Do you know how to do the Lindy Hop, Charleston, Twist or Hip Hop? These and many other dances first evolved within African American communities. Learn more in this spring’s Spurlock Museum exhibit, “Blues Dancing and Its African American Roots.”
This exhibit will be open March 6 to Nov. 15. Included will be personal stories recorded by local African American community members and University of Illinois alumni. Discussions will cover familiar dance styles and highlight lesser-known and more recent ones, like blues dancing.
Blues dancing developed out of African American vernacular dance, practiced in many big cities in the United States and abroad since about the 1990s. This family of dance styles shares similar qualities, including a relaxed and athletic posture, rhythm play and expressing multiple rhythms within different parts of the body.
Integral to these dances is their ties to blues music. There are many forms and styles, regional and historical, from chain-gang chants and gospel to Piedmont, Delta, jazz and Chicago blues. Dancing was done at home, in juke joints, at parties and in ballrooms where African Americans were allowed, such as the Savoy in New York.
Communities developed specific styles that spread and changed over time.
It is difficult to categorize and identify them, as they were danced before modern recordings, and the marginalization of African Americans meant the dances were largely undocumented.
Since 2011, blues dancing has been promoted in Champaign-Urbana through BluesCENTRAL, a local nonprofit organization. Area dancers meet every Monday at Guido’s Bar & Grill to learn and practice social blues dancing. Classes are also offered through the Urbana Park District, the UI’s OLLI program and dance clubs.
Toni Kersey, an alumna from Philadelphia, sharing her personal story, remembers “I learned to dance as a kid. ... I mean, that’s what you did ... weekends and holidays and stuff. You put some music on and everybody danced around with each other ... family and friends.”
Danville native Mike Sherfield related, “... guys would go to Detroit, go to Chicago ... and they would see people dance. And they would come back to Danville and Champaign, and mimic those dances. So ... by Friday, you had to be able to mimic these dances ... because all the girls are standing there watching and they wanted to see the cool guys dance. And so you had to be really on it to get it together. Then if you couldn’t get it together, you stood there and watched until you did.”
Sherfield and Laura Gillen are local artists who are loaning original artworks to the exhibit that represent the contemporary blues dance scene in Champaign-Urbana.
A series of demos, performances, talks and family programs will be held in conjunction with the exhibit.
The March 6 opening is a collaboration with the SnowMELT Blues Dance Festival, with a celebration beginning at the museum at 6:30 p.m. For other, related events, check the museum’s online events calendar at spurlock.illinois.edu/events/#all.