You mean “Blues” is a dance? Yes, it is. In fact, it is an entire family of several dances (such as the “Slow Drag” and the “Fishtail”) that are aesthetically, culturally and musically connected.

Like Swing dance, Blues dance originated and evolved from African rhythms and movements. However, Blues dancing was never widely practiced as a “social” or performance dance in the United States outside of the Black communities; so it developed and thrived in smoky juke joints and at Blues house parties and rent parties, giving it a more intimate feel.

Because Blues dancing lacked wider social approval and appeal, it remained strongly entrenched in African principles of movement, not only in the motion of the hips, but in the characteristic creation of, and dancing within, a boundary.

Blues dance is strongly tied to Blues music, and many aspects of Blues dancing (for example, call and response, emotional intensity, and tension and release) are directly related to the music to which it is danced. There are many types of Blues music (rural, urban, up-tempo, slow, electric, delta, modern), and also many types of Blues dance, all with very different nuances and emotions.

Early Blues dances often contained very simple one-step or two-step patterns; some examples of such early Blues dances are the “Cake Walk” and the “Black Bottom.” Other Blues dances such as the “Slow Drag” and the “Mooche” have also been passed down to us relatively unchanged from the original forms. In its modern context, Blues dance incorporates many aspects of these original dances as well as incorporating ideas from modern concepts of partner connection, improvisation, and natural body movement.

Blues is also an emotion that you bring to your dancing. Blues dance, like most Black vernacular dances, enables intense individuality in expressing the music, emphasizing that the music, not the dancer, leads the dance; the dancer is simply the interpreter. Blues dance demonstrates the passion of the entire range of human emotions – from sadness to joy – not just sensuality. If you don’t have a visceral reaction to the music, your partner, and the environment, then you are missing the true beauty of Blues dance.

Some observers and dancers who have not studied Blues dance other than by simple observation often overlook the nuances of the dance. To their eyes, the sensual appearance of the dance may overshadow its basis and structure. Blues dance at its best is rooted in subtle physical communication and connection between your partner, yourself, and the music and therefore is almost impossible to learn to execute well simply by watching.

Learning to Blues dance enables the dancer to more fully understand dance concepts such as simplicity, clarity, creativity, expression, intensity, and musical and emotional interpretation that are critical to advanced social dancing of any kind.

 

Some history

In the post-Civil War rural south, African-American men had very few job options: They could be labourers, field hands, share-croppers or musicians. Understandably, the successive callings of minstrel, songster and bluesman quickly became established professions. While the itinerant musician’s life was less back breaking than that of a labourer’s, a professional bluesman needed to have both substantial instrumental and performing skills as well as a vast reserve of songs and the improvisational skills necessary to create new ones instantly. He further needed the physical stamina to play and sing all night long. This is because the blues was a celebratory music, played to accompany dancers revelling at rowdy all-night country dances. These “frolics” retained elements of African tribal dance and, unlike the carefully circumscribed social dance practices of Europe, individual dances could become extended affairs, often an hour or more long. The bluesman served as a “living jukebox” and each song/performance had to last as long as participants wanted to dance. Obviously, at this stage of the folk process, neither individual “songs” nor the musical form of the blues itself could exist in a final, fixed state. One of the defining talents for a professional rural bluesman in the first decades of this century was the ability indefinitely to sustain a single performance by improvising new verses and instrumental figures. This required that blues performers’ conceptions of both “song” and musical form be sufficiently elastic to allow for the accommodation of such improvisation to expand their musical ideas in performance.

The blues was never the province of solitary old men on back porches. In their way, critics who thought this have misunderstood the purpose and function of the music in much the same way as did the ante-bellum observers. While the blues may feature harsh and “mournful” sounding performances of downbeat lyrics, its totality is nonetheless a raucous, crude, ironic and rhythmic dance music. Listeners who insist that the blues are sad neglect the fact that the generic melancholy of typical blues lyrics is almost always juxtaposed with a sprightly, up-tempo instrumental accompaniment and performance style that belies the lyrical contents. The blues is the catalyst that brings temporary relief from a life of drudgery, not a catalogue of those drudgeries.

American slaves and chain gang workers used “work songs” for coordinating proper and safe sequencing in group labour. The stressed beats or words of the chant signaled specific parts of the labour. The leader would (call) sing one line and the rest of the group would sing the answering line (response) in unison as they performed the particular task, such as rowing, laying railroad track or chopping trees. In this context, slaves sang less as an expression of misery at their indenture than as a means of orchestrating their forced labours. In this way, African work songs and European sea shanties are analogous: They both used song rhythms as a precise means for coordinating labour. This “call and response” pattern is now common in popular music, i.e., a lead vocalist sings a line which the rest of backing singers answer in chorus.