Research of any kind can be overwhelming, even for the experts. So how does the average person go about their own exploration of blues and jazz music and dance history? If you’re here on this website, that’s a good place to start to get some guided reading help. But even on this website, there are multiple reading/watch lists, articles, and video lectures. When we don’t know where we should start, it is easy to just resolve ourselves to never doing the reading or viewing for ourselves.
Here are a few steps you can take to make your research and learning goals more manageable.
Decide what you want to learn.
Rather than just come at the topic you want to learn about in a broad manner, try to narrow down to the specifics, the stuff that you are most eager to learn. For instance, rather than just broadly wanting to know more about blues music, think about what your favorite sub genres are, and then rank those in order, highest enjoyment to lowest (e.g. Chicago blues, Piedmont blues, Delta blues, West Coast blues, etc).
Explore subtopics within your chosen topic.
Once you have decided what you are most interested in learning more about, look more closely at that topic. To continue with our example of blues music, if you want to study the Chicago blues, one way to narrow your topic down further would be to look at your favorite artists. Who is singing those songs you come back to time and time again? Write the names of the artists down. Again, rank them by most favorite to least favorite.
Look for easily accessible resources on your topic and subtopic.
Do a basic Google search on your topic. Look at the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club reading and watching lists for titles that are relevant to your interests. Search your local library for books, films, and music. See what documentaries are available to you on YouTube or other video sites. If you want more scholarly options, see what your local university has to offer (you can often go into the libraries and look at books even without being a student or faculty member; you just won’t be able to take them out of the library). Do a search on Google Scholar to see what articles are out there (be aware that many sources may be behind paywalls, and can be expensive without access via a library).
Remember, you are in control of what you search: to continue our example, if you want to learn more about the music in general, look for books on the sub genre you are interested in most; if you are interested in the artists’ lives, look for biographies, discographies, interviews, etc. You’ll be surprised what you can find without any formalized archives or tools at hand outside of your home computer or local library. If you are having trouble finding information, ask a librarian for help. You can email one at a university, or ask a local librarian. They are trained to be able to find information on many topics, so they should be able to help you find information on yours.
Decide what you want to read first.
Sometimes you may feel that you are not qualified to read a book because it has references to other works or history that you are not familiar with. Know that we all feel this from time to time, but it is important to start reading. Choose the books, articles, interviews, or films you want to engage with first, and start. Jump right in! If it makes you feel more comfortable, keep a computer nearby so that you can look up key terms you don’t understand, or just keep a notebook handy to write down those terms, notes, and questions you may have so you can come back to them later. Keeping a list of relevant page numbers, time on a documentary, or time into a song might also be helpful so you can go back to the reference that prompted the writing. If you own the materials you are using, feel free to write in the books or articles you have. Researchers call this annotation, and it is an important part of their process. It helps them engage with the text.
Look at the index and references.
When you finish a work, look to see if there is an index and a references section. Sometimes references will be in the form of endnotes or footnotes in each chapter (read them!), and other times they will be at the back, usually just before the index. People who are writing these books are often using a combination of primary research—interviews and firsthand accounts—and secondary research—books and articles. Write down the books and articles that seem interesting to you, and any relevant topics you find in the index. This will help you to continue your research without having to rely on the initial lists and searches you looked at to find a place to start.
Talk to people about what you learned.
One of the most important parts of the research process is to talk about what you learn. One reason this is important is that you are able to help yourself process the information you’ve just read. Another reason it’s that by sharing the information—in person or online—with others helps them start their research or learn more, and also helps create a community of people who are interested in learning about the same topic. You may find that other people have research they’ve done that they are very willing to share with you in return.
You can repeat this process with any topic of your choosing. If you follow these guidelines, you will more easily engage with all the content available to you, and you will feel more satisfied with the results of the research. Who knows, you may eventually find yourself going out on a trip to find and record the stories of the people who participate in blues and jazz!
It’s easy when thinking about a social dance, like slow drag, to think of it as more specific and more narrowly-defined than it is. In learning a dance, we want to understand it, and we may look for clear-cut rules of what defines a particular dance.
But to quote dance historian Richard Powers, when it comes to social dances, “no one was in charge of steps or terminology…Often I see beginners in dance history being over-specific, saying… ‘The slow drag looked this way.’ But actually what was going on is many different ways of dancing were called that name and one way of dancing would have many different names… It was the perfect mess.”
And jazz performer Chester Whitmore said, “You could take a step, and then every 15, 20 years, it changes. The step is still the same step but it changes because the rhythm of the music changes. It was a dance and it was a step.”
As we seek to understand the boundaries and definitions of slow drag and other social dances, it’s important to leave room for the variations and differences that could have been part of it. This is particularly relevant for dances like slow drag, which persisted across more than a century, in several different communities, contexts, and to different styles of music.
Since slow drag is one of the more well-documented dances in the blues family, this article explores several examples of slow drag from film, writing, and interviews, to help us more easily understand some of the similarities and differences within slow drag across time and location. The sections of this article are the examples themselves, followed by some analysis by me, and then some concluding thoughts.
What follows is a collection of descriptions and recordings of slow drag. I’m providing the direct quotations and film clips where possible, so you (the reader) can also pick out details and more easily do some analysis yourself.
“While in New Orleans in 1959, we were invited to visit Mrs. Alice Zeno, the ninety-five-year-old mother of clarinetist George Lewis…. ‘As a girl, let me see, back around 1878, I believe I danced the Mazurka, the Polka, the Waltz, and of course, the Quadrille. I don’t remember the Irish Reel, and I certainly never danced the Slow Drag.’ (In a tactless moment, we had mentioned the Slow Drag, which is danced with Congo hip movements.)”
“Charlie Love, born later in 1885…recalled playing a different kind of music—’more raggy’—for less fashionable groups in town, where the Eagle Rock, the Buzzard Lope, and the Slow Drag were the favorite dances. ‘They did the Slow Drag all over Louisiana,’ said Mr. Love; ‘couples would hang onto each other and just grind back and forth in one spot all night.’”
1901, Birmingham, AL:
Coot Grant describes observing people dancing in her father’s honky-tonk in 1901: “I had already cut out a peephole in the wall so I could watch the dancers in the back room. They did everything. I remember the Slow Drag, of course, that was very popular—hanging on each other and just barely moving.”
Early 1900s, Writer Lived & Traveled the South & St. Louis, Before Settling in New York, NY:
Composer Scott Joplin wrote “Directions for the Slow Drag,” which were choreographic notes for the number “A Real Slow Drag,” the final number of his opera Treemonisha:
“1. The slow drag must begin on the first beat of each measure.
2. When moving forward, drag the left foot; when moving backward, drag the right foot.
3. When moving sideways to the right, drag the left foot; when moving sideways to the left, drag the right foot.
4. When prancing, your steps must come on each beat of the measure.
5. When marching, and when sliding, your steps must come on the first and third beat of each measure.
6. Hop and skip on second beat of measure. Double the Schottische step to fit the slow music.”
Early 1900s, Traveling Show:
The main characters onstage, portraying an older couple, towards the end of the show: “That’s when they do the slow drag,” says Pigmeat [Markham] “with plenty of grinds, and after that, the Pull It, leaning back and arching their bodies like the breakaway in the Lindy.”
Era Unknown (Speaker b. 1916), Galveston County, TX:
“Up & down the Santa Fe tracks in those days was known as the barrelhouse joints. They danced all night long…. It settled down to the slow, low-down blues, and the slow drag” —Buster Pickens, pianist
1929, Filmed in Astoria, Queens, NY:
“St. Louis Blues,” short film starring Bessie Smith. Full film viewable on YouTube, slow drag at 3:35-3:41 and 12:23-13:15:
Cited as 1925/Published 1961, Info Likely from Harlem, NY Dancers:
“SLOW GRIND. This movement (1925) which is also known as the Slow Drag is a one-step with exaggerated hip twisting.”
1930s or Later, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:
“A slow drag is…like back in the old days when they made recordings, they would tell—it might say on the recording ‘foxtrot,’ ‘fast foxtrot,’ it might say ‘slow drag’ or ‘slow number’ or something like that…. So you were just doing what we actually called a drag, because all you’re doing is just dragging your feet along the floor.” —Frankie Manning
Around 1940s-1950s, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:
“Now when you started doing the slow drag, a lot of times you might use more body movement in your dancing, instead of this [his hands move straight up & down], it’s this [his hands & body move in curves, smoother]. It’s the body movement. You hear the accent. When you start dancing, you’re breathing. When you dance, you breath.” —Sonny Allen
Era Unknown/Various Eras, Sources from Chicago and/or San Francisco, Possibly Others:
“It’s a mostly sideways, mostly in-place dance through most of its history, with a push to the side and a dragging of the leg. How big that drag was, how big that push was could be anywhere from four inches to a foot and a half. Sometimes the dance traveled around a lot, particularly in more sort of ballroom areas, where you had the space to travel. But in the juke joints and places like that, it was really sort of an in-the-spot dance.” —Damon Stone
Also a dancing example from Damon Stone and Heidi Fite
Referenced Era Unknown, New York, NY:
“The slow drag was a very slow motion, moving, and you drag your partner across. It’s really sensuous and it’s really precision. Now that also come from the bodies, real close together. Like in Ballroom, you lead your partner with your chest. This is really low, really gutbucket down here. It’s with your chest and your whole body, and that’s how you slow drag your partner back. That’s what that was.
“You also hear the slow drag of the dance step going side to side. Now that came out of a thing called ring dances or ring circles, which is really out of the spirituals…
“My first experiences with the slow drag was some of the stuff with the Hessians[spelling unknown]. I used to perform with Jim and Marsha Hessian, and they would play all these slow numbers. I said, ‘Where did you learn all this?’ He said, ‘From my mentor.’ I said, ‘Who was your mentor?’ It was Eubie Blake (1887-1983)…around 70, and I got a chance to meet with him…and he said, ‘Oh no, the dance isn’t slow drag across the floor. And it was really gutbucket, had a bottle of gin in her hand and he’d do all kinds of stuff” —Chester Whitmore
Era Unknown, Mississippi Delta Region:
“This rhythmic source was reinforced by the feet of the couples who packed the steamy room and were performing the blues, also called the slow drag, a name that well describes it…. The couples, glued together in a belly-to-belly, loin-to-loin embrace, approximated sexual intercourse as closely as their vertical postures, their clothing, and the crowd around them would allow. Slowly, with bent knees and with the whole shoe flat on the floor, the dragged their feet along its surface, emphasizing the off-beat, so that the whole house vibrated like a drum.”
1962, Chicago, IL:
“When I was a teenager…at Herb Kent’s Friday night dance party held at St. Phillips High School…While the music made the couples dance smooth and dignified in style giving them a musical personality, as they travel gracefully around, it was a rhythmic tidal wave of faces that had me spellbound and stuck to that balcony railing. I stood there enchanted by a vortex of elegant movement and enchanting music below my feet. The couples in the center danced their Slow Drag Dance, moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves. Giving the circle a center of permanence.”
1968, Musical Group from Philadelphia:
Among the lyrics from “Slow Drag” by The Intruders, released in 1968: “I like to get close to the one I love, so I slow drag… Hold me close, hold me closer to you”
These next examples are secondary (second-hand) descriptions, or examples where it’s unclear whether they’re first-hand or second-hand.
“Early observers noted the fox trot and one step and dancing to ‘the blues.’ This latter type of dancing would have been marginally acceptable Slow Drag. Based on a very close-hold technique and writhing hip movements, in a private party setting it tended to be stationary with the girls’ arms around the boy’s neck and the boy’s arms placed around her waist, sometimes sliding onto her buttocks. The dance was otherwise known as Dancing-on-a-Dime, or more recently as the Grind, and the Savoy bouncers insisted the couples keep moving.”
[Slow drag was] “a couple dance in which a man and a woman press their bodies tightly together in a smooth bump and grind as they kept the rhythm of the music”
“Slow drag was popular in the southern juke joints and occurred late at night by dancers exhausted from hours of fast-paced dancing. Couples would hold each other tight and slow grind to the slow, erotic music. When moving in any direction, the first foot stepped and the second dragged to join it, illustrating a slow, a delayed sensuality. The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.”
“…the Slow Drag, which originated in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, where it was danced by couples close together, with sensual hip movements.”
To start with, here are visualizations I created of some aspects described in these examples, and which examples include which aspects. For a table view of the same information, see here.
This first diagram includes examples that specified dancing in one spot:
This diagram includes examples that specified dancing that moved across the floor:
This last diagram includes examples where in-place vs moving across the floor was not specified:
Now to dive into some details that I see and find interesting!
In both film examples, partners are connected torso-to-torso, and many of the written or spoken examples describe it as a “close” dance, leading “with your chest,” and “bodies pressed together.” Though not all examples describe the partner connection, I haven’t found descriptions counter to that. The exception is this: “The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.” It’s unclear if this is a first-hand or second-hand account, or what locations and eras it’s referencing.
An interesting detail from both film examples is that you can see one partner or the other leaning back with their belly or lower torso pressed into their partner. The instructor in Savoy Ballroom to Blues even instructs the followers to “push forward, lean back,” though their connection is in more of a V (with the follower more on the corner of the leader’s chest) than Bessie and Jimmy’s more straight-on connection. In slight contrast, Chester Whitmore says, “You lead your partner with your chest…it’s with your chest and your whole body,” which could imply a more full-torso connection, though that’s conjecture. So close partner connection is a trend across examples, but with variety in the details.
Interestingly, the Al Minns/Leon James photo from Ebony is of a solo dancer, and it doesn’t mention partnering. The position of his arms could be mimicking an imagined partner, or this could be an example of a solo-step version, versus a partner-dance version.
Hip & body movement
Many of these examples describe or show body movement, hip movement, or use words like “grind” which imply hip or body movement. We see this in the examples from 1890s Louisiana, the Al Minns/Leon James Ebony magazine version, and Sonny Allen’s and Chester Whitmore’s descriptions, and Alan Lomax’s. You can see hip and body movement in both film examples, but to my eye, it looks relatively subtle. It’s worth mentioning that both film examples are not in a fully social context—one is for a movie (though portraying a social setting), and the other is a classroom setting—which could affect aspects of the dance being displayed.
The “Drag” Part
I see variations in what “drags” in slow drag, across these examples. The 1911 Joplin instance, the interview with Frankie Manning, Alan Lomax’s recollection, and the interview with Damon Stone all mention dragging of the feet. With Chester Whitmore, it’s “how you slow drag your partner back” (emphasis added). In the Whitmore and Sonny Allen interviews, the speakers also often lengthened the word “drag” (“draaaaag”) which could imply a dragging of time, a lengthening of the beats.
The Al Minns/Leon James example doesn’t mention any type of drag; in that example the primary name is “slow grind,” though slow drag is given as an alternate name.
‘Across the Floor’ or ‘Barely Moving’
It seems that there were differences in how much the dance moved across the floor. Some versions moved “across” or “back” (Whitmore, Harlem), some were on the spot “barely moving” (Grant, Birmingham), and some “moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves” (Allen, Chicago).
A nice laying out out of this difference is made clear in Chester Whitmore’s interview. Whitmore first describes a version where you “drag your partner across” the floor and “drag your partner back,” and then also talks about another slow drag “going side to side,” where Eubie Blake told him it “isn’t slow drag across the floor” (emphasis added). This aligns with the differences that Damon Stone speaks of as well, with versions traveling across the floor in ballrooms and more dancing on the spot in juke joints and other smaller spaces.
In these examples, the rhythm for stepping is often not addressed directly. We can see the rhythm in the film examples—St. Louis Blues is a dragged-out (through time) or ‘slow’ step (a step that takes two beats), and Savoy Ballroom to Blues is a drag-step on each beat. There is one moment in St. Louis Blues where Jimmy does a rhythmic variation, with a scoop or loop back, with the rhythm of ‘1 and 2.’
The other examples that do specify rhythm are the Ebony magazine, Damon Stone, and Alan Lomax. Ebony magazine calls it a “one-step,” which could mean either a one-beat step or a two-beat step, based on my encountering that term both formally and colloquially. Damon Stone specifies that the dance keeps one rhythm. Alan Lomax specifies that the off-beat is emphasized (which I’m assuming means the second and fourth beats), but he doesn’t specify how or with what part of the body.
Overall, these don’t seem particularly contradictory. My interpretation is that either there are different versions, some that are always one-beat steps and some that are always two-beat steps, and/or each version could be one-beat steps or two-beat steps varying from song-to-song or partner-to-partner.
In the various descriptions, there are several alternate names offered, including “drag” (Frankie Manning, Harlem), “slow grind” (Ebony article), “Grind” and “Dancing on a Dime” (Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake). It’s also interesting to note than in both Jazz Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns and Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake, the index includes a reference to “the Drag” listed in the index under Slow Drag.
Overlap with “Grind”
In addition to the naming overlap with “grind” and “slow grind,” another interesting observation comes when Frankie Manning is describing grinding. During the same interview referenced previously, he says, about grind, “You know what’s so funny, I remember when I was a… youngster…I was at least 15 years old… I remember we used to, when the music started playing slow, first I remember you’d be dancing with the young lady and you’d be trying to get close to her, you know…and she would bend over you, you know. So we were bending back as she was bending over you. And I remember gradually, the dance started straightening up and you was almost bending over her.” You can actually see the first part of this type of interaction happen in St. Louis Blues with Bessie and Jimmy as well, which I find really interesting.
Even when “grind” or “slow grind” isn’t offered as an alternate name, the descriptions sometimes contain the word “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding.”
A lot of the examples—particularly in party or juke joint settings—depict this as a couples’ dance, romantic or sexual in nature. Both contexts of slow drag in St. Louis Blues are certainly of that nature as well. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard some elders describe slow drag as romantic or sexual couple dancing, grinding, even a type of foreplay. Now, how we apply this when we’re in a different dance context (if we’re dancing with people with whom we don’t intend to be sexually or romantically entangled) is a separate issue. But these examples show that multiple people who danced slow drag did so with sexual or romantic overtones. This is a statement of ‘was/is,’ not a statement of ‘should.’
We also have some implications of this being less ‘proper,’ based on Mrs. Zeno’s tone while mentioning the slow drag (“certainly never danced”), the description of it being “marginally acceptable” in the early days of the Savoy, and Charlie Love’s description of this being for “less fashionable” groups.
I do see a slight difference in the descriptions from Whitmore and Sonny Allen—both New York dancers, it might be worth noting. From them, it’s not explicitly stated as a sexual or romantic dance, but Whitmore does describe it as “sensuous” and his addition of “precision” brings a tone of skill-displaying as well, in my read. Manning, another New York dancer, doesn’t address the vibe of the dance at all or give any clues with his tone of delivery.
Overall Thoughts, Impressions, Conclusions, and Open Questions
So how do I, personally, fit all these pieces together in my mind? At a high-level, I think of slow drag as a range of things, from grinding hips slowly with a partner, to sweetly shuffling across the floor while close to someone, to sensual and rhythmic body movement with a partner dragging back or in place–maybe with a touch of showing off rhythmic prowess to a partner. To me, the group overall involves dancing close, some degree of body movement, a range of pulses & ways of connecting to the rhythm, a simple stepping rhythm, and dragging of the foot more as a result of not thinking about it than as an intentional feature. I would not be surprised to find exceptions to these either. Across the group, it seems that many close embrace connections are in scope, as well as many varieties of pulse.
The Scott Joplin example is most different from the others, but also had a very different context, being choreography directions for a stage show. My assumption is that the choreography was more adjacent to the social dance, rather than being a more direct representation of the social dance.
Since there are so many examples that also use the words “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding” in the description (or as alternate names), I’ve also started thinking of slow drag as overlapping with other dances called Grind. For example, it seems possible that if some people were doing what they would call slow drag, particular a variety with lots of hip-to-hip movement, someone from another place might look at it and say, “that’s grind.” That’s how I’ve started to frame it in my mind, but this is also somewhat of an open question, to me.
I also have a theory on the development of across-the-floor slow drag, specifically at the Savoy. As described by Hubbard and Monaghan, couples dancing slow drag on-the-spot were made to keep moving around the floor by the Savoy bouncers. This seems that it could have lead to some later versions of slow drag at the ballroom, where traveling across the floor was built into the dance, as we see in Savoy Ballroom to Blues and as described by Chester Whitmore, especially since those examples seem later in history. I’d be interested to find examples of across-the-floor slow drag from locations other than New York or from earlier in history.
It’s out of scope for this article to discuss what ‘accuracy’ means when we’re understanding or executing a social dance like slow drag. What is clear, however, is that we’d be missing out if we were to flatten out the variety that is obviously there across time and place. A more flexible model of thought allows for conflicting or seemingly-conflicting information, offering breadth within our definitions.
If you hear conflicting information about slow drag, dive deeper. See where people are getting their information. It could be that different people have different interpretations of the same information, or they could be learning different styles from different times or places. Or it could be the inevitable game of telephone where information changes as it’s repeated farther and farther from the sources. Whenever you can, go to the sources.
It does not escape me that some people who dance slow drag would find it absurd that I’ve given this level of analysis to a dance that, to them, was slow dancing with your honey. And I heartily acknowledge that point of view. I do think the details are interesting as well, and there is a lot of richness in these details. Since we have multiple examples here, it was also an easy example to show a general framework for understanding social dances—that they have variations, different versions, and can sometimes feel contradictory. For understanding social dances in general, I encourage everyone to look at the details, look at the contexts, talk to people who do or did these dances originally, but to embrace the “perfect mess” as well.
Endnotes  [Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Richard Powers. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.]
 Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018.
 Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21-23.
 Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21.
 Hubbard, Karen and Terry Monaghan. “Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor: Social Dancing at the Savoy.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. pp 129-130. Print.
 Perpener, John O. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 37.
 George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.
 Haskins, James. Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People. Thomas Y. Cromwell Junior Books, 1941. p 155.
 George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.
Our community is full of diverse people with diverse dance interests. So what possesses so many of our community members to read up on blues and jazz? We asked a number of our active readers in the community, and these are their responses.
Fenella Kennedy—Dance Scholar and Instructor, Columbus, Ohio
I’ve always been a voracious reader. I credit books with getting me through some of the worst patches of childhood and young adulthood, mostly because they taught me the ethics I needed to conduct myself with grace, strength, and kindness in an often cruel world. Unsurprisingly, I grew up to be an academic, making books and reading an intrinsic part of my life: while I prepared for PhD candidacy I easily read 3-4 books a week, and I still read for pleasure on top of that.
The danger of being an academic is that all your books can come to feel very much the same. Our institutions of higher education are very whitewashed spaces, and disciplinary practices can further shape your reading experience until every author feels like a slightly more educated or elitist version of you and your peers. I think it’s essential to read outside of your discipline, and outside of your culture, to keep your mind open to the validity of all the options out there for living, and to get into the habit of questioning your choices and norms.
When I read about blues and jazz I specifically read for insider voices, not for the ethnographic perspective. I want to love the people who made the music and danced the dances, especially when I see flashes of queerness, or rebellion against the norms, or voices that resonate with and move me. Getting a feel for the conventions of storytelling, humor, and self-presentation teaches me how I want to relate to blues music when I dance it. When I’m researching dances from notation and video it’s important that I approach the steps with a blues dancer’s attitude, not from the concert dance perspectives that I grew up in. I guess books are still teaching me who I want to be in all areas of my life.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom – Sarah Jane Cervenak
Ross Blythe—Dance Instructor, Chicago, Illinois
In my experience, our scene is unique in that we emphasize and encourage a level of scholarship I haven’t personally seen in other dance communities. I read books from the Blues and Jazz Dance book club list so I can get a better understanding of the history of blues music, dancing, and culture. Rather than just listening to a lecture, reading several books on a subject helps to provide a fuller understanding of a topic. Some of the books on the list read like a documentary. This happened, then this happened, then over here this trend sprouted. Others are more poetic, striving to convey a feeling and lyricism rather than dates and figures. The totality gives light to a history I wouldn’t have looked into otherwise. The link between music, dance, and culture becomes clearer when reading about the experiences of the community that did this before us, and helps me better frame our place in trying to continue on with these dances in our contemporary world.
Chelsea Adams—English Literature Scholar, Las Vegas, Nevada
As a child, I grew up with a bookshelf in nearly every room in the house, and every shelf was filled with books: history books, religious texts, fictional works, political arguments, biographies, and more. My parents encouraged me to read to learn about the world, and to ask questions when I had them. Perhaps because of such an environment growing up, I’ve always read for enjoyment as well as learning, and it should not be surprising that I took to reading books about not only topics that fascinated me intellectually, but also books about the activities in which I regularly engaged. As I lived in a rural area and worked with plants and livestock, the topics largely included books about animals, traits of different geographical regions, growing plants, and local history. And of course, I always had a love for fiction. By age 14, I was checking out a new book from the school library almost every other day.
When I went to college and decided to become an English major, I continued to take classes that exposed me to new cultures and topics. At the same time, I began dancing—first Ballroom dances, and then West Coast Swing and Blues idioms. As I read more and more African American literature, I noticed that blues music and dances were being regularly mentioned in the fiction works, and I realized that I didn’t know enough about those dances and the music to explain to my fellow classmates and teachers why what I was seeing was important when analyzing the literature. So I did what I’ve always done, and picked up books about what I’m doing to better understand it and explain it to others. And it became an area of professional research for me. Today, I’m still reading to better understand my world and the activities in which I participate.
Elizabeth Lynn Rakphongphairoj Kilrain—Local Dance Organizer and Instructor, San Diego, California
Music and dancing for me have always been about the story. Yes, it’s about self-expression. Yes, it’s about creativity, but the story being told through the music goes deeper than just one person’s interpretation. Growing up as a TCK (third-culture kid), my identity had always been tied to multiple cultures, and not necessarily the land of my birth or the land in which I resided. Attending an international school also showed me that there is so much more to a culture than what you see on the surface; each culture had their stories, and person had stories that reflected their experiences within and outside of their culture.
That’s what blues and jazz are to me. I will always value stories told directly from the mouths of those within the culture, but I also recognise that – without deeper understanding of the contexts and background and experiences from which these stories are told – I can easily miss the nuances of these stories.
There are those who have dedicated their lives to gathering stories from people I may never get to meet. Reading provides me access to their work and to the stories I would never be able to hear from the mouths of those who have since passed. Reading also helps me connect the dots between the history and what is going on today in a way that helps me understand the greater context of the blues – beyond the music.
Aimee Eddins—Instructor and Community Organizer, Denver, Colorado
I participate in the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club because it’s important to me to be acting in alignment to my values. I value supporting the work others do through my participation, continually being a learner, and acting in accordance with my values in a way that is visible to others. It takes a lot to create opportunities to learn, come together in community, and engage with challenging topics. When people put together opportunities for these things to happen, I like to support as much as I can by participating.
Communities are made more vibrant through participation from people in all stages of their journey and it’s important to me to continue to show up even as I grow in the relative privilege I carry in the scene. I also appreciate having access to a space where I am supported to continue to learn and where others are there to learn alongside me. I can learn on my own — and I do choose to read, research, and discover outside of the Book Club — and still I appreciate having a space to come to where there are others to dialogue with and learn from.
The Book Club is one place where I can deepen my understanding of oppression, music, and history that takes into account the experience of black people in the US. By participating in and sharing the Book Club, I have a greater capacity to influence those around me to investigate and engage with these topics as well.
I read fiction because it is a chance to open a door to another world and step in, immersing myself. I get to try on what it would be like to live in another person’s life, experiencing different interactions, living through otherwise unattainable experiences. I believe that reading books where the protagonist is very different from me is vital in my empathy development. Sometimes it means waking up in late-19th century New Orleans as a man. Sometimes it means I’m in England as an old woman.
When I read non-fiction I expand what I know about the world, expanding my ideas and possibilities. In Buzzy Jackson’s “A Bad Woman Feeling Good” I get to read about the impact Bessie Smith made not just with what she sang, but exactly how she sang it- how she shared her soul. It helps me think about art in different ways, and in turn to attempt to express it myself.
Overall, I read because it expands my worlds and my ways of thinking about life and the possibilities it holds, making it richer and much more full.
The Savoy Ballroom—Langston Hughes called it“the Heartbeat of Harlem”—was located on Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st streetsin Harlem, NYC. If the Savoy was the Heartbeat of Harlem, and Harlem was looked at as “Black Mecca,” that places it squarely in the center of the artistic and intellectual soul of Black America from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights Era.
Many bands made names for themselves at the Savoy Ballroom and numerous dances were either born on its floors or rose to national prominence because of the spotlight that was constantly shining on the Savoy. One of those dances was the Walk. The Walk is a particularly interesting dance because it acts as the base movement and techniques of two expressions, one to swing music and one to blues music. Its base movement is related to the Peabody/Foxtrot. The primary difference between the two types of Walk (I will refer to that done to swing music as the Swing Walk and that done to blues music as the Savoy Walk) is that the Swing Walk is a dance which travels in the line of dance (rotating around the floor counter-clockwise) while the Savoy Walk travels within a particular area, not following any prescribed direction or pattern.
Examples of the Swing Walk can be seen here:
More examples of it are in the background in this clip. Pay attention to the traveling dancers:
The Savoy Walk is a “two-step” dance, that is to say, it uses two types of base rhythms:, slow steps (one weight change over two counts) and quick steps (one weight change over a single count). It was inspired by the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a favorite in Harlem theaters, as well blending aspects of pas de deux with a distinct lindy hopper sensibility for music and love of tricks. The basic rhythmic patterns are Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, and Quick-Quick, Slow. While these rhythms match the base rhythms in the music they are intended to be embellished, altered, or abandoned as the music progresses, always placing emphasis on the dancer’s creative choices.
A particular aspect regarding musicality, as Sugar Sullivan explained to me, was that while the stepping patterns and improvisations were danced to the rhythm section of the music the tricks, the various lifts, drops, turns, and other flash moves were danced off the rhythm section, instead following along with the melodic section of the music. This gives the dance a very interesting contrasting style as it embraces the lyrical type of movements seen in some forms of iInternational ballroom dance and a frequent characteristic of pas de deux, but generally unexplored in other forms of black partnered social dance at the time.
There are examples of this type of musicality from this clip of The Spirit Moves (note: the music that is being played in the clip is not the song the dancers are dancing to, but it is representative of the overall style of music they were dancing to):
The aesthetic elements of the Savoy Walk involve a rise and fall of the traveling dancer which acts as the primary expression of pulse primarily caused by a flexing at the ankle and knee. The torso and hip movements roll and twist as personal styling helping the dancers accent and embellish musical elements. The follower lags within the space created by the leader’s movement allowing them the ability to create a stronger energy transfer as the follower moves later within the space of the lead, or can more firmly engage their core and frame muscles reducing the lag in the partnership, but in both cases the follower is driving their own movement take the cues from how the leader transfers momentum. The articulation of spine, independence of arm movements creating an asymmetric look between the top and bottom half of the body and between the partnership both give a strong sense of youthfulness and vigor. Savoy Walk is an excellent example of assimilating European movement concepts and expressing them through a Black American cultural lens.
Toni Morrison’s much acclaimed debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), examines the devastating effects of white supremacist values and aesthetic ideals on an African American community living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. Perhaps more importantly, the novel also explores alternative aesthetic modes that form the basis for new ways of imagining racial identity in the post-Civil Rights era. Specifically, while Morrison’s novel reflects a blues impulse in its tragic-comic affirmation of Claudia MacTeer’s childhood experiences, it utilizes jazz aesthetics, specifically the techniques of “riffing” and “quoting,” as the means to extend a pointed cultural critique of the ideology of whiteness.
By “blues impulse,” I am referring to the creative reconceptualization and ironic re-presentation of pain (the tragedy of loss, of injustice, of mere bad luck) that allows such pain to take on not only a new meaning, but also a new ontological value. As the novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison has observed, “the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism” (129). The blues impulse, in other words, seeks to find transcendence not in the detachment and abstraction of an “objective” explanation of tragedy, but in the rich density of subjective understanding that results from one’s protracted engagement with and creative reconceptualization of pain. Consequently, it is not merely the individual’s own painful experience that is altered through the blues impulse; the individual’s interpretive frame is also transformed. As Houston A. Baker puts it, the blues impulse offers new “interpretations of the experiencing of experience” (7).
Morrison explicitly highlights this interpretive potential of the blues during an early scene in which the narrator fondly recalls listening to her mother sing while cleaning house. Claudia explains that the “greens and blues in [her] mother’s voice took all the grief out of the words and left [her] with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet” (26). Throughout The Bluest Eye, the tragic-comic perspective of the blues impulse allows the narrator to cultivate both a space of intimacy in the recollecting of her own painful experiences in childhood and a broader affirmative perspective on racial identity that challenges dominant social norms and values. In another scene, for example, the adult narrator looks back on an episode of childhood illness, locating in the experience a complex array of emotions, contradictory perspectives and interpretations. Notably, the scene initially emphasizes the child’s perspective: Claudia’s discomfort in a drafty room (“Once I have generated a silhouette of warmth, I dare not move, for there is a cold place one-half inch in any direction” ); her absorbed fascination with the strangeness of her own bodily excretions (“the puke swaddles down the pillow onto the sheet—green, gray, with flecks of orange” ); and her emotional and intellectual confusion as she attempts to understand the source of her mother’s anger (“My mother’s voice drones on. She is not talking to me. She is talking to the puke, but she is calling it my name: Claudia. . . . My mother’s anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness” ). For the child, Claudia, the experience is painful largely because of her lack of control and her limited understanding. She does not, cannot, as a child, comprehend the fear in her mother’s tone or the frustration behind her mother’s words. For Claudia’s family, like most families in her community, life amounts to an existential struggle, a “peripheral existence” (17). As the narrator explains, “Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about . . . on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses, and hang on, or creep singly up into the major folds of the garment” (17). It is only retrospectively that the adult Claudia can “squeeze” from her childhood experience a tragic-comic lyricism:
But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere in that house. . . . And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. (12)
In this exquisite passage, we witness the dilation of interpretative possibilities. Pain is not divorced from love, but, as “fructifying,” is its material condition of possibility. Morrison does not attempt to resolve or relieve the child’s earlier experience of anguish through sentimentalism; on the contrary, the extended use of depersonalizing synecdoche in the passage is meant to distill the experience of love as a physical act. In Claudia’s blues, the initial ambiguity of linguistic expression gives way to the ontological density of physical tenderness: the explicitly auditory and tactile images “feet” and “hands” are experienced by Claudia as presences, the self-evident truth of “somebody . . . who does not want me to die” (12).
The emotional complexity of the scene of Claudia’s childhood illness effectively challenges the anemic white ideal of family represented by the Dick and Jane reading primer that opens the novel. Moreover, I would argue that this scene, like many others in the novel, codifies the blues impulse as a strategy for the ontological affirmation of blackness, more generally. If, as Ellison argues, the blues impulse is principally characterized by the commitment to working through painful experiences in an effort to find transcendence in tragic-comic lyricism, then it also implies a concomitant belief that psychic and somatic sources of pain may be powerful indices of one’s being. Morrison seems to suggest this idea when she describes the old women who come to visit Cholly’s Aunt Jimmie, women who give voice to a “threnody of nostalgia about pain” (137).
They licked their lips and clucked their tongues in fond remembrance of pains they had endured—childbirth, rheumatism, croup, sprains, backaches, piles. All of the bruises they had collected from moving about the earth—harvesting, cleaning, hoisting, pitching, stooping, kneeling, picking—always with young ones under foot. (138)
For these women, the various pains they have endured persist in memory as vital markers of their presence in the world and irreducible evidence of their “Becoming” (138). Painful experiences thereby form the phenomenological fabric onto which the patterns of memory, history, and identity are woven. By emphasizing the blues impulse as an affirmation of the ontological value of pain—and the complexity of human experience more generally—Morrison aims to critique oppressive ideologies that limit the scope of human experience and expression in the name of spiritual transcendence or aesthetic beauty.
Throughout The Bluest Eye, the ideology of whiteness is associated with a disavowal of complex emotional experience, and specifically, the attempt to discipline the body and the mind into conformity with a set of unrealistic, arbitrary, and oppressive standards. The character Geraldine, for example, represents a pathological adherence to the white (supremacist) ideal. Geraldine and women like her are said to live their lives in a state of somatophobic hyper-vigilance against what they perceive to be signs of threatening bodily excess, or what the narrator calls “Funk” (83): “Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies” (83). A generic description of unruly and abject corporeality that “erupts,” “clings,” “drips,” and “crusts” is applied, finally, to its concrete manifestation in the black female body (“they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair” ). When identified in the bodies of women like Geraldine, such generic instances of funkiness—“the dreadful funkiness of passion . . . of nature. . . [and] of the wide range of human emotions” (83)—become legible as the peculiar markers of race. The disturbing implication for Geraldine is the impoverishment of her inter-personal relationships (notably with her husband and son) and the cultivation of racial self-loathing. Geraldine’s fear of bodily excess and her concomitant desire for corporeal containment have both resulted from and have been translated into unstable codes for deciphering and maintaining racial identity in relative proximity to whiteness. In Geraldine’s anxious formulation, “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (87).
Earlier in the novel, we are presented with the initial stages of this “conversion” into the ideology of whiteness as the discipline of hyper-cleanliness. Specifically, Claudia recalls being forced, as a child, to bathe in a zinc tub in preparation for wearing a new dress: “no time to enjoy one’s nakedness, only time to make curtains of soapy water careen down between the legs. Then the scratchy towels and the dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt. The irritable, unimaginative cleanliness. Gone the ink marks from legs and face, all my creations and accumulations of the day gone, and replaced by goose pimples” (22). The symbolic implications of the scene are unmistakably linked to the loss of self-expression, the devaluing of corporeality (in all of its forms), and the consequent narrowing of the interpretive potential for the “experiencing of experience” (Baker 7), both for oneself and within one’s community. Throughout The Bluest Eye, the blues impulse may be viewed, broadly, as essential to what Craig Hansen Werner calls the “individual expression and the affirmative, and self-affirming, response to the community” (xxi). Furthermore, according to Werner, we may view the novel’s interrelated “jazz impulse” as an elaboration of the blues impulse, in that it “provides ways of exploring implications, of realizing the relational possibilities of the (blues) self, and of expanding the consciousness of self and community through a process of continual improvisation” (xxii). If The Bluest Eye imagines new, affirmative terms for conceptualizing blackness, terms which emphasize the dignity of embodied existence, emotional courage and complexity, and the lyrical expression of pain, it locates these terms of self-affirmation within a broader, improvisatory cultural critique.
The two principle jazz techniques utilized by Morrison in the composition of The Bluest Eye are “riffing” and “quoting.” Musically, the concept of a “riff” implies a short figure or phrase that, when repeated, provides both a foundation (in the form of a recognizable motif) and a vehicle for improvisatory innovation through the means of revision, inversion, and parody. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has argued that the concept of “riffing” is a “central component” of both jazz improvisation and “Signifyin(g),” the term he uses to designate the technique of parodic revision and “troping” characteristic of African American discourse (114). An allied concept, “quoting,” generally refers to the intentional incorporation of well-known and thereby easily recognizable melodic source material into an original jazz composition or improvisation. Like riffing, quoting is a technique that exploits repetition and revision; however, the latter may produce even more dramatic effects because it may evoke an expression of what Gates describes as ‘resemblance by dissemblance’ (113). While quoting generally implies the brief inclusion of an extrinsic melody within a jazz solo as a kind of “inside joke,” we can extend the concept here to refer to the revision of a popular standard within a jazz context. In his discussion of this phenomenon, Gates cites the well-known example of John Coltrane’s 1965 jazz rendition of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, “My Favorite Things” (1959) performed by Julie Andrews. The Coltrane rendition does not replace the original version; rather, through parodic revision, it offers a new perspective on conventional Western themes and idioms. Similarly, in his study of the poetry of Amiri Baraka, William J. Harris argues that jazz aesthetics, like that represented by the music of Coltrane, can form the basis for radical cultural and political critique. According to Harris, Baraka believed that by “shatter[ing] and twist[ing] and finally eradicate[ing] Western structures,” jazz aesthetics had the potential to “structure a new black world” (14).
In the opening of The Bluest Eye, Morrison quotes the 1940s Dick and Jane reading primer and then “signifies” on the text by repeating the same passage two more times, first without punctuation or conventional capitalization, and then without any spacing between words. The original lines, “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty” is finally rendered, almost illegibly, as “Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty” (Morrison 4-5). Morrison’s revision of the original work both shatters the textual surface and puts into question the ideological perspective that it represents. Though the words of each version remain identical, the collapse of the grammatical structures induce parodic significations based upon the tension between form and content, signifier and signified. The staccato, declarative statements that initially provide a window into white suburban security and promote the ideal of the nuclear family, dissolve, like the breathless notes of a careening saxophone solo, into the frantic articulations of a maddening and unrealizable desire. Throughout the novel, Morrison employs similar techniques to critique some of the more insidious elements in white supremacist ideology, particularly those that promote whiteness as the ideal of beauty.
Morrison explores the pathological cultural fixation on whiteness and its detrimental effects on African American girls, in particular, by introducing the child star Shirley Temple as a central figure or riff whose symbolic implications are examined through multiple repetitions and inversions. The riff is deployed soon after the introduction of Pecola Breedlove, a girl whose family had been put “outdoors” by her father, Cholly. Looking back, the adult Claudia explains that while Pecola and her sister, Frieda, “gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face” (19) on a cup of milk and “had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was” (19), she “hated Shirley” (19). A central riff “quoted” from popular culture, the image of Shirley Temple on a cup of milk represents both a consumable image of white desirability (symbolism later reiterated in the image of Mary Jane candies ) and a kind of doppelgänger that interferes with the narcissistic development of Claudia’s ego. Crucially, Claudia’s jealousy stems not from the fact that Shirley is “cu-ute,” but because the culture’s adoration for Shirley seems to coincide with or necessitate her own displacement and invisibility. The narrator explains: “[I] hated Shirley . . . [b]ecause she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing and chuckling with me” (19). For the young Claudia, who views racial features as simply the markers of familial belonging, Shirley’s dance with Bojangles represents a vexing disturbance in expectations, namely the exclusion of herself from her own mirror image.
As the foundational riff which concretizes the violent psycho-social process at the heart of white supremacist ideology, then, “Shirley Temple” encompasses both (particular) image and (universal) concept. It is not simply that Claudia hates this particular child actress; rather, the narrator explains that the initial aggressive response to the experience of displacement leads to the cultivation of a “hatred for all the Shirley Temples of the world” (19). By elaborating on this riff, Morrison attempts to make visible the psychic “conversion” (23) process whereby this outward aggression is redirected and ultimately introjected within the ideological fantasy of white supremacy. If, from a psychological perspective, Shirley Temple may be viewed as Claudia’s threatening image-double, the plastic “blue-eyed Baby Doll” (20) doubles Shirley Temple as a fetishistic icon of whiteness, embodying what the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has referred to as the “sublime object” (18) of ideological fantasy. Claudia’s inability to find meaning in the doll beyond its inert surface characteristics—the “hard unyielding limbs,” “bone-cold head,” and “starched gauze or lace” (20) of its dress (a dress reminiscent of the one she, herself, is sometimes forced to wear)—reflects the fact that she has not yet been successfully interpellated into the network of ideological codes that privilege “whiteness” as a transcendental signifier. Although Claudia intellectually understands that “all the world had agreed” (21) on the desirability of the doll, she does not yet identify with and consequently cannot comprehend that desire. Her destruction of the dolls may be viewed, therefore, as an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the elusive “sublime object” that she believes gives the doll a hidden, intrinsic value. Inside the doll, however, Claudia discovers only more extrinsic features—the “mere metal roundness” (21) of the disk that produces the doll’s sound, “like the bleat of a dying lamb” (21).
Although the Shirley Temple/blue-eyed Baby Doll riff undergoes many subsequent parodic repetitions and inversions throughout the text, it is in the image of Pecola’s baby, the product of an incestuous rape by her father, that its form is finally shattered. Claudia imagines the baby’s “living, breathing silk of black skin” (190) in contrast with the “synthetic yellow bangs” and “marble-blue eyes” (190) of the plastic doll, thereby painfully evoking resemblance through dissemblance. More importantly, Claudia’s desire for the baby to live—despite the horrific circumstances of its conception—reflects what Werner describes as the “expanding the consciousness of self and community” promoted by the jazz impulse (xxii). Reflecting on her reaction to the tragedy, the adult Claudia recalls: “I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live–just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (190); however, she also recognizes her own responsibility in Pecola’s tragedy, admitting “We honed our egos on her” (205). Ultimately, Morrison suggests that the significance of the aesthetic impulses of blues and jazz exceeds the affirmation of the individual’s own experience of pain in the face of oppression. The forms of selfhood that these impulses make possible offer, in addition, a powerful source of ethical awareness and concomitant sense of accountability within the community itself.
Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Edited by John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp. 128-144.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. 1988. Oxford UP, 2014.
Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. U of Missouri P, 1985.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Vintage, 2007.
Werner, Craig Hansen. Playing the Changes: from Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse. U of Illinois P, 1994.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.