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When Europeans uprooted Africans from their homelands and brought them to the Americas, the traders did everything they could to strip the captives of their culture—and their new masters then force-fed them Christianity. But the flames of damnation and the hail of brimstone that an angry God promised white Methodist and Baptist congregations didn’t exactly fly with black people. They simply couldn’t abide having the Bible pushed down their throats, much less listen to fiery messages about obeying ol’ massa. So when they had the opportunity, these accidental immigrants would steal away to a swamp or the forests on the plantation to hold a “real service” where they could pray away their frustrations, sing, and lift their spirits to deal with another day.
To advance their ends, the oppressors declared key elements of the enslaved Africans’ cultures to be sins. First the drums were banned; then came the kibosh on their other instruments. But the newcomers still had their bodies. And when, soon enough, dancing and crossing the feet were disallowed, they moved without picking their feet off the ground. Tapping heel and toe, they clapped and stomped out intricate rhythms and used their voices to sing the melody, calling for deliverance.
This adaptation of their African culture became known as “the Shout”—dance movements integral to worship and essential for possession by the Holy Spirit. The Shout would often start with the participants forming a ring, and between those in the ring and those nearby singing the music, the activity became faster and faster until people passed out in ecstasy.
In 1993, choreographer Reggie Wilson, a la Zora Neale Hurston, set out to find the Africanness of his roots, particularly in religion. He left New York University, trekked to his childhood Missionary Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta, visited the Spiritual Baptist community in Trinidad and Tobago, and then followed the Zion Church in Zimbabwe. After each trip, he came back shouting.
He dug up those things that most retained African characteristics—things that black descendants of Africans in the Americas were taught to hide and be ashamed of. He later grafted the gestures, songs, and stories onto what he had learned earning his dance degree, and reinterpreted them in a modern idiom. His latest program, Qoqoda—which means “knocking” in Ndebele, a South African language—announces the African presence, long ignored or degraded by Westerners.
Last Friday night, Dance Place’s black stage was transformed into a house of praise. At the beginning of the first piece, Introduction, Wilson talked a bit about himself and his research. Grabbing his fist, then slapping his heel, he explained the source of the name of his performance group: “Fist and heel” was a derogatory term used by whites to identify a certain style of worship by blacks in the United States.
As Wilson talked about his own roots and then branched into discussion about the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad and Tobago, he began stepping in time. At the onset, it looked like a choreographer pacing out his next movement. But what followed was a journey of musical breathing and antics that Wilson obviously had taken pains to master. Uttering low, guttural sounds, holding his palms open, and moving his feet faster and faster, he re-enacted the way the body would respond on a trip to the Valley of the Dry Bones with a hoarse kind of choking. In addition to being able to travel to biblical destinations, he explained, the spirit of believers in the Spiritual Baptist faith could also pick physical places to journey, such as India, by singing a simple melody line.
In his re-creation of a spiritual trip to Africa, Wilson’s marching progressed to leaping off the ground, bending his knees, and whipping up his breathing until he reached a state of hysteria, as if a true spirit were riding his back. Wilson appeared to be fighting for control of his body. And by the time he seemed to calm down, the expression on his face suggested a man re-acclimating himself to his surroundings. He marked himself with a cross, smiled, and continued the story.
Fist and Heel took its most recent journey to Zimbabwe, where the group found members of the Zion Church who also practiced a rhythmic breathing pattern “to communicate with spirit.” Making a wide circling motion with his arms and feet, Wilson left the stage—and left me with my hand over my mouth—maybe he’d interviewed my grandmother!
N/um, another piece Wilson choreographed and performed, worked in a similar way. With hips swaying, he marched slowly onto the stage in green cargo pants and a black T-shirt, with a sweatshirt tied around his waist. He came to the center with his head bowed and launched into a timed clapping, body-slapping percussion, like a child’s hand game, or hopscotch. The moves started off slowly, like in a fraternity step show, then accelerated to quadruple speed ahead. His locks chased his movements like willow branches in the breeze as he moved forward and then seemed to go through turmoil and frustration: having his fists stopped from going up in the air and heels grounded—for a second. Then he got back to more swooshing and stamping.
Fist and Heel ended the evening with PANG, for which three or four people formed a chorus offstage and teased the dancers with sometimes funny traditional Caribbean folk songs. As one dancer rotated her midsection mischievously in an attempt to show her stuff, lead singer Rhetta Aleong, a native Trinidadian, belted out, “Congo Justina, who go married to you?/’Cause yuh face like a whale and yuh now come from jail,” suggesting that no matter what Justina thought of herself, no one else could see what all the fuss was about.
Scenes later, her gossipy voice screeched out, “Gabriel in de garden, picking white rose,” as if she were a neighbor a few doors down soaking in the sights and providing chatty commentary about the most mundane activities. And when dancer Stephanie Tooman curled up in a ball on the floor, the chorus sang an ironic blind-love reproach that could have been a statement against domestic abuse, using the same lighthearted tone as before, but with graver lyrics: “All faar you, baby all faar you. You take me out to de back way, you take a hammer you broke my head, you take a razor you slit my throat, all faar you.”
But the music during this piece also voiced fatigue and downheartedness. Spirituals and work songs provided rhythm to dancers, their bodies bent in exhaustion, wondering why “I worked five long years for one man, and he had the ner-er-erve to kick me out.” Switching to church mode, the hand-clapping spirit-lifters “based” or backed the dancers onstage with an untiring musical foundation. In the meantime, the dancers, joining hands in a ring, swinging, and pivoting, seemed to blend various forms of the Shout into a burgeoning excitement as they mixed turns and jumps of modern ballet with African moves.
Wilson’s work has the effect of holding up a mirror in front of people. The image reflected is a rich African past in celebration. It suggests what might have been if black people had been left to mind their own business and retain their culture. By lifting out of darkness the aspects of African culture that are to this day often frowned upon and propping them in your face on a public stage, he’s demanding a respect long delinquent and serving as a collective memory: telling the other half of the story. Yet instead of simply imitating the traditions that he found throughout the diaspora, he reconstitutes and improvises movements so that they fit just comfortably today. CP