Blues Idiom Dance: Stylistic groupings of vernacular dance created with blues music
Blues dance, the term contemporary blues dancers use to describe the genre of dance they participate in is shorthand for blues idiom dance, a term that I was first introduced to in Albert Murray’s “Stomping the Blues.” Most blues dance instructors I know generally use three main categories to divide Blues Idiom Dance: Solo, Juke Joint, and Ballroom. This note is not exhaustive, but it does seek to sketch out what comprises these three categories so dancers can distinguish which category their dance fits into, and at the end contains a breakdown of the blues aesthetic as I know it. I am aware that there are several contemporary subcultures/scenes which identify their dancing as being blues in whole or in part. Given the century of blues idiom dance development that shaped the included aesthetic, and that there are still communities where this vernacular movement is the norm, but are apart of the contemporary global community which owes its rise to the resurgence of Lindy Hop, I would argue that if those dances do not also adhere to the aesthetic they are not and cannot be blues idiom dance, and therefore stand apart as something new and unique, deserving of their own name, and their own history.
I encourage instructors and historians who would like to add to or otherwise help refine the general statements of the three categories to please join in, this note is meant to start a discussion not serve as the conclusion.
Solo Blues includes any dance steps done without direct physical influence to another dancer — this includes not just a single individual dancing either socially, or in performance or competition regardless if it is improvised or choreographed, but also riffing and cutting where visual, stylistic, and rhythmic cues may be taken or shared between two or more dancers, as well as when a partnered couple relaxes or breaks the connection so their is no direct transfer of energy influencing the dance steps being done.
Blues Idiom Solo Dance is frequently lumped together with African American Vernacular Jazz Dance, which is generally used as a catch-all term for all African American Diasporic Dance, but it should not be seen as a replacement of any given dances specific genre or subgenre.
Juke Joint Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in juke joints, roadhouses, honky tonks, rent parties, basement parties, and other venues that were generally crowded, had limited floor space, of a more casual/private nature, and tended towards small combos playing rhythmically dominant music and vocalists who sang in a percussive or growling manner. These dances are frequently characterized by staccato movement, dancing on the spot or if there is traveling frequent changes of direction, sharp angles, extremely grounded movement, a low-to-the-ground posture, deliberate hip/pelvic movement, and greater independence of movement and rhythms between partners.
Ballroom Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in ballrooms and dance halls, that spacious floors,of a more formal/public nature, and tended towards big bands playing interwoven melodic lines on top of predictable shuffle or triple rhythms with the lead instruments frequently being a piano, brass, or reed instrument. These dances tend to travel more broadly around the floor, generating and manipulating momentum and are characterized by a somewhat more “upright” posture (though just as grounded as the juke joint dances), subtle hip/pelvic and counter torso movements, with footwork patterns making the baseline forms of expression. All three groupings adhere to the blues aesthetic detailed below:
- An athletic, grounded, “Earth as Center” or “get-down” body posture and movement, characterized by the weight being held on the balls of the feet, the knees bent over the balls of the feet, the hips pushed back, and the front of the shoulders or the sternum pitched forward over the knees. In this posture a dancer should be able to step in any direction without having to shift their torso first.
- An asymmetry and polyphonic look/feel to the body, characterized by an equality of body parts. No limb or part is given precedence over another, but they all work together both in a simultaneous and serialized fashion. The center of “energy”, focus and even weight shifting moves through various parts of the body; polycentric.
- Rhythmic movement. Not just auditory but visual. Rather than a single rhythm being used in/with the body multiple meters or rhythms are used. Articulated movement in the torso (chest, rib cage, pelvis, butt) identifying and emphasizing different rhythms.
- Improvisation between dancers and on their own movements. All based, no… entrenched in the rhythm of the music.
- A drawing of the beats, dancing in the space between the beats, pushing and pulling creating a sense of tension both in the body and the body moving through space, while remaining loose and relaxed. The sense of moving through molasses or mud. A relaxed, lazy element to the interaction with the tempo and beats of a song, as if it doesn’t matter if you are late, but somehow without seeming to rush always being on time.
It is important to realize that while all blues idiom dance contain each of these aesthetic elements, each grouping contains multiple separate dances and each dance while containing these general aesthetic elements also adheres to additional aesthetic elements which differentiate it from other blues idiom dance, even within the same group.