February 17, 2021

African American culture is famous for its creativity. From turning food scraps into soul food feasts to the New Orleans’ Tignon Laws that backfired when women of color transformed the head wraps required by law to diminish their allure and wove them into colorful, adorned masterpieces that made them even more beautiful and mysterious. We make the ordinary spectacular.

The same is true with dance. The tribal dances of our African ancestry that were forbidden to us were reborn into Frankie Manning’s Lindy Hop and Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug. Over time, new versions of those dances evolved, matching the soulful music of the 60s. From the East Coast Hand Dance to Chicago Style Steppin, every social gathering includes some form of partner dancing.

Like first visits to barber shops and beauty salons, learning these dances is a rite of passage in the Black community. Nothing is written. The old teach the young. Social dance gatherings embody a culture of care. Seasoned dancers are expected to be gracious and patient. You dance to the comfort level of your partner.

My journey through childhood trauma kept me from Chicago Style Steppin until recently. But when I came home to it, it became an integral part of my healing. I’ve taken classes at a venue where my mother danced in her youth. Some of my partners could be my grandparents, others could be my children. Lessons come with the expectation that what we learn we will teach. The few dollars paid for admission go to fund the soul food buffet where people share stories and resources, dispense advice, and give support.

I recognized that the elements of a good dance are the same as those of a healthy relationship—mutual caring and respect, trust, listening, being present, and a willingness to be vulnerable and open to possibility. It is a conversation without words, and I find my voice through improvising moves in response to my partners.

African American culture is a quilt made up of the practices and traditions developed in response to a tortuous beginning. Clothed in soulful music, partner dance is part of our mental wellness. Our grandparents who were porters, janitors, and domestics by day, found one another and reclaimed their dignity and beauty when they went out to dance. In hard times, dance remains our hide-in-plain sight defense against images that feed negative stereotypes. And in good times—it just feels good.

Do you have any traditions that you are carrying on? Please share in the comments.

Photo: Club DeLisa, Chicago 1942

Pritay Washington, a training and technical assistance specialist, served the preschool community for over 15 years. She joined school-age care four years ago and now supports the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment.

9 Replies


Replying to:
Kady Fall
This piece reminds me of a Alice Walker's Hard Times Require Furious Dancing. Dance is so therapeutic and it's one of my favorite forms of communication and bonding! Thank you for sharing this lovely piece with us, Pritay :)

Replying to:
Kady I was not familiar with this Alice Walker collection. I will definitely check it out! I'd love to learn more about how you use dance. I know a dance coach who once called it the Great Equalizer. :-)

Replying to:
I love this piece! It takes me back to my childhood. I grew up going to dance classes at the Black owned Mayfair Academy and going to parties to dance all night was one of my favorite things to do in my 20s. As you know from my Facebook post, House music and stepping are just part of who I am, so your peace really spoke to me. Also, I love that you’re finally writing and putting it out there for the world to see! Super proud of you! Can’t wait to read your next piece! ❤️

Replying to:
Ah Mayfair! If you grew up on the South Side, east of Cottage Grove, you either took a jazz, tap, or ballet class, or know someone who did! I tried to get my boys involved but they declined.

Replying to:
Siobhan Bredin
Wonderful piece, Pritay! I am carrying my Irish traditions of creating art by writing (plays for the past 15 years, previously stories, poems, and songs) and celebrating the 8 Celtic milestones of the year (Samhain/Halloween, Winter Solstice, etc). Dancing - the way I do it - is not in my tradition but I do it all the time - now virtually - as it feeds my soul!

Replying to:
It IS amazing how it nourishes the mind, body and soul, isn't it?!? I think it will be a great tool to help us transition to social life after being separated by quarantine.

Replying to:
Jim Vetter
Thanks for this wonderful post. While the contra dance that I've gotten involved with over the past few years it's really part of my Swedish tradition, your post got me thinking about the important role that social dance has played for me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Being out on the dance floor with empowering disco songs was a key part of establishing an out and proud identity in my teens.

Replying to:
Pritay Washington
Thank you Jim. A dance coach once referred to dancing as the Great Equalizer, and I witnessed beautiful diverse groups of people unite as we stumbled through salsa and waltz classes together! In my youth, I would go dancing with my LGBTQ+ friends at different venues in Chicago. After dancing the night away, they would share just how much those venues meant to them as we devoured waffles and coffee at 4am. Those are precious memories for me.

Replying to:
Reginald D. Miles
This is an awesome piece! Thank You

Add new comment

May only bots fill it.
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1 + 3, enter 4.
4 + 1 =

Related Posts