In Shadow and Light: A Look Into Jazz Choreography

Jazz Choreographer Pat Taylor discusses her performance company experiences and their relation to shadow, light, and representing marginalized people.

Not long ago I was reminiscing with members of my dance company, JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, about a piece we premiered ten or so years ago titled “Celestial Blues.” The original music and lyrics of the same name were written and recorded by Gary Bartz in 1971, followed some years later by a popular version arranged by Andy Bey. We danced to a less funkily futuristic arrangement by our frequent collaborator, jazz vocalist Dwight Trible.

We must get closer to the essence of life

But be aware that it takes courage and strife

Expand your mind, don’t let it wither and die

You’ll find that it lifts your spirits high to the sky

So meditate

C’mon let’s contemplate

Talk to the heavenly bodies

Of the universe, of the universe….

…I’ve got to be free, my spirit’s telling me

– Gary Bartz

The dancers and I laughed about all the behind the scenes mishaps and the road to the finished work, and they shared with me for the first time that for most of the performances they could not see much of anything on stage due to the lighting design being so dark. They could feel each other’s energy, hear the breath, but didn’t concretely know where another dancer was until they stepped from the near darkness into the light. Most of the time they danced through a shadowy landscape, confidently, but with an edge of uncertainty.

What they described to me sounded like a void. And admittedly my intention was for the dancers to become the ‘heavenly bodies’ inhabiting this space as described in the lyrics.  They confirmed that they had indeed felt suspended in that moment.

As I later thought about this particular exchange and our further conversations about other works of mine that move in and out of darkness: Sankofa (2008), Transitions (2012), Ooh Child (2013), By the Rivers of Babylon (2014), Slippin’ Into Darkness (2016), and others… I began to realize that I have been drawn for some time to a particular use of darkness, the interplay between shadow and light and the invisibility it provides as both a dramatic effect and in support of the stories I feel compelled to tell through my jazz dance expression. At first glance this presented as something that was happening innately, without me being fully aware of what might lie behind the artistic choices I was making. Over time I have come to understand that I am intrigued by something more than just a lighting design effect. This feeling of slipping in and out of the darkness has always felt like natural storytelling choices to me as I explored the nature of jazz. Creating a sense of being there – yet not there, appearing and disappearing, gone – but not really, present and absent at the same time – maybe even differing levels of presence, being fully seen or not, and feeling suspended in time and place, is something that stirs my imagination. This shadowy metaphor for the experiences of African Americans, indeed the experiences of any marginalized group, is powerful.

TRANSITIONS (2012) – Excerpts from Pat Taylor on Vimeo.

The unnamed protagonist in novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man states as a matter of course, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). A black man in a white world, he navigates through life as a shadow, trying on and discarding personas while blues and jazz music shadow his journey. He listens to a recording of Louis Armstrong singing “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” He sees his invisibility not only as a curse and an insult, but often as an advantage as well. He recognizes his invisibility as “a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact” (3). Others see him as they desire to, and he is not allowed to define himself within that gaze. W.E.B. DuBois calls this inability of blacks to see ourselves directly a double-consciousness wherein “one ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body…” (2) – a constant awareness of the juxtaposition of how we view ourselves and how the world sees us.

I am recognizing a sense of displacement as well within my use of shadow and light in my choreographic work. Exploring displacement feeds into my growing conversation around “home” (external and internal) and jazz music as a response to a feeling of dislocation. I experience the music as a means of rooting – and a defining of place through a distinct language and self determined means of communicating a distinct existence and experience. In turn, I approach my choreography as the “movement in the music,” the physical embodiment of the sound and the social, cultural, historical and political implications embedded therein.

Slippin' Into Darkness _Photo-Mesiyah McGinnis
“Slippin’ Into Darkness,” JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble. Photo: Mesiyah McGinnis.

Interestingly enough, there was a time that I felt my strongest sense of home within myself while being physically outside of the United States. I lived, taught, choreographed and performed in Scandinavia –Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland specifically –but also worked and traveled across Europe for seven years. I grew up in a household where jazz, in particular, and blues served as the musical backdrop to daily life, yet it was while I was away that I truly felt the tremendous respect afforded these music traditions around the world. Viewing home from a great distance, I reconnected to the sound and the stories that I had known as a child, and embraced the lineage, language and legacy of jazz.

During that time I found myself moving more freely in who I was and what I was doing artistically. These years were my most liberating and some of my most meaningful times of self-discovery. I journeyed during this period in a very gutsy, risk taking way. My self-censoring was at a minimum. The burden of double-consciousness was at least eased. I felt out of the shadows and fully revealed, most of all to myself. I was free to improvise. I began to shape my philosophical approach to teaching and choreographing jazz dance that was intrinsically tied to the music and a paralleling of the times.

SLIPPIN’ INTO DARKNESS (2016) – Excerpt from Pat Taylor on Vimeo.

The collage art of Romare Bearden was a major inspiration for my first choreographies when I returned to Los Angeles and founded JazzAntiqua in 1993. I have always loved Bearden’s work, and as I found myself drawn more deeply to it, I particularly connected with the colors, rhythm and layering within his collage pieces. My eye and imagination traveled through his art, guided by the ways in which he used space. I equated what I felt with the conversational nature of jazz improvisation and the storytelling of the blues. It connected with how I was newly envisioning my choreography as unearthing the stories within the music as I was hearing, seeing and feeling them.  Bearden listened to and was passionate about jazz throughout his life. At times he would express his artistic approach in musical sentiments,  “You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody” (Schwartzman 196).

In his influential work on blues and jazz music, Blues People, The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed From It, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) sees the beginning of blues as one beginning of American Negroes” (xii).   A beginning that originates in America’s Deep South, with roots in West African musical traditions, and a lineage of work songs, field hollers, ring shouts, sorrow songs and spirituals borne out of slavery. It’s a birth that political and social activist, educator and author Angela Y. Davis sees as “the legacy of emancipation” (qtd in Hay 443), drawing upon, I believe, the accepted notion of blues music becoming more formally known during the late 1800s in the decades following the Emancipation Proclamation. Maybe even more importantly, it is the experience of freedom arrived at through a continuing claiming of self by speaking one’s own truth via a distinct language of expression. In African American culture that uniquely arrived at self-defining and raised consciousness is often through music, dance and other art forms. It is where we most often feel a true sense of freedom.

I am drawn to the cyclical feel of the blues, the way that its repeated AAB, 12-bar theme creates an echo-like, call and response that harkens back to work songs and African roots.

My man don’t love me

Treats me oh so mean

My man he don’t love me

Treats me oh so mean

He’s the lowest man

That I’ve ever seen

– Billie Holiday, “Fine and Mellow”

 

There is the strong groove that the steady bass line provides, and this in itself creates a rooted feeling. The blue notes (or “worried” or “bent” notes) within the melody give a greater expressiveness and that slightly off-kilter, bittersweet blues sound and feeling. I find these characteristics, even more so over form/structure, to be what blues music is truly about – powerful, evocative storytelling at its simplest and most poignant. Often melancholic and harsh reality, at times playful, sexual and irreverent, equally love story and lament, the blues can also offer a glimmer of hope. It is a visceral and cathartic “let your hair down” form of communication – a discernible voice amidst the shadows.

Three O'Clock Blues _ Photo -Malcolm Ali
“Three O’Clock Blues,” JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble. Photo: Malcom Ali.

Ellison writes: “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. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically” (Living With Music 103).

The blues is ‘The Great Hole of History’ in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play; the flattened, single dimensioned silhouettes of Kara Walker’s large scale tableaux; the motifs of imprisonment and salvation in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues”; the “hymns to the secular regions of the soul” as choreographer Alvin Ailey describes his Blues Suite (Dunning 115); what Du Bois calls “a faith in the ultimate justice of things” (162).

In my interdisciplinary approach to exploring how jazz/blues aesthetics manifest across artistic disciplines, I am profoundly compelled by the work of visual artist Kerry James Marshall. I have greatly admired Marshall for many years, and seeing his work up close at the 2017 retrospective exhibit Mastry (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) was life changing. I felt absolutely engulfed in a singular and pure articulation and point of view. What strikes me so to my core is the sheer blackness of his work, literally and figuratively, and the way in which he honors his subjects. The depth and richness of the black skin of those who populate the moments that Marshall captures emit a level of intensity that creates a heightened awareness for me as I experience his work. The work is unforgiving and unashamedly black. Uncompromising in its presentation, the paintings are counter-narratives, stories that defy the invisibility of blacks in America.

Marshall draws “…upon the rich layering of language, music and art characteristic of black expression. Like a jazz composer superimposing multiple rhythms and harmonies…” (Mertes). In a 2016 New York Times interview, Marshall shares, “I was searching for something that seemed to me like an authentic black aesthetic, one that had an equivalency with postwar blues” (Kennedy). His emphatic intent to “make the invisible visible” (Roelstraete 48) is palpable. As have many others, he too references the influence of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on his work, speaking the blues with reverence, insight, and yes, joy.

The blues is form, tradition, personal expression and cultural reflection. As Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith is quoted as saying, “It’s a long old road, but I know I’m gonna find the end.”

“Ooh Child,” JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble. Photo: Tim Aigler.

In my passion and vision for jazz expression through movement, the concluding words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival resound so deeply. These words I often incorporate into JazzAntiqua performances.

 

Jazz speaks for life.

The blues tell the stories of life’s difficulties.

And if you think for a moment, you will realize

that they take the hardest realities of life and

put them into music,

only to come out with some new hope or sense

of triumph.

This is triumphant music!

OOH CHILD (2013) from Pat Taylor on Vimeo.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks, Dover Publications, 1994.

Dunning, Jessica. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc, 1996.

Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Edited by Robert O’Meally, Modern Library, 2001, pp.101-119

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

Hay, Fred J. “Reviewed Work: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 25, no. 4, 1998, pp. 442–45.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. W. Morrow, 1963.

Kennedy, Randy. “Kerry James Marshall, Boldly Repainting Art History.” New York Times, 9 Sept. 2016.

Mertes, Lorie. “Kerry James Marshall One True Thing Meditations on Black Aesthetics February 6 – April 25, 2004.” Miami Art Museum.

Roelstraete, Dieter. “Visible Man: Kerry James Marshall, Realist.” Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2016.

Schwartzman, Myron, Bearden, Romare. Romare Bearden, His Life & Art. H.N. Abrams, 1990.

Pat Taylor _ Photo-Joe Lambie
Choreographer Pat Taylor is the founding artistic director of Los Angeles-based JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, established in 1993 to celebrate the jazz tradition as a vital thread in the cultural fabric of African American history and heritage and a defining element of the American experience. Her work has been presented at the Hollywood Bowl/Playboy Jazz Festival, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Dance Mission Theatre (San Francisco), Southern Theatre (Minneapolis), Glashuset (Stockholm, Sweden), CIAEI Theatre (Brazil), among many other venues. Recognitions include a Brody Arts Fund Choreography Fellowship, and grant awards from the Center for Cultural Innovation, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and California Arts Council. Taylor’s community centered initiatives include: Roots & Rhythm Dance Jam Project, The Movement in the Music® – mini-jazz dance conferences, and the Community Salon – a quarterly gathering for intergenerational conversation and exchange of ideas. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (jazz aesthetics emphasis) from Goddard College. Photo: Joe Lambie

 

Blues and Jazz Research for Beginners

Photo courtesy of Thomas Haynie

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.

INVESTIGATE

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.

ENGAGE

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.

INFORM

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!

Chelsea Adams : dance portraits
Chelsea Adams, a PhD candidate in English at UNLV, focuses her studies on African-American literature, blues and jazz music, and black vernacular dance. She writes about minority culture representation in literature. Her dissertation, Literary Movement: Dance and Cultural Embodiment in African American Literature, examines how spatial analysis can determine the process and success of a novel’s cultural performance as well as reveal social commentary made in African-American literature. She also runs the open access project, The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club. You can find out more about Chelsea and her work at cjuneadams.com.

A Landscape of Slow Drag

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.

Examples

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.

1870s, Louisiana:

“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.)”[3]

1890-1900s, Louisiana:

“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.’”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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[8] 

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:

SlowGrind.png

“SLOW GRIND. This movement (1925) which is also known as the Slow Drag is a one-step with exaggerated hip twisting.”[9]

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[10]

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[11]

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[12]

Also a dancing example from Damon Stone and Heidi Fite[13]

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[14]

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.”[15]

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.”[16]

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”[17]

2012, Harlem, NY:

Lesson & interview from Savoy Ballroom to Blues:

[18]

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.”[19]

[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”[20]

“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.”[21]

“…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.”[22]

Analysis

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:

 

dancinginonespot.jpg

 

This diagram includes examples that specified dancing that moved across the floor:

 

movedacrossfloor

 

This last diagram includes examples where in-place vs moving across the floor was not specified:

Fixeddiagramforslowdragarticle

 

Now to dive into some details that I see and find interesting!

Partner connection

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.”[23] 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.

Basic Rhythm

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.

Alternate Names

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.”

Vibe

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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
[1] [Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Richard Powers. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.]

[2] Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018.

[3] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21-23.

[4] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21.

[5] Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin. Publisher, date. pp 87-88.

[6] Joplin, Scott. A Real Slow Drag. Musical composition.

[7] ibid. p 67.

[8] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. p 23.

[9] “Cakewalk to the Watusi: history of American social dancing.” Ebony. Aug 1961. p 34. Print. https://books.google.com/books?id=oDe4dSJt_6YC&lpg=PA1&pg=PA32&hl=en#v=onepage&q=texas%20hop&f=false]

[10] Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Frankie Manning. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.

[11] ibid. Perf. Sonny Allen.

[12] Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Damon Stone. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.

[13] GargleBlasterBlues. “Vintage Blues Demo” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 3 Apr 2007. 27 Aug, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwXbXhv0aeY

[14] Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018. https://youtu.be/8VZAeJ5N9pM

[15] Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. The New Press, 1993. pp 363-364.

[16] Allen, Andrew Antonio. “The Chicago Style Walk.” The History of Steppin Project, http://www.steppershistory.org/personal-recollections.htm.

[17] The Intruders. “Slow Drag.” Cowboys to Girls. Gamble, 1968.

[18] usgodsson. “Savoy Ballroom to Blues Dance Theater Presents A Introduction to Slow Drag: Part I.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube Oct 5, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGUoVdThYO0&t=152s

[19] 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.

[20] Perpener, John O. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 37.

[21] 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.

[22] Haskins, James. Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People. Thomas Y. Cromwell Junior Books, 1941. p 155.

[23] 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.

JulieBrown2
Julie’s expressive dancing and joyful, playful connection are known throughout the country. With a background in performance and solo dance, she is best known for her solo blues, artistic choreography, and seamlessly integrating following with expression. As a teacher, Julie presents material with a caring and often light-hearted tone. She carefully crafts her classes and continuously tailors her material to fit the crowd at hand. Julie teaches regularly in her hometown of Boston, and has taught workshops everywhere from California to London.

A Brief Introduction to Savoy Walk

The Savoy Ballroom—Langston Hughes called it “the Heartbeat of Harlem”was located on Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st streets in 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.

DamonStoneBenHejkal
Damon has been dancing his entire life, starting with vernacular Jazz/Blues first taught to him at the tender age of six by his grandmother. After nearly a decade of learning at the heels of his elders, he went on and eventually studied a score of different dance forms until coming full circle in 1995 to focus primarily on the history and styles of Swing and Blues as his family danced them with a special focus on the Southern styles from the Mississippi Delta region. He has studied the development of vernacular Jazz/Blues dance across the United States learning from a number of the original dancers. He is largely regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Blues idiom dance, a long time board member of the Northern California Lindy Society, former member of the California Historical Jazz Dance Foundation, and has been interviewed as a dance historian in documentary and for radio. Damon has been a featured instructor at camps, festivals, and workshops across five continents. To learn more about Damon and his work, visit http://damonstone.dance/.