Blues

Black American intangible heritage has a transnational dance following.
H
istoric, community and studio dance videos.







Author added captions and mapped rhythms onto The Great Migration Map of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021).

blues idiom demo

Demonstrations by Deirdre & Ophelie, in dialogue with Brenda Russell

one-step, two-step, rumba

Dance Demo Discussion (34 mins)

Deirdre & Ophelie improvise dances in two-step, one-step, and rumba blues for the camera. Deirdre learned most of this dance language from Brenda Jean Russell in 2015 and 2018. Deirdre taught the dances to Ophelie. Brenda Jean discusses and critiques the dance demo video excerpts remotely (over Zoom). To watch the demonstrations in full, see below. Filmed in Toulouse France in July 2021 by the author.

Country Blues

Pallet on the Floor : proto-blues c. 1900 considered a blues/folk standard.


Earliest known performances were in rural Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and in the early repertoire of New Orleans band leaders including Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory (Hobson, 2011).


Earliest recordings: Ethel Waters, "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor", Columbia, 1926; Mississippi John Hurt : "Ain't No Tellin'", OKeh, 1928. Performed here by Dan Nash & Stefano Ronchi on their album: The London Session (2016).


Dance description: triple rhythm, flatfoot aesthetic travelling in linear floor patterns: L-shape, Box and extended/moving Box. Brenda considers this an example of 'Country Blues'.

one-step blues/Ragtime

Ballin' the Jack (1913) New York.

music: Chris Smith, lyrics: Jim Burris


Performed here by Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band,1944

Shellac, 10", 78 RPM / Spotify 2021.


Dance description : one-step rhythms with various motifs labelled in movie titles. Some motifs not titled: lasso, basket, promenade, corridor kicks. Turns move lead and follow in orbital relationship (changing places), rather than linear floor pattern.


blues rumba

Hey Little Girl by Professor Longhair of New Orleans, 1942. 


Performed here by Alan Hager & Dave Fleschner on their album Live from the Vault (2013, Portland).


Known for his 'rumba-boogie' music, Longhair (b. 1918 Henry Roeland Byrd) was influenced by Afro-Cuban clave and habanera (tresillo) rhythms. Authors note: to check with a musicologist if this rumba is a tresillo-variant and what exactly is 'four-beat basic' footwork.


Dance description : 

  • Rumba quick, quick, slows: in place with fishtail hips or travelling with straight hips. This rhythm falls under the umbrella of two-step, but has quite a different feel to the 'Country Blues' two-step demonstrated above.

  • Blues one- rhythms (eg: for hip shakes and turns) 

  • Blues step-touch and related moves eg: passby

Chris Smith, composer
(1879-1949)

Ballin' the Jack

by an African-American composer, was published as sheet music with white faces and the label ‘Foxtrot’ on the cover, to appeal to white dancers.

This kind of cultural appropriation was a common in Jim Crow (Segretated) USA, according to the American Folk Life Centre.

The 1944 version used in the video above sounds very different to the 1914 version by James Reese Europe's National Promenade Band. I have much to learn about how the dances, step names and musical expressions changed over time.


blues dance idioms

multiplied in tandem with changes in music, venues and ensembles and
with the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans 1916-1970.

Blues idioms are variations of rhythm and aesthetic in the continuum of blues language.









Author added captions and mapped rhythms onto The Great Migration Map of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021).

video archives?





diaspora culture deserves archives

Now as in the 1930s, the most comprehensive choreological blues dance data is being collected outside academia, in the dance community. Shot between 1930-1960, the 5-hour black vernacular dance documentary The Spirit Moves was a labour of love by Russian-born dancer Mura Dehn. The Spirit Moves (1930) Part 1, Chapter II ‘The Blues’ is one of the earliest references to blues as a dance, with demonstrations titled Rent Party, Shake Blues, and Gutbucket Blues. Rent Party, like Jookin and Ballroomin are umbrella terms for families of blues dances that evolved to suit these different venues. The Spirit Moves is a valued resource for vintage dancers, although unfortunately original sound accompaniment to the dances was not captured or synchronised.

I believe it's important to archive dances, even if the process of 'preservation' has imperfections and limitations. Despite their resilience, vernacular dances can become inaccessible to wider publics or disappear altogether if the lineage of transmission breaks. Black dance preservation rarely gets the institutional support given to other arts.

Blues dance has a small but dedicated following outside its African-American communities of origin – in the USA, Europe, Asia, Argentina and Australia. The global fame of blues music suggests great potential to re-connect live music with dancers.


online blues dance archives

Competition / Youtube

Blues dance is relatively 'cool' or subtle – less acrobatic than related dances like Lindy Hop or Hip hop. However, there is an element of playful competition, known as 'solo cutting'. Competitions bring out the performative aspects of the partner dance. Watch the pros dance at Berlin Blues Explosion 2015 Teacher Jack & Jill (<< left).

This video shows the richness of the tradition, and how egalitarian the roles are – lead and follow can contribute equally to flow, connection, playfulness. Unfortunately social media archives like this are very insecure – no institutional support, index, curation, metadata, context. It could disappear anytime.

Non-profit

Blues Moves : A not-for-profit video library of blues steps and dances, including interviews with Damon Stone. Crowd funded so again, rather insecure.

Spurlock Blues Dance Playlist : a museum of the University of Illinois has collected blues dances idiom videos for a temporary exhibition. Here I've made the collection accessible in one click – a YouTube playlist. "Blues Dancing and its African American Roots" is online at the Spurlock Museum until 05.31.2022.

Studio / commercial

Brenda Jean Russell's Studio https://dancemode-brenda-russell.square.site/

Adamo & Vicci's Studio thebluesroom.com

blues interviews

Don't miss the interviews with blues and jazz pros