Stick dance (African-American)

A watercolour painting from the 1780s, showing a slave performing a stick dance on a South Carolina plantation.

Stick dance was a dance style that African-Americans developed on American plantations during the slavery era, where dancing was used to practise "secret military drills" among the slaves, where the stick used in the dance was in fact a disguised weapon.[1]


Stick dancing was based on young men performing military drills. They practised capoeira, a martial art of the Angolan and Kongolese slaves taken to America.[2] A similar stick dance, Tahtib, was practised in ancient Egypt and survived up until the 19th century in north Africa, using a bamboo staff called an asa, asaya, shoum or nabboot.[3]

Capoeira is practised using acrobatic moves similar to dancing, so disguising the military practise from slave owners was simplified somewhat by this fact. Young men would practise by competing one-on-one, both standing inside a circle drawn on the ground, until exhaustion forced one to concede defeat.

To add to the dance element of the practise, other slaves would gather around the competitive fighters. They would clap in rhythm, and sing in a call-and-response style, while one caller led the rest of the crowd. A berimbau, a one-string instrument played with a bow, was the usual accompaniment, because it was quieter than a drum, which would normally be used in capoeira practise.[4]

Like the banjo and other instruments, the berimbau was based on African instruments and developed by African-American slaves. An early depiction of slaves performing a stick dance is an 18th century watercolour painting called The Old Plantation, which is in the collections of The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Arts Center in Williamsburg, Virginia. It shows a dozen African-Americans gather in front of two slave cabins, with one stick dancer, and two women dancing with scarves to music of a drummer and a banjoist. The watercolour is believed to have been made of a plantation between Columbia and Orangeburg, South Carolina.[5]

Minstrel stick dances

The stick dance became a standard part of the minstrel shows performed by African-Americans during the late 19th century. It had an element of humour, where the dancer would shuffle onto the stage dressed as an elderly African-American man using a cane, and then suddenly use the cane to perform energetic acrobatic capoeira dance moves.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Knowles, Mark (2002). Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. McFarland. p. 49. ISBN . 
  2. ^ Knowles, Mark (2002). Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. McFarland. p. 49. ISBN . 
  3. ^ Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (2004). African Dance. Infobase Publishing. p. 80. ISBN . 
  4. ^ Knowles, Mark (2002). Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. McFarland. p. 49. ISBN . 
  5. ^ Southern, Eileen, and Josephine Wright, Josephine R. B. Wright (1990). African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 61. ISBN . 
  6. ^ Knowles, Mark (2002). Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. McFarland. p. 49. ISBN . 
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