Editors' Choice

The History of African American Social Dance

Shelby Chau / November 17, 2016

Going back to the late 17th and 18th centuries when Africans were held as slaves in the US, African American social dances began as a way for enslaved Africans to remember and express their cultural traditions and identity.


These social dances are now a common language of freedom and expression that continue to emerge out of different communities. Many of these social dances have become influential in dance, media, music, and some have gone viral as popular dance crazes.


Camille A. Brown a dancer, choreographer, and educator shares some of the history of these social dances and the influence of African culture over the years.


The juba dance originated in West Africa and was brought to America when African slaves were working in plantations. The dance involved slapping thighs, shuffling feet, clapping, and stomping since percussion and rhythm instruments were banned. Much of this dance was based on complex rhythms.


Another social dance that emerged in the early 19th century was the cakewalk, which was actually a style of dance that mocked the Southern high society, but was never detected as being a parody.



In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, more social dances developed such as swing dancing, the kid n play, and the Lindy Hop, that was influenced by the improvisation-heavy Charleston dance.


In the late 1950s, the Twist became extremely popular, even becoming internationally known. It originally stemmed from Congo in the early 19th century, but became popularized by Chubby Checker and Dick Clark and their huge musical hit by the same name. This is one example of dance bridging together communities and breaking down social and ethnic barriers, with people all over the world sharing the same language of dance.



With the emergence of hip hop in the 80s and 90s, social dances continued to grow and influence culture and dance with dances like the wop, the Steve Martin, the running man and more. Many of these moves are still used today in hip hop choreography, which you can see used in the television show, America’s Best Dance Crew.





In the 2000s with the help of the media and the internet, social dances simply blew up into dance crazes known around the world, such as krumping, jerkin’, the Harlem shake, Soulja Boy’s Crank Dat, the cat daddy, the dougie, the whip and the Nae Nae.


Some of these dance moves are featured in today’s style of dance and choreography and you can see it included in shows like America’s Best Dance Crew.
For some of the social dances that emerged out of communities in the past decade, you can check it out in the video below performed by dancers from across America.