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Hoodoo in the Old Tradition

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"Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout" by Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Ph.D. (this article is published in the Journal of Pan African Studies (Sept. 2011).

     Neither the literature on American dance nor the literature on Hoodoo(1) has considered the possible role of African American folk religion, Hoodoo, in the development of American dance traditions.  The intent of this article is to give preliminary examination to the idea that a now nonexistent institution, which I call "the Old Hoodoo Religion," played a significant contributory role in American dance development. Dance scholars such as Lynne Emery, Robert Ferris Thompson, Sally Banes, Kariamu Welsh, and Jackie Malone have given no consideration to the role of the Hoodoo folk religion on American dance development. Likewise, the scholars who research Hoodoo have narrowly focused their work so that there is little room for other than historical considerations. This type of narrow focus is reflected in the work of Hoodoo scholars like Yvonne Chireau.  Therefore, the intent of this article is to give preliminary examination to the idea that a now nonexistent institution, which I call “the old Hoodoo religion,” played a significant role in American dance development.

For the purposes of this paper, Hoodoo is defined as the folk spiritual and medicinal system of the African American in North America.  This system originated on the plantation of the old South and is a reconstituting of several traditional African religious systems.  Congo as well as Bambara influences are particularly observable.  This tradition is not to be confused with “marketeered” or commercialized hoodoo which originates around the time of World War 1 and is controlled largely by middlemen minorities who misrepresent, commercialize and exploit the old slave religion for monetary gain.


African American social and vernacular dance has been the wellspring from which nearly all popular American dance, as well as significant theatrical dance has been drawn.  Where it has not been the sole inspirational source, as is the case with theater dance, it has been an indelible influence in the dance creation process.  From its appearance in North America, dance as an aesthetic mediator has has been intimately responsive to its sociocultural environment. giving abstract visual representation to significant moments in black community cultural history while articulating esteemed values and nourishing the African soul.

Enslaved Africans brought a variety of traditional dances to North America.  Primarily sacred these dances upon arriving here, quickly underwent modification which broke with specific ethnic African traditional cultural meaning.  The original African institutional and ceremonial context, as well as the structure and function of the dance were disrupted by enslavement.  Independently reconstituted by bondsmen who clung to dance as both a vessel of cultural memory and as a means of psychological survival, the dance was reconfigured and was adjusted to the new physical and social environment.  African traditional dance was modified and was forced to adjust to both the new conditions of labor imposed by slavery and the psychological necessities imposed by its attendant practices.

The African dance vocabularies varied from one African ethnic group to another; but the sacred dances all conformed to an overarching African aesthetic in dance which included the use of angularity, mimicry, multiple meter/polyryhthmic sensitivity, segmentation and delineation of body parts as well as asymmetry.(2)  These aesthetic organizing principles were common and familiar as were certain principles of structural organization.  The two most visible organizing structures were the circle and the line.  All the Africans landed in significant numbers in North America were from cultures which ordered their dances using these aesthetic principles and organizing structures.  Europeans and Africans had the line formation in common.  The most popular European social dances, "contradances" and European "longways" dances organized the dancers in parallel lines according to gender as did many traditional African group dances.

North American slaves allotted both temporal and physical space for individual expression in both circle dance and line dance formations.  In the circle, that space was located in the circle's center; in the line formation the space was between the two lines. When an individual stepped into that allotted space, they commanded the surrounding community's attention and support.  In the sacred circle, the center was a vortex of spiritual energy and power which represented a separate and sacred realm, one not of the material realities of enslavement.  It represented a reality which connected one to the ancestors and reconfirmed a continuity through both time and space.  In the circle, the interaction between the individual and the community was mediated by sacred spiritual forces evidenced in spirit possession.  Not so with the line. The allotment of individual space would not disappear after the African sacred dances began to secularize, or after Africans took up European secular dances, but would, over time, expand as the sacred circle structure gradually disappeared in most locales and the Shout took up new vestment.  As a result of its flexibility and successful adaptation in the secularization process and because of its similarity with the purely secular European line dance formation, the line would remain untransformed and retain its original African structure and formation.   

Europeans and white Americans had few sustainable circle dances which eventually disappeared leaving only circular segments in "square dances." Their clear preference was for "longways" or line dances.  On March 19, 1651, John Playford published the first English dance book, English Dancing Master - there were fourteen circle dances in a collection of forty-two (3).   Unlike the circle, the line was familiar to both Africans and Europeans, to the black enslaved as well as to the white enslaver.

The African American dance circle formation had an indisputable sacred identity that continued even after the line lost all indications of an earlier sacred existence.  And it was from the African sacred circle that the first truly African American dance was born, the Ring Shout.  The Ring Shout was a counter-clockwise sacred circle dance that appears to have been done universally among African American bondsmen and later among freedmen.  The Shout, as it was known, used subdued stepping and hopping footwork performed with a system of gesture, spirit possession, individualized sacred dancing and specific music, particularly vocal shouting 

The music accompanying the Ring Shout was made by the shouters themselves.  Singing, tapping sticks, hand claps and foot steps provided the musical backdrop while subtle jerking motions in the dancers' bodies provided an additional rhythmic anchor to the Shout.  Shouters would later add other instruments as the worship became modernized and adapted to demographic changes in the black population.

The Ring Shout appeared on antebellum plantations as well as in urban areas.  It frequently puzzled whites who often viewed it with suspicion, disgust, fear and misinterpretation.  It was always performed in a sacred context that was separated from Sunday church services by both day, time and location.  Shout service was help usually midweek in an open clearing in the woods, in a "praise house" or in a location other than that used for church services.  The practice of 'shoutin' would prove to be incompatible with the internal structure of most Christian churches; its fixed pews prevented the "shouters" from convening the circle.  It was this internal church architecture, with its often fixed, stationary and linearly organized in pews, front facing alter and pulpit that contributed to the circularity of the Ring Shout.  Frederick Law Olmstead leaves us this observation: ["On most of the large rice plantations which I have seen in this vicinity, there is a small chapel, which the Negroes use as their prayer house.  The owner of one oof these told me that, having furnished the prayer-house with seats having a backrail. his Negroes petitioned him to remove it because it did not leave them room enough to pray.  It was explained to me that it is their custom in social worship, to work themselves up to a treat pitch of excitement, in which they yell and cry aloud, and finally shriek and leap up, clapping their hands and dancing, as it is done at heathen festivals.  The back rail they found to seriously impede this exercise.](4).









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