Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Legacies of slavery: dance

by Dr Alan Rice

'(In the dances on the slave ships)....Haunted by memories of Africa, beset by the slave trade whose laws and economic proscriptions violate their inner beings, the dancers perform an epic drama that announces the emergence of the New World Negro.' Genevieve Fabre

When Africans were forcibly sold out of Africa across the Atlantic Ocean into foreign lands they were often totally detached from their own language communities. One of the cultural forms which helped people to survive and communicate with one another was music. Music could communicate across the language barrier that divided different enslaved Africans. All Africans could take part in music and dancing so it provided a tool for survival. Dances had particular meanings and could convey specific ideas.

The way in which music and dance were used can be traced back to the slave ships themselves. Africans were forced to dance on deck for exercise. Many took advantage of this to bond and communicate with their shipmates by dancing steps remembered from their past in Africa. This was to continue in the Americas in dances, religious ceremonies and other musical forms that used cultural traditions from Africa. One such dance was the limbo in the Caribbean.

The limbo spoke directly of the limited space in the slaving ships and the African ability to escape it. Another dance that arose was the cakewalk in the southern states of America. This dance poked fun at the plantation owners. In this way, African resistance to slavery was expressed culturally.


Modern carnival takes place throughout the African diaspora, from Toronto, Canada to Preston, England not forgetting its more famous cousins in Notting Hill, New Orleans, Port of Spain and Rio de Janeiro. It is a colourful legacy of this rebellious culture of resistance. It shows that enslaved Africans helped to reshape culture and society in the places they were taken to. They created a culture, in the face of the horrors of slavery and racism, that remembers the African past.

Modern urban street dance forms, such as breakdancing with its vibrant, grounded, crisp-edged energy, have a close connection to original African dance techniques. This is evidence of the connection of black cultures to their complex histories. The origins of many dance innovations can be found in the many different African cultures from which the enslaved Africans were taken before being deposited by slavery and migration in multiple American and European destinations.

An eyewitness describes the famous slave-dancing of the bamboula in Place Congo, New Orleans that he saw in the 1850s. The dancers (and audience) use their bodies as instruments in a way that echoes back to original African dance forms and forward to the breakdancers who emerged more recently.

'The bamboula still roars and rattles, twangs, contorts and tumbles in terrible earnest while we stand and talk... the music changes. The rhythm stretches out heathenish and ragged. The quick contagion is caught by a few in the crowd, who take it up with spirited smitings of the bare sole upon the ground and of open hands upon the thighs. From a spot near the musicians a single male voice, heavy and sonourous, rises in improvisation - the Mandingoes brought that art from Africa - and in a moment many others have joined in the refrain, male voices in rolling, bellowing resonance, female responding in high piercing unison.' George Washington Cable.