BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The Bloomfield Public Library presented a one-hour program of African and European influences on American music and dance on Saturday, Feb. 2. The venue was the Little Theatre, located in the basement of the Children’s Library, and the performing artist was Shireen Dickson.
The program was held in observance of Black History Month.
Dickson, a skilled dancer in a variety of forms, with an apparent world of knowledge about the topic of the roots of American dance, seemed the perfect choice for the program. But her attempt to give an overview of a considerable subject resulted in her hopscotching from Gold Coast and central African rhythms to Irish step dances to the stylized “cakewalks” of black slaves parodying their masters, to ballet, tap and the minuet. It was nonetheless an entertaining show, but would have benefited from a single focus. From what the audience of about 12 learned, that focus would have been on New Orleans.
Dickson brought up some unpleasant truths about the influence of slaves on American dancing, influences which did not exist in other countries using the same sort of labor.
“In America, African slaves were bred,” she said. “In other countries, such as Brazil and Columbia, they were worked to death.”
The use of drums by African slaves was outlawed by American slave owners.
Although cut off from a significant cultural source, while working the fields, the slaves used field calls or hollers to create a beat for regulating the speed and constancy of their work.
Dickson said Irish step dancing evolved into tap dancing among slaves while in music, the Irish introduced the fiddle to slaves who in turn introduced the banjo to them.
“Drums were banned except on Sundays in New Orleans,” she said. “And brothels in Louisiana were colorblind up until 1918 when they had to be segregated.”
New Orleans was pretty much an open city with blacks allowed to publicly dance in Congo Square. The quadrille, a three-count dance pattern, Dickson said, was derived from the six-count minuet, a French dance.
The cakewalk derived from the minuet, too. The minuet is French in origin, from a French folk dance.
“The cakewalk came from the minuet after the Civil War,” Dickson said. “The masters in the big house would give a cake to the biggest, fanciest dancers. Minstrels would take the dancers for their acts and they became stylized. The cakewalk mimicked the pompousness and behavior of the masters.”
Dickson said jazz also began in New Orleans because it was the only place where drums could be played by blacks.
“It was also a port city where instruments came in,” she said.
She asked audience members to join her on stage for a lesson in the Lindy Hop. This is popular dance born in Harlem and named after aviator Charles Lindbergh, after he crossed, or hopped, the ocean in 1927.
Dickson also took questions from the enthusiastic audience. Her performance was part of a monthly program at the library.