03. Posted by “Gacko83”. April 30th, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w86pbc6hWXI&feature=related


“Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather.” YouTube video, 3:11. Posted by “TapZatNYC”. April 30th, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBb9hTyLjfM



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