I Got My Drink and My Two Step
The many connections of dance in black culture and how I can’t (shrug emoji here)
I remember the first time I realized I couldn’t dance. I was a pre-teen in the South Bronx, celebrating my 11th birthday. Just like Black people do when we get together, my parents, aunts, and uncles formed a dance circle for all the kids. It had to be between 20 and 30 people stuffed in our three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment across from the old Yankee Stadium. All my siblings and cousins took turns dancing in the circle, showing off their best moves, with everybody screaming and hyping them on. I remember thinking the scene looked like the Ernie Barnes painting from Good Times. It was beautiful, black, and magnificent. Finally, one of my uncles pushed me onto the dance floor. I was the birthday boy, and I was so excited.
But when I stepped into the circle, I froze and stood still. I could not figure out what dance to do. The fact I had to think about this should have been enough warning for your boy, but it wasn’t. Suddenly the 1990s classic movie House Party came to mind. I had watched that movie a dozen times on a bootleg VHS I got from a corner store in Harlem while selling socks with my dad. If I could pull off the famous House Party dance, the Kick N Step, I would be a legend, and I was going to do the running man right after. I’m about to make Kid N Play proud!
I saw my mom urging me on, yelling for me to start dancing. There was smoke in the air, Old English 800 beer in hands, and music bumping; it was a joyous occasion. I admittedly still miss this image of my family. Some of those adult faces in that crowd have passed on, and all of us kids have become adults. That night was a snapshot of time showing black love united by music and dance that originated from a centuries-old culture. Now back to me on the dance floor. As I felt the environment slow down and the circle close in, I realized I needed another person to do the Kick N Step. The Kick N Step is a “two-man” show, I couldn’t do it alone. Now nervous, I thought, “I’m going to mix the Kick N Step with the running man dance.” Well, when I finally danced, I performed some one-legged running man move with a kick and jump (do not ask me how this was possible, but it was done). My family hyped me on until my mom escorted me off the dance floor with the biggest smile. Her smile said, “I love you,” but her slight pulling said, “my poor baby tried.” I was so proud of my performance until my little sister came to me the following day and asked, “what was wrong with your legs?” That’s when I knew the “dancing gene” had missed me by a mile.
See, I have a huge family, and everybody has rhythm. If dancing were a currency, we’d be the wealthiest family on Earth. Two sisters danced for Alvin Haley, and one of my brothers imitated Michael Jackson in the streets of New York City. Another sister has so much rhythm; she can jump into any dance scene and make people watch in awe how she flows with every beat. I took one of my younger brothers to a lounge once, and he just started break dancing. I didn’t even know this dude could break dance. I asked him when did he begin break dancing he said, “I just tried it now.” I swore I heard somebody say, “that boy good,” in the background. By the way, there are more siblings, and they all can dance, and I mean, they can dance, and my parents, they can still hold their own. My mother is known for traveling to Central Park and lighting up the house music scene with my aunt. Now here I am, her only non-dancing offspring. I am an unapologetically dark-skinned proud Black American. I lived in East Africa a few years ago and was often mistaken for being Nigerian. This was not a surprise since most Black Americans are descendants of the West African region. I describe myself to say how important dance is to black culture, I should have more than two steps.
In many ways, in Africa, dance was the first language of people of African descent. It was not separate from everyday life like dances in the West. “Whether traditional or modern, dance [was] not detached from people’s lives. Since the dance [was] born out of the experiences of the village, Africans understood that a fisherman [didn’t] dance like a hunter, nor [did] a farmer dance like a businessman. As [they] expressed the activities of their daily lives, the rhythm, and the dance would appear. The work itself was seen as a dance.” This tradition was passed to Black Americans and revamped in many ways to form a global dancing culture.
During the transatlantic slave trade, many of the dances by enslaved people in the southern United States, the Caribbean Islands, and other locations were distinctly similar to dances from West Africa. For instance, the Takamba dance is a dance that originated in the Songhai Empire from the 13th-15th century and is identical to many Black American dances. Even twerking originated centuries ago on the Ivory Coast. Dancing was also used as therapy by ritual societies and as a source to spark liberation. The enslaved people of Haiti used voodoo and dance to enable people to meet together, form political and cultural ideals, and serve as the staging point for revolution. Europeans considered African dance animated and different but understood its importance to Africans. So much so that after the Haitian revolution, many frightened American plantation owners banned Africans from dancing unless it was in their presence.
Dancing is as part of our black culture as a language, and somehow it skipped me. I’ve come to grips with it since I could never do worse than Miley Cyrus twerking in 2013. I have a really good two-step, and it’s better with a sip or two. I may never be able to dance like the ancestors before us. I may never moonwalk like my brothers, sway like my sisters or do the “Before I let Go” line dance as gracefully as my parents. I might always be that two stepping, black dude outlier in the crowd counting my steps with a finger snap. That’s ok, because I just enjoy seeing the rest of my people move. Moving as if their possessed by our forebearers. The joy of dancing, dark skin, brown skin, light skin, braided hair, earring loops, low fades, and headpieces swaying into rhythmic beats guiding hips and tapping toes to the floor. What a beautiful sight it is, and I just admire, leaning against a wall with my drink and my two-step.
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