The “Ring Shout.”

“Hunched low to the ground, flat feet pounding the earth with rhythmic intensity as they moved counterclockwise in a circle, a group of men and women wearing the drab, tattered, everyday clothes of southern plantation field hands danced. Their only musical accompaniment was the crisp sound of their hands clapping time and the low, guttural rhythms rumbling in their throats. They had no audience. They danced for themselves and one another. It was the end of a day spent picking somebody else’s cotton, cleaning somebody else’s house, caring for other folks’ children. This was their time to come together and thank God they had survived another day.

Every part of their bodies danced, from their shuffling feet and bent knees to their churning hips and undulating spines, swinging arms, and shimmying shoulders. Even their necks bent like reeds to balance heads rolling from shoulder to shoulder before pulling upright to reveal faces filled with the joy and the ecstasy of dance. (See definition of ring shout)

Former slave Silvia King, speaking to an interviewer from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, recalled how she and other slaves on a Texas plantation used to sneak to attend church in the woods, far from the watchful eyes of whites: ‘Black folks ‘ud git off, down in de crick bottom, er in a thicket, an’ sing an’ shout an’ pray. Don’t know why but de w’ite folks sho’ didn’t like dem ring shouts de cullud folks had. De folks git in er ring an’ sing an’ dance, an’ shout; de dance is jes’ kinder shuffle, den hit gits faster an’ faster as dey gits wa’amed up; an’ dey moans an’ shouts, an’ sings, an’ dance. Some ob ’em gits ‘zausted an’ dey drop out, an’ de ring gits closer. Sometimes dey sing an’ shout all night, but at der brake ob day, de nigger gotter git ter de cabin an’ git ’bout he buiziness fer de day. De w’ite folks say de ring shout make de nigger loose he haid an’ dat he git all ‘cited up an’ be good fer nuffin’ fer a week.’

King was describing the ‘Ring Shout,’ one of the many dances performed by African slaves that writer Ralph Ellison called ‘America’s first choreography.’ These dances were part of an unbroken chain connecting the rich cultural heritage of the slaves’ African villages to 17th-century southern plantations or Congo Square in New Orleans; later to smoke-filled southern juke joints and urban honky-tonks, dance halls, and Jazz Age night spots; and finally to the contemporary concert dance stage.

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One devotional aspect that all Africans shared was a belief in the power of the human voice, and dance. Dance was like prayer – an integral part of religion and culture. In the New World, it became known as the ‘ring shout.’ The dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and the gods, but, as the enslaved embraced Christianity, it became part of Christian worship.

In order to differentiate this prayer from mundane dance, “shouters” could not cross their feet, and the circle moved in one direction: counterclockwise. Some scholars believe the ring shout descends from Islamic word shaw’t, which means to circle the sacred Ka’bah at Mecca counterclockwise. The joy of dancing and singing inherent in the ring shout would eventually develop into the energetic, life-affirming music of gospel. (See Sweet Chariot: the Story of the Spirituals)

Many aspects of African religions made it possible for the enslaved to adopt Christianity and creatively maintain aspects of African practices and beliefs. Because most African traditions presumed a Supreme Deity, it was not difficult for them to adopt the Christian concept of God. Belief in the Yoruba god Elegba as a divine mediator prepared the enslaved to accept Jesus as their personal savior and to assign to Him certain powers. Christianity also shared a belief with African religions that through faith and prayer, one could overcome adversity of all kinds, including sickness and illness. Another factor, according to [PBS] series adviser Albert Raboteau of Princeton University, [author of Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South and A Fire In the Bones:Reflections on African American Religious History], was the fact that in West Africa, wars often resulted in a sharing of deities and rituals between the victors and vanquished. It was a region whose inhabitants, now enslaved in America, were open to the ‘new.’ “ (See more)

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For African American Spiritual Musicfrom the shout to the spiritual and on to gospel music – see The Negro Spiritual Workshop

Many African-American spirituals found their way into modern Christian hymnals including:

•Let Us Break Bread Together
•Go Tell It on the Mountain
•Lonesome Valley
•Amen
•Were You There?
•He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
•There is a Balm in Gilead
•Lord, I Want to Be a Christian
(see more)


Mahalia Jackson

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