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Camille A. Brown: A visual history of social dance in 25 moves

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Why do we dance? African-American social dances started as a way for enslaved Africans to keep cultural traditions alive and retain a sense of inner freedom. They remain an affirmation of identity and independence. In this electric demonstration, packed with live performances, choreographer, educator and TED Fellow Camille A. Brown explores what happens when communities let loose and express themselves by dancing together.

- Choreographer and educator
Camille A. Brown leads her dance company through excavations of ancestral stories, both timeless and traditional, that connect history with contemporary culture. Full bio

This is the Bop.
00:06
The Bop is a type of social dance.
00:09
Dance is a language,
00:15
and social dance is an expression
that emerges from a community.
00:16
A social dance isn't choreographed
by any one person.
00:21
It can't be traced to any one moment.
00:24
Each dance has steps
that everyone can agree on,
00:27
but it's about the individual
and their creative identity.
00:30
Because of that,
00:35
social dances bubble up,
00:36
they change
00:38
and they spread like wildfire.
00:39
They are as old as our remembered history.
00:42
In African-American social dances,
00:47
we see over 200 years
00:49
of how African and African-American
traditions influenced our history.
00:51
The present always contains the past.
00:58
And the past shapes who we are
01:01
and who we will be.
01:03
(Clapping)
01:05
The Juba dance was born
from enslaved Africans' experience
01:09
on the plantation.
01:12
Brought to the Americas,
01:14
stripped of a common spoken language,
01:15
this dance was a way for enslaved Africans
to remember where they're from.
01:17
It may have looked something like this.
01:22
Slapping thighs,
01:30
shuffling feet
01:31
and patting hands:
01:33
this was how they got around
the slave owners' ban on drumming,
01:34
improvising complex rhythms
01:38
just like ancestors did
with drums in Haiti
01:41
or in the Yoruba communities
of West Africa.
01:44
It was about keeping
cultural traditions alive
01:50
and retaining a sense of inner freedom
01:53
under captivity.
01:56
It was the same subversive spirit
that created this dance:
01:59
the Cakewalk,
02:04
a dance that parodied the mannerisms
of Southern high society --
02:05
a way for the enslaved
to throw shade at the masters.
02:09
The crazy thing about this dance
02:12
is that the Cakewalk
was performed for the masters,
02:14
who never suspected
they were being made fun of.
02:17
Now you might recognize this one.
02:23
1920s --
02:25
the Charleston.
02:26
The Charleston was all about
improvisation and musicality,
02:31
making its way into Lindy Hop,
02:35
swing dancing
02:37
and even the Kid n Play,
02:38
originally called the Funky Charleston.
02:39
Started by a tight-knit Black community
near Charleston, South Carolina,
02:47
the Charleston permeated dance halls
02:51
where young women suddenly had
the freedom to kick their heels
02:53
and move their legs.
02:56
Now, social dance is about
community and connection;
03:03
if you knew the steps,
03:06
it meant you belonged to a group.
03:08
But what if it becomes a worldwide craze?
03:10
Enter the Twist.
03:13
It's no surprise that the Twist
can be traced back to the 19th century,
03:14
brought to America from the Congo
03:19
during slavery.
03:21
But in the late '50s,
03:22
right before the Civil Rights Movement,
03:24
the Twist is popularized
by Chubby Checker and Dick Clark.
03:26
Suddenly, everybody's doing the Twist:
03:29
white teenagers,
03:32
kids in Latin America,
03:33
making its way into songs and movies.
03:35
Through social dance,
03:38
the boundaries between groups
become blurred.
03:39
The story continues in the 1980s and '90s.
03:45
Along with the emergence of hip-hop,
03:48
African-American social dance
took on even more visibility,
03:51
borrowing from its long past,
03:55
shaping culture and being shaped by it.
03:57
Today, these dances continue
to evolve, grow and spread.
04:08
Why do we dance?
04:14
To move,
04:15
to let loose,
04:16
to express.
04:17
Why do we dance together?
04:19
To heal,
04:21
to remember,
04:22
to say: "We speak a common language.
04:23
We exist
04:26
and we are free."
04:27

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About the speaker:

Camille A. Brown - Choreographer and educator
Camille A. Brown leads her dance company through excavations of ancestral stories, both timeless and traditional, that connect history with contemporary culture.

Why you should listen

Camille A. Brown is a prolific choreographer, making a personal claim on history through the lens of a modern Black female perspective.

The artistic director of Camille A. Brown & Dancers, Brown is a four-time Princess Grace Award winner, 2016 Jacob's Pillow Dance Award recipient, 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, 2015 USA Jay Franke & David Herro Fellow, 2015 TED Fellow and 2015 Doris Duke Artist Award recipient. Her company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, received a 2014 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production for the work Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012) and recently received a 2016 Bessie Nomination for Outstanding Production of her work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (2015).

Brown's work has been commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco!, Complexions and Urban Bush Women, among others. Her theater credits as Choreographer include Broadway's A Streetcar Named Desire, Fortress of Solitude (Lucille Lortel Nomination), Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Cabin in the Sky for New York City Center Encores!, Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM! starring Lin Manuel Miranda, and BELLA: An American Tall Tale, among others.

Brown is the founder of two initiatives, The Gathering and BLACK GIRL SPECTRUM (BGS). As a teacher, she seeks to amplify cultural and creative empowerment through dance, dialogue, and popular education tools.

More profile about the speaker
Camille A. Brown | Speaker | TED.com