Blues Planet

What is blues dance?

Any blues dancer can tell you that blues dance is notoriously hard to define. Every single time somebody asks me, I struggle with the question and start an endless talk about what blues dance is and is not, what it can be and what it means to me and to many people who dance it. Since I still haven’t found the ideal answer to the question at hand, I’ll let other people who struggled with a definition do the explaining for me:

Explanation attempt 1: Video

First of all a cool explanatory video by the Parisian blues dancers:


Explanation attempt 2: Written definition by people who know what they are talking about

The second source is a written definition by Joe DeMers, John Joven, Shoshi Krieger, & Flouer Evelyn found here:

Blues Dancing Is…

an umbrella term for a family of dances done to blues music and blues structures.  It is an improvisational dance form primarily danced with a partner, but also solo or in a group.

Parallel to blues music, blues dance is based on social dance styles created from African and European roots in America between the 1800’s and mid 1900’s, although it has experienced significant evolution within the last 10-15 years.

Rooted in African movement, blues dance places a high value on rhythm and individual movement.  Today there is a strong emphasis on connection with your partner, the music, and the community.

While there are now a wide range of Blues dances, each with unique dynamics, aesthetics, rhythms, attitudes, and step patterns; they share numerous characteristics that allow individuals to stylistically and creatively express the music.  These include:

….    Asymmetry
….    A balanced, flexible posture
….    Dancing behind the beat
….    Everyday found movement
….    Pulse
….    Polyrhythm
….    Bent limbs & torso
….    Movement radiating through all parts of the body
….    Grounded & earth focused
….    Call/Response and Lead/Follow
….    Emotion


Explanation attempt 3: Quotes

The third source is a couple of quotes found on the website of Blues in Heidelberg:

The Blues is Life.

—Brownie McGhee

Blues is a music, a dance, a feeling. It can express pain, it can celebrate, it can tease and seduce, it can relieve burdens.

Blues music was borne of the African American experience, particularly in the South. It came from the African rhythms in spirituals and folk ballads. Along with Jazz, Blues is an American idiom, a synthesis of African and European sounds.

“The British ballads became a new kind of form in their hand. And out of them came the blues, a new kind of song of commentary and satire, a song form which, after all, has become the main musical form of the whole human species.”

—Alan Lomax

Pioneering musicians include W.C. Handy, Lead Belly and Ma Rainey.

Blues dance grew naturally along with the music. It combines elements of both African dance and European partnered dance. Common in rural and urban juke joints alike, the dance spread and developed as the music did.

“Feet commenced to pat. A moment later there was dancing on the sideways below. Hands went in the air, bodies swayed like reeds on the banks of the Congo… In the office buildings about, white folks pricked up their ears. Stenographers danced with their bosses. Everybody shouted for more.”

—W.C. Handy

“Saturday night is your big night. Everybody used to fry up fish and have one hell of a time. Find me playing till sunrise for 50 cents and a sandwich. And be glad of it. And they really liked the low-down blues.”

—Muddy Waters

Since the revival of Swing dancing in the 1980s and 1990s, Blues has also seen a resurgence. It is characterised by a strong interpretive and improvisational spirit, and an emphasis on connection between the dance partners and the music.

“I think the blues will always be around. People need it.”

—Johnny Winter

Explanation attempt 4: The dancer’s perspective (Whitton Frank)

Here I am directly quoting a blues dance teacher who’s tried many different dance styles in her life from a workshop she taught. She named 4 elements that distinguish blues dance from other dances:

  1. Grounding
  2. Pulse
  3. Relaxed frame
  4. Lag
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