"The Fish Tail," "Struttin" and "The Slow Drag" are only a few of the dances that have traveled through time with blues music. As dance evolved, the Afro-American elements became more formal and diluted, the British-European elements more fluid and rhythmic.
Dance moves passed down through generations were revised, recombined, and given new flourishes. The cyclical re-emergence of similar elements marks the African-American dance vocabulary."
During the post Reconstruction period (1875-1900), as Jim Crow Laws were passed in the South, dance steps once linked to ritualistic or religious dancing also acquired a more secular identity. Where by and large slavery had inhibited the retention of specific African tribal culture, the dances of working class and lower class blacks relinquished some of their Euro-American characteristics in during this time. Meanwhile, "dances became more upright and less flat-footed. As dance became more associated with sexuality and the free consumption of pleasure, which in the jook still had some communal ties to group dancing, the partnering relationship became more isolated and individualized. The "sport" and the "good-time gal" were people of the moment. Hip shaking and pelvic innuendo were now more of a statement to one's partner than to one's community."
W.C. Handy, who wrote some of the first published blues songs, documented his earliest experience with what may have been blues, and dancers reaction to it, at a dance circa 1905 in Cleveland, Mississippi. At one point Handy was asked to "play some of our native music". Although "baffled" he had his band played "an old-time Southern melody", after which he was asked if a local band could play a few numbers. That group consisted of "just three pieces, a battered guitar, a mandolin and a worn-out bass" (Handy described the group as "a Mississippi string band") and played "one of those over-and-over again strains that seem to have no very clear beginning and certainly no ending at all...It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps "haunting" is a better word for it...The dancers went wild."
Handy also described the reaction to his band, which included violin, guitar, string bass, clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone, and trumpet, playing his song "Mr. Crump" in 1909. "We were all settled into our chairs. I flashed the sign and the boys gave. 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."
While playing mostly one-steps, polkas, schottishes and waltzes for colored patrons at Dixie Park in Memphis, Handy noted a reaction to the habanera rhythm included in Will H. Tyler's "Maori". "I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm...White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat." After noting a similar reaction to the same beat in "La Paloma", Handy included this rhythm in his St. Louis Blues, the instrumental copy of Memphis Blues, the chorus of Beale Street Blues, and other compostions."
Handy also elicited an enthusiastic reaction from colored dancers at the old K. of P. Hall with "a sort of Italian climax with a tricky rhythm" at the end of the first four bars of his "Memphis Blues". "During the playing I noticed periodic shouting from the floor, and a great roar of voices broke out when we cam to a certain point in the piece. "Set in it", I heard them say. "Set in it!". Others told me of hearing happy little squeals among the Negro dancers for whom they played the piece."
Writing about the first time St Louis Blues was played (1914), Handy notes that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues...When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightening strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."Click here for a list of Blues classes offered.