#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 1!
Birth of the Jazz Dance
We the people of the 21st century can imagine different things when hearing the word "Jazz". Both jazz music and dance through the evolution from its deep roots from 16th century up to the contemporary times has become such a complex subject that it is hardly possible to describe it in one sentence. Regarding this, I like the term elaborated by Patricia Cohen towards jazz dance which she calls "the CONTINUUM" that is established by historical, cultural, social and kinetic continuity of African-American dance form.
No doubt, the jazz dance is a product of blending of two worlds, two cultures, two races, black and white, deriving from its West African roots, in which music and dance are functional aspects of everyday life, developing in a solid trunk of African-American Vernacular culture up to its theatrical offshoots and styles born from authentic jazz, that can be seen as branches (watch the pic).

Jazz Dance Tree by Kimberly Testa (c)
Once we accept the strong relationship between the dances of traditional African cultures and the dances of black Americans, and the influence on American social, popular and theatrical dance, the continuum is established.
Vernacular jazz developed with the times on the plantations and, after Civil War, in juke joints of the South and the honky-tonks and the dance halls in the North. Animal dances like Buzzard Lope, Turkey Trot, Scarecrow and the Fishtail, like the descriptive Itch, Slap the Baby and Pickin' Cherries were observed by white people who found the dances intriguing if intimidating because of their loose-limbed and articulate torso movements. Black dancers adopted Eurocentric verticality for their Cakewalks and later the closed ballroom position for the Lindy. Whether via appropriation or blending, depending on viewer's perspective, jazz dance evolved through the first half of the twentieth century to include elements of both Africanist and European dance.

Patricia Cohen defines such elements in jazz dance nature as: SOCIAL (community - the circle; individual creativity within the group; vocal encouragement; lack of separation between performer and spectator; friendly challenges among the dancers; confrontational attitude ("in your face"); joyousness; call-and-response, interaction between musicians and dancers); and the KINETIC (use of the flat foot; bent hip, knee, and ankle joints; articulated, inclined torso, body part isolations; earthiness (groundedness); improvisation; embellishment and elaboration; polyrhythms and syncopation; polycentrism; angularity and asymmetry; personal expression and creativity).

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 2!
Roots and Early forms of Jazz Dance
"Jazz is a physical and aural expression of the complexity and exuberance of American culture and history",
as Jill Flanders Crosby and Michele Moss state. Jazz dance and music emerged primarily from African-American folk and vernacular music and dance, lending creative inspiration to each other's development. These early dances incorporated improvisation and reflected the power of the community supporting the individual creative voice in a non-literal expression of storytelling and connection to the human experience. The movements were characterized by a weighted release into gravity, a dynamic spine, propulsive rhythms, and a conversational approach to musical accompaniment.
From the 1850s into the twentieth century, the presentational performance opportunities and venues for African-American musicians and dancers increased and such dance troupes like the Whitman Sisters (1900-1943) became incubators of dancing talent. In medicine shows, tent shows, minstrelsy, vaudeville, gillies, and eventually the musical theater stage, movement details of African-American folk and vernacular dances were reemerging in new dances. The Cakewalk, performed to the syncopated rhythms of the emerging ragtime music in the 1890s, was one of the earlier dances that served as an incubator for inventive new steps. In July 1898, Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk opened on Broadway featuring the Cakewalk performed to ragtime music.

Sand dances and early tap dances followed, where the dancer used sand on the floor and metal implements on shoes to create musical sounds and rhythms. African-American vernacular dance became more syncopated, heading toward the swinging dance forms such as the Charleston and Lindy, which would be called early jazz dance.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, professional African American dancers were employed primarily in vaudeville, an idiom that combined the theatrical traditions of variety, minstrelsy, and traveling road shows (that played the role of the "television of that times" as traveling from town to town they performed the same program), and served as a proving ground for young talent. With a few notable exceptions, these performers were prohibited from touring on white vaudeville circuits. Therefore, black vaudeville circuits like the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) developed and promoted black talent and catered to black audiences.
MUSICALLY, in the mid- to late 1800s, two evolutions were occurring that are considered the direct precursors of jazz: the blues and the ragtime. THE BLUES used devices such as blue notes (notes said to fall "somewhere between the cracks of the piano"), slurring, growls, call-and-response, and a loosening of the rhythmic structure of the melody line from direct correspondence with the basic downbeat, the strongest beat fell inside a musical bar. RAGTIME began to deliberately throw syncopations against downbeats as a kind of counterpoint in equal standing with the downbeat.

(materials by Jill Flanders Crosby and Michele Moss; Nadine A. George)

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 5!
African consciousness in the American context: the RING SHOUT

To talk about cultural blending that became one of the underpinnings of jazz and blues we have to dig a question about actualization of African consciousness in the conditions it was brought to the American continent. The first essential point is the SYNCRETISM African mind deeply possessed. Two most powerful forms of art in Africa were so dissolved in the reality of its people that even some African languages lack these two key words, "music" and "dance", in their vocabulary (as Jackie Malone states). Second essential issue is the POWER of Africa's key art - dance that was the most difficult of all art forms to erase from the slave's memory, in part because the syncretic unity "the body is mind" very nearly made the body to be memory and helped the mind recall the form of dance to come.
This is the subconscious and cultural mechanism that gave birth to the RING SHOUT, a ceremonial ritual practiced by the slaves which moved in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. The true "Shout" took place on Sundays or on Praise-nights through the week, and either in the praise-house or some cabin in which a regular religious meeting was held.
The Shout in the United Stated was most interesting survival of Africa and is marked by the investigators along with spirituals as a reconciliation phenomenon marking the religious blending between the Africans and white people, and a unique conversion of African religions in a Christian context. The ORIGIN of the name "Shout" puzzled many scholars. Lydia Parrish, for example, states, that Dr. L. D. Turner has discovered that the arabic word "Saut" (pronounced like the word "shout"), in use among the Mohammedans of West Africa, meant to run and walk around the Kaaba [Islamic shrine]. Parrish reported that she had seen "Negroes do the holy dance around the pulpit in their churches in such a manner".

African dance, in their desperate situation, was the slaves' greatest spiritual and political resource, enabling them to recall the traditional African community and to include all Africans in their conception of being African in America. They discovered, despite the presence of different ethnic groups - Ibos, Akans, Bakongo, and Ashantees, among them - that they shared an ancestral dance that was common to them in Africa, and the Ring Shout was the product of this cultural oneness. This dance was known to most slaves, whose people had mainly come from sections of Africa in which, as the Circle Dance, it was associated with ancestral ceremonies.

The Shout took two FORMS, depending on the locale in which it was seen. The first type was the Ring-Shout, found in Georgia and South Carolina. The second one was common in North Carolina and Virginia: a shout performed as a solo.
Normally, the Ring Shout varied depending on the region: in some areas of more rigid white owners it was prohibited to cross the legs while moving, as the ceremonial will be considered as "dance" that was profane in Christian tradition; Fredrika Bremer provides a fine description of the Ring Shouts inscribing in space where it takes place: for example, in New Orleans, where tornadoes are common, solo performances of groups of Africans leaping and spinning in the air (1850s) creates the effect of the whole an "African Tornado". Nevertheless, the individual Ring Shouts also took place, in which the dancer, for example, leaps into the air, turning in a counter-clockwise direction. In the 1850s, the Shout was practiced in Georgia under the very noses of slaveholders at massive camp meetings, it was reported that at meeting near Macon one night, 3000 to 4000 blacks and whites were present as white and black preachers.

The fact that elements basic to jazz dance were in the Ring Shout, awaiting the sounds of jazz music, is astonishing. It is small wonder that generations of jazz artists have borrowed - from the music of the church. Frederick Douglas and James Baldwin have adequately treated the nature of black music that has roots and resonance in Shout: oneness of joy, sadness and memory of the ancestors. The roots of jazz lie in the sacred.

(materials by Thomas de Franz, Jackie Malone, Lynne Fauley Emery, Lydia Parish)

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 4!
The Minstrel Stage and its Dances
By the time Thomas Dartmouth Rice made his appearance as Jim Crow in 1828, the racist American public had been well prepared to accept him. The first reference to a Negro performing a dance did not come until 1808, and then was billed as an "exotic". Generally, in most cases, the performing forerunners of Rice had been whites in blackface. The stereotypes which were to be fully developed by minstrelsy were begun long before. In April, 1767, the New York journal announced Mr. Bayly and Mr. Tea presented a dancing interlude "A Negro Dance, in Character", which was the first found that specifies dance. The second reference in 1796 included the word "comic": "A Comic Dance, In Character of a Female Negro" (again performer was white impersonating a Negro). According to Loften Mitchell, a play "The Triumph of Love" (1795) introduced a shuffling, cackling, allegedly comic Negro servant. Thus, the course was therefore established - that was to lead the black man to be represented on the American stage as something to be ridiculed and a creature to be denied human status, that was only enhanced by characters of Jim Crow and Zip Coon popular in American culture of that times.
Rice first performed Jim Crow in 1828, yet it was not until 1840's that the first formal MINSTREL troupe was organized. The first group were the Virginia Minstrels, composed of Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Dick Pelham. All four were white. As more companies were organized, a standard program format developed, a pattern, that was fairly universal by the 1850's and consisted of THREE parts. The FIRST part looked like a parody to African ceremonies and was designed to show-off the entire company sitting in a semicircle, flanked by endmen Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. The interlocutor sat in the center and carries on a question-answer session with the comic endmen. The first part began with an overture, continued with the comic question-answer period, included some comic and sentimental songs, and ended with the final Walk-Around. The SECOND part was the Olio, in which the variety of singing, dancing and speaking acts were performed. The THIRD, and the final part, known as the Afterpiece, was usually a burlesque of a serious drama popular at the time.

Part One in a traditional minstrel show always ended with a dance, called the Walk-Around, done by the entire cast. Sometimes it was repeated at the finale of the Part Three, too. The Walk-Around was mentioned usually in connection with the Breakdown or old-fashioned Hoe-Down. The Walk-Around derived from the Ring Shout (however, the only similarity was the dance in a form of the circle), and the Breakdown from the old challenge dances such as Juba. Another famous minstrel dance was the Essence Dance. Stearnses believed that the Essence was the first popular dance - for professionals - from the African-American vernacular. The Essence of Old Virginia came from the Shuffle and led to the early Soft Shoe. Other dances mentioned in connection with minstrelsy included the repertoire of Dan Bryant, the leading minstrel performer at the time: "Sugar Cane Reel, Congo Coconut Dance, Burlesque African Polka, Corn Shucking Jig, Miss Issippi Fling, Zouave Clog Reel, Smoke House Reel and Fling D'Ethiope", but these dances were developed especially for a racist and grotesque minstrelsy shows and HARDLY have any relation to an authentic Negro Dance.

Minstrelsy shows were a white people caricature vision of black culture, and by the period of its decline any resemblance between the blackface stereotype and the real Negro was remote. However, since most of the dancers and actors were whites impersonating blacks, what was seen by the public was not the authentic Negro but rather "the Negro as a stage character, as a caricature rather than a human being". And it looks even worse than it sounds:

(materials by Lynne Fauley Emery, Marshall and Jean Stearns)

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 5!
Jazz Arrives SWINGING
Historians generally agree that jazz as a musical form was born in the early 20th century, most likely New Orleans. Around 1902, African American folk and vernacular music began to swing through what is often called triple-based rhythm described as "hot" and "bluesy" with jagged rhythms and vocal humanlike sounds emitting from instruments. Shortly thereafter, dance done to this new music would also be called JAZZ.
Thanks to a social dance boom to the new jazz music around 1910, dance once seen primarily in after-hours joints or "jook houses" and brothels moved into ballrooms. Group dance forms gave way to partner dances, and animal dances such as Turkey Trot and Bunny Hug became a rage along with the hip isolations of Snake Hips. The Texas Tommy, the Breakaway emphasized the connection where the couples broke close body contact but kept contact with both hands, improvising steps of their choice.

The HEART and SOUL of jazz dance crystallized between the 1920s and 1940s. New dances were known to emerge from earlier African American dances through experimentation, extension and creative development. The Charleston, both a social and theatrical stage dance was highly syncopated and retained the patting of the knees with the hands crossing over each other from an earlier dance called Patting Juba. Previous New York City-based theatrical shows such as Darktown Follies (1911) featured the Cakewalk, Ballin' the Jack, and the Texas Tommy and would serve as an inspiration for future musicals. Jazz social dances of this era were serving as a choreographing source material for stage performance while jazz tap, an evolution of the early sand and tap dances, showed increased sophistication in its use of swing and complex rhythms.

In the 1930s, jazz swing style music and dance were at their peak. Harlem in New York City was at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and it was the Savoy Ballroom on Lennox Avenue between 140 and 141 streets where black musicians and dancers converged and defined a period: music and dance at the Savoy drew attention to the fact that the tradition of black music and dance forms were interrelated, and together were responsible for the swing phenomenon.

Legendary jazz orchestras and artists such as Duke Ellington, Fess Williams, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Chick Webb, Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway were playing at the Savoy, mutually fueling the dancers for the development of new jazz social dances. At the Savoy Ballroom, the Lindy Hop was born, with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Leon James and others. Other jazz social dances and dance steps developed alongside the Lindy, such as the Big Apple, Shorty George, and Suzie Q, the majority of them Savoy originated. Creative movement ideas originated in in the vernacular and social jazz dances, arose from the rhythmic impulse of swinging jazz music, and were also embellished for the performance stage by the artists such as Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, Jeni LeGon, and the Condos Brothers appearing at New York clubs such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. A similar phenomenon was evolving with the Lindy Hop dancers: Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were performing in clubs, films, on Broadway, and in concert halls including Radio City Music Hall. Frankie Manning is credited with the first Lindy aerial move around 1935-36 and for creating ensemble dancing for the professional Lindy Hop dance teams. Norma Miller credits Herbert "Whitey" White with creating the first choreographed Lindy routines, including the first for the performance stage.
Mura Dehn (courtesy of Pryor Dodge, pic from the book "Jazz Dance" by Lindsay Guarino)
Mura Dehn, a Russian emigré, arrived in America in 1930 to study and research jazz dance and she focused on the jazz in Harlem. Subsequently, she founded the Academy of Jazz dedicated to the research, teaching and performance of the jazz dance. In Dehn's words, early American jazz expression was inclusive of all interpretations of modern jazz we are familiar with… ragtime, trucking, swing, boogie-woogie. Dehn would later create a landmark documentary in 1950, THE SPIRIT MOVES, that captured not only these early jazz traditions but jazz dance performed to the upcoming stylistic innovation in jazz music, bebop, by dancers such as Clarence "Scoby" Strohman, Jeff Asquiew, Leory Appins, and Milton "Okay" Hayes.

(materials by Jill Flanders Crosby and Michelle Moss, Marshall and Jean Stearns)

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 6!
Savoy Ballroom.
Harlem, New York City. 1939

© Cornell Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
The infancy of jazz coincided with extensive artistic and commercial efforts to get black musical theater established on Broadway. As a result, jazz musicians had a recognized connection with professional dance acts prior to the thirties. From the orchestra pit, musicians backed professional dancers and singers in theaters across the country. Throughout the twenties, jazz musicians, singers, and dancers worked together in night clubs and cabarets; and they performed jointly in revues that toured the United Stated and abroad. As jazz bands became increasingly popular, they moved from up the pit to take centre stage. Earl Hines helped pioneer the move from the pit to the stage at the Apollo Theater.
Vaudeville declined rapidly around the early thirties and a new performance format called presentation evolved. By this time, radio broadcasts had helped create a demand for jazz bands throughout the country at hotels, supper clubs, theaters, colleges, night clubs, high schools, affluent prep schools, and at such dance halls as the Savoy and Roseland in New York City. Big city movie houses also featured bands on vaudeville-like bills that were presented between motion pictures. According to Cholly Atkins, the most popular venues of the thirties were dance halls, hotels and theaters. Dance halls were scattered across the United States, and any town with more than 150,000 people had at least one hotel with reasonably sized dance floor. And though they were always presented as a part of a musical package, bands were the headliners in these performance arenas. During the era of presentation, these packages were called "revues" or "units" and included dancers, solo singers, comedians, and of, course, a big-name band.

The diversity of dancing acts during the thirties and forties was astonishing: ballroom, adagio, eccentric, comedy, flash, acrobatics, and tap - the most prevailing style. "Adagio" dancers performed a style that consisted of ballroom dance with various balletic and acrobatic lifts, spins, and poses. Eccentric dance, a favorite with many jazz band leaders, may include elements of contortionist, legomania, and shake dancing, although these styles frequently overlap with others, and a dancer can combine something of all of them. 'Eccentric' is a catch-all for dancers who have their own non-standart movements and sell themselves on their own individual styles. One of the most famous of these dancers was Dynamite Hooker, who toured during the thirties with the bands of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. By the midthirties, many dancers in search of new and exciting ideas had developed what became known as flash dancing - a compression of acrobatics and jazz dancing. The flash acts spice their routines with ad lib acrobatics. Without any warning or apparent preparation, they insert a variety of floor and air steps - a spin or flip or knee-drop split - in the midst of a regular routine, and then, without a moment's hesitation, go back to the routine.

Although dancers appeared with big bands in theaters throughout the country, the premiere stage and number one testing ground in America was Harlem's Apollo Theater. Beginning in 1934, stage shows were built around such well-known jazz bands as those led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Don Redman, Chick Webb, Lucky Millinder, and Fletcher Henderson. The Apollo opened around 10 AM and offered four to five shows per day starting with a short film, a newsreel, and a featured film, followed by a revue. Presented in the spring of 1934, The Golliwog Revue was a typical show that consisted of seven acts including Don Redman's band, the headliner; chorus line dancers; the Jack Storm Company, an acrobatic act; Leroy and Edith, the Apollo lindy hop contest winners; Myra Johnson, a singer; the Four Bobs, tap dancers; and Jazzlip Richardson, an eccentric dancer. Throughout the show Johnny Lee Long and Pigmeat Markham, comedians, joked with Ralph Cooper, the host. The role of chorus line dancers in the development of jazz has been consistently overlooked by jazz and dance historians. Many jazz musicians felt a kinship with chorus line dancers: "They used to be the biggest lift to musicians because we thought alike"; "They were more important that people realize. You might say we composed while they danced - a whole lot of swinging rhythm. That's when we invented new things and recorded them the next day" (Dicky Wells).

The Apollo's dance contests featured some of the most dedicated big band followers in the country. Their intricate steps devised to the swinging rhythms of America's jumpingest jazz bands could only be matched by enthusiasm by the contests held further uptown at Harlem's legendary dance hall the Savoy Ballroom, known among the initiated as "the track". When the Savoy opened its doors on March 12 1926, over five thousand people rocked the city block-long building to the rhythms of Fess Williams and his royal Flush Orchestra and the Charleston Bearcats. Dances that started or were made popular at the Savoy include the lindy hop, the flying Charleston, the big apple, the stomp, the jitterbug jive, the snakehips, the rhumboogie, variations of the shimmy and the peabody, and new interpretations of the bunny hug and and the turkey trot. At the Savoy, black musicians and dancers, armed with the musical innovations of Louis Armstrong, helped develop the formula for what was eventually called "swing music", which swept the country during the Great Depression and ricocheted far beyond the Western Hemisphere.

(materials by Jacqui Malone "Steppin' on the Blues")

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 7!
Tap Dance and Jazz Musicians
"A great drummer dances sitting down. A great tap-dancer drums standing up"
Jimmy Slyde
The connection between big bands and tap dancers is one that has resurfaced the decades of the twentieth century. As jazz music has commanded a broader and broader audience, jazz lovers have discovered again one of the most sophisticated representations of jazz music by dancers, rhythm tap, created by African American tap innovators of the twentieth century. King Rastus Brown's flatfooted hoofing preceded the legendary Bill Robinson's "up on the toes" approach. Eddie Rector added elegance and body motion, and John Bubble's crowning achievement - dropping the heels - added extraordinary rhythmical complexity. Baby Lawrence, tap dancer extraordinaire, explained that "tap dancing is very much like jazz music. The dancer improvises his own solo and expresses himself." Rhythm tappers are jazz percussionists who have value improvisation and self-expression. Jazz musicians tell stories with their instruments and rhythm tappers tell stories with their feet. Rhytm tap's close relationship to jazz music is evident in the large number of top caliber jazz drummers who could tap: Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlett, Eddie Locke, and Cozy Cole, who once had a dance act along with tapper Derby Wilson.
At the start of their careers, the drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey were greatly influenced by rhythm tappers. Roach accompanied Groundhog and Baby Laurence and learned steps from them. He recalled performing with Laurence: "We usually did our acts as an encore. I would play brushes on a snare and he would just dance and we'd exchange things, call and response. I would imitate him and then I would play time over it." According to Philly Joe Jones, "the drummer who has ben a dancer can play better that someone who has never danced. See, the drummer catches the dancer, especially when a dancer's doing wings. And the cymbals move at the same time to catch the dancer."

In the thirties and forties, rhythm tap's greatest exponents functioned in closely knit circles that included singers, comedians, jazz musicians, and chorus line dancers. The various types of performers shared rehearsal and performance spaces, jam sessions, and living quarters; they attended sports events and parties; they belonged to the same fraternal clubs. Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's co-composer, was the last official president of the Copasetics, a club organized by tap dancers but with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton among its membership. In nightclubs and on street corners tap dancers participated in jam session - exchanging ideas, inspiring one another, and battling for a place in the rhythm tappers' hierarchy of artistic excellence. No jam sessions were as exciting as those held at the legendary Hoofer's Club, where the reigning tap kings of the early thirties included Raymond Winfield, Honi Coles, Harold Mablin, and Roland Holder. In 1932, when Baby Laurence went to New York as a singer with the Don Redman Band, he headed straight to the Hoofer's Club: "Don discouraged my dancing, but when we hit town my first stop was the Hoofer's Club, it was the biggest thrill of my life!" The cardinal RULE there was "Thou Shalt No Copy Another's Steps - Exactly." Those foolish enough to break that rule in public had to suffer the consequences.

Jazz musicians and rhythm tap dancers were obviously in pursuit of identical artistic goals. Their partnership in the thirties and forties mirrored much more than a convenient musical package. Their mutual admiration grew out of a special kinship based on similar aesthetic points of view and what Albert Murray calls a shared "idiomatic orientation".

(materials by Jacqui Malone "Steppin' on the Blues")

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 8!
Roots of the Yoruba religion: the spirit of àshe
as defined by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson
It is not a secret for anyone, there would be no jazz if one day black and white worlds wouldn't clash together. Jazz music as well as jazz dance influenced greatly contemporary popular culture, becoming a universal phenomenon shared by all races, genders, ages and nationalities. Nevertheless it is interesting to know its archetypes, that fire that brings this culture through years and centuries, the fire that actually forms the core of the feeling, the beat and the groove of jazz most appreciated now in the world. I'm talking now mostly about the Africanist spirit and root of it.

To give you a brief and clear notion of it, I will refer to one of the most respected, appreciated and passionate researcher of African, or as he says "Afro-Atlantic" studies, "professor of Mambo", Dr. Robert Farris Thompson. In his work Dr. Thompson deeply investigates the African art, culture, customs and traditions, way of life, revealing its traces in the "New World", digging Africanist presence in Afro-American (Atlantic) art displays as music, dance, textile, sculpture, etc. Thus, New York for him, is another secret "African city" :) Thus, in this article we are going to touch upon one of the most powerful cultures of Western Africa - the Yoruba and define the notion of Áshe, according to Dr. Farris Thompson's work Flash of the Spirit" (1983).
The Yoruba are one of the most urban of the traditional civilizations of black Africa. Yoruba urbanism is ancient, dating to the Middle Ages, where their holy city, Ile-Ife, where the Yoruba believe the world began, was flourishing with an artistic force that later provoked the astonishment of the West. Like the ancient Greece, Yorubaland consisted of self-sufficient city states characterized by artistic and poetic richness. The Yoruba assess everything aesthetically - from the taste and color of yam to the qualities of a dye, to the dress and deportment of a woman or a man. Beauty is seen by a connoisseur (amewa) in the mean (iwontúnwonsi) - in something not too tall not too short, not too beautiful or not too ugly. Moreover, the Yoruba appreciate freshness and improvisation per se in the arts. These preoccupations are especially evident in the rich and vast body of art works celebrating Yoruba religion.

When God (Olorun) came down to give the world àshe, God appeared in the form of certain animals. Àshe descended in the form of the royal python (ere), the gaboon viper (oka olushere), the earthworm (ekolo), the white snail (lakoshe), and the woodpecker (akoko). God, within the animals, according to Yoruba belief, bestowed upon us the power-to-make-things-happen, morally neutral power, power to give, and to take away, to kill and to give life, according to the purpose of nature of its bearer. The messengers of áshe reflect this complex of powers. Some trees can be also avatars of áshe; iron is also believed to contain áshe. It can be presented in a drop of semen or a drop of blood - for many Yoruba, red, "supreme presence of color" signals àshe and potentiality.

Àshe it is divine force incarnate. This richest of all privileges is merited by the highest women and men of the land: the masterpriestesses, the diviners, the kings, the most important chiefs. All have àshe. And even their words are susceptible to transposition into spirit-invoking and predictive experiences, for àshe literally means, "So be it", "May it happen." Yoruba kings provide the highest link between the people, the ancestors and the gods.

Ritual contact with divinity underscores the religious aspirations of the Yoruba. To become possessed by the spirit of a Yoruba deity, which is normal goal for a religion, is to "make the god", to capture numinous force within one's body. When this happens, the face of the devotee usually freezes into a mask, held during the entire time of possession of the spirit.

Àshe is untranslatable. But it is clearly manifest in prophecy and predictive grace; hence persons possessed by the spirit of a Yoruba deity are believed to speak things yet to come. They attract large crowds wherever they appear. They look about grandly with fixed expressions, with eyes sometimes wide and protuberant. The radiance of the eyes, the magnification of the gaze, reflects àshe, the brightness of the spirit.

In addition to àshe, iwa (character) is another crucially important consideration in Yoruba religion and art: "Beauty is a part of coolness but beauty does not have the force that character has. Beauty comes to and end. Character is forever." The importance of good character (iwa rere), which is virtually synonymous with coolness, with gentle generosity of character (iwa pele), is poetically rendered by the Yoruba:

A man can be very, very handsome
Handsome as a fish within the water
But if he has no character
He is no more than a wooden doll.
Displays of Iwa (from the book "Flash of the Spirit" by Robert Farris Thompson)
Like Àshe, good character originates in God. God is praised as Lord of Character (olu iwa). Artistic signs communicating this noble quality, iwa, are often white. Immaculate white cloths may be honorifically draped over sculpture honoring gods or ancestors famed for spotlessness for reputation, as in the case of the cult Obatala, the god of creativity. Purity of sculptural presentation, symmetry, balance, - these qualities can memorably imply iwa. Iwa also means custom, the traditional ways of life. An image portraying a person fulfilling the canons of the land in terms of fine posture or careful hands-to-the-sides gestures of spiritual alertness, or giving to an elder in the correct and prescribed manner - with both hands - suggests submission to moral authority or to higher forces.

(Robert Farris Thompson "Flash of the Spirit")

#jazzdancenotes challenge, Day 9!
Roots of the Yoruba religion: Aesthetic of the Cool
as defined by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson
"The highest value is reconciliation and generosity, to be at ease, to settle quarrels. Tranquility of mind. To be cool, wet, and silent. When you hear 'chill,' you're in the black aesthetic of the cool." - Dr. Robert Farris Thompson

The book "Aesthetic of the Cool" by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson
One of my mentors once told me: if you want to dance bebop, you have to think Snoop Dogg. It is true, cause it goes straight into the representation of coolness of the attitude. Few months after I discovered Dr. Robert Farris Thompson's work and concept of "Aesthetic of the Cool" which he traces back to the Yoruba traditional beliefs and religion.

To tame or pacify is to cool the face (tu l'oju). Thus, providing the non-figurative symbol of an orisha with sculptured face facilitates the pacification of that orisha, for what has a face is controlable. - Babatunde Lawal
The mystic coolness (itutu) it is a sovereign concept that confers character and àshe. Much Yoruba art is informed by itutu.

> To carve a calm face upon a represented thunderstone, or upon an abstract divination tray, or to incise it upon the swelling curves of a calabash for sacred things is to provide critical focus for acts of sacrifice and devotion.
> Further manifestations of aesthetic coolness in Yoruba art include representation of idealized action. We must take care not to stress character and coolness as separate semantic structures because they shade into each other and also blur into the existential definition of àshe. The interrelation of the concepts is explicitly given in vernacular testimony from the capital of the Anago:

Coolness or gentleness of character is so important in our lives. Coolness is the correct way you represent yourself as a human being. When I saw you, I opened my cap. It is itutu, answering past itutu you made to me.

Opening the cap, instead of doffing or removing it, in Western parlance, is a sign of generosity of response, of coolness in life and art. Generosity, the highest form of morality in Yoruba traditional terms, is suggested by the symbolized offering of something by a person to a higher force through the act of kneeling: "While presenting a plate of food, kneel and give with both hands, the mother hand and the father hand, the hand which keeps and the hand which acts". The act of giving with both hands, in a gesture of submission, emphasizes in traditional terms the act of giving as an embodiment of character and perfect composure, a point given further focus, in both art and life, by the firmness of the facial expression that accompanies the noble act.

"Constant smiling is not a Yoruba characteristic. Sealed lips, frequent in Yoruba statuary, are a sign of seriousness." They, too, imply the coolness of the image, as in an idiom that refers to discretion in ordinary discourse: "his mouth is cool" (enu è tútù), which is one of the ways the Yoruba would say, "he fell silent". Like character, coolness ought to be internalized as a governing principle for a person to merit the high praise: "his heart is cool" (okan è tutu). In becoming sophisticated, a Yoruba adept learns to differentiate between forms of spiritual coolness:

> direct sacrifice (ebo), the cooling of the gods by the giving of cherished objects;
> propitiation (irele), the utterance of conciliatory words or acts to hardened or angered deities;

The notion of coolness in Yoruba art extends beyond representations of the act of sacrifice and acts or gestures of propitiation. So heavily charged is this concept with ideas of beauty and correctness that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as "cool".
Coolness, then, is a part of a character, and character objectifies proper custom. To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with - the shining ororo bird of thought and aspiration - we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is àshe. This is character. This is mystic coolness. All one. Paradise is regained, for Yoruba art returns the idea of heaven to mankind wherever the ancient ideal attitudes are genuinely manifested.

(Robert Farris Thompson "Flash of the Spirit")


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