Friday, February 3, 2012

The Roots Of The Soul Train Line Formation

Edited by Azizi Powell

[revised 3/29/2013]

Soul Train Line Dance to Earth Wind & Fire's - Mighty Mighty

Uploaded by carwashlondon on Dec 22, 2009

Disco Dance Moves

This post is Part 1 of a two part series on the Soul Train Line. Part 1 explores the roots of the Soul Train line formation.

Click for Part 2 which provides examples of the Soul Train line and, in so doing, showcases how that line changed over time.

As an update to Part 2, I posted a video, with comments, and a link to another video of this Time Square Flash Mob tribute to Don Cornelius and Soul Train.

This post is not a comprehensive study of the Soul Train line, but is published with much respect & appreciation for the memory of Don Cornelius and the enduring legacy he has left African Americans and the rest of the world.

Click for general information on Soul Train television show.

Click for additional information about Soul Train television show and Don Cornelius.

Don Cornelius, the creator and host of the iconic American television show Soul Train is no longer with us. But his wonderful legacy lives on. The Soul Train line is one enduring and much loved aspect of Don Cornelius' legacy.


...[Don Cornelius] had the satisfaction of knowing that he'd left behind an influential legacy that made an indelible and lasting mark on American popular culture.
-Aidea, 2/2/2012

...Soul Train was a visionary program that stands on its own (and anyone who has ever been in a 'Soul Train Line' at a party knows that the program's influence transcended television).
- KristenWright, 2/2/2012
"There was also the popular "Soul Train Line", in which all the dancers form two lines with a space in the middle for dancers to strut down and dance in consecutive order. Originally, this consisted of a couple - with men on one side and women on the other.

In later years, men and women had their own individual line-ups. Sometimes, new dance styles or moves were featured or introduced by particular dancers."

In a television documentary on "Soul Train" (one whose title unfortunately I didn't document), Don Cornelius indicated that he got the idea for the soul train line from his memory of Black teens in Chicago doing that type of dance formation at their house parties. At least one of the dances that Don Cornelius may have remembered teens doing was The Stroll. Here's information about The Stroll from "Line Dances From the 1960s By Douglas Quaid, eHow Contributor
"The Stroll started in the 1950s, but its popularity lasted into the early '60s. The song, by a group called The Diamonds, was released in 1957 and became a big hit on "American Bandstand." The dancers form a line of men and a line of women, facing each other. Couples peel off the end of the line in turn and dance their way down the center to the end of the line, showing off their best moves."
Click for information & comments about and videos of The Stroll.

Whoever invented the Stroll may have gotten that idea for that formation from their memory of the play experiences of Black children, particularly Black girls. Notice the line formations that are used in the clips of the first three games that are highlighted in this 1967 film of African American girls at play:

Pizza Pizza Daddy-O

Uploaded by folkstreamer on Aug 3, 2006

A 1967 film by Bob Eberlein and Bess Lomax Hawes that looks at continuity and change in girls' playground games at a Los Angeles school
Among the traditional African American singing games that I recall learning in my childhood in New Jersey in the 1950s was a game called "Zoodio" (also given as "Zudio". Here's a 2009 video of an African American family gathering in which various age groups sing & play that game:


Uploaded by JustTheFam on Aug 2, 2009
This description of basically the same game called "Zodiac" played by "Washington D. C. schoolgirls" is given in the notes to the record Old Mother Hippletoe: Rural and Urban Children's Songs (New World Records, 1978:
"Zodiac" is generally played in two lines. It ends with the children "walking down th alley" by ones or in couples between the lines."
-end of quote-

That description conforms with what is shown in both the 1967 children's play video and the 2009 family gathering video. In each of these descriptions the participants stand in what is called a "longways set".

Set: The overall arrangement of couples for a given dance, such as a big circle, square formation, longways, etc.

Longways Set: Two lines, usually made up of partners facing each other in the opposite line. Used for contras and reels.

"The longways set in which the men form a line facing the women, who form a second line is the most common formation of country dancing."

In the 1967 children's play video the girls aren't shown "walking down the alley" (the space formed between the two lines".)* However, that is a part of some Black game songs. In the family gathering video, one or two people at a time are shown dancing down the middle of the lines in Soul Train-like ways. It isn't far fetched to think that an African American man like Don Cornelius would have observed and even participated as a child, teenager, or adult in similar game activities and would have remembered those activities when he was conceptualizing the Soul Train music & dance television show.

*The word "alley" in these children's singing games may have been a folk etymology form of the word "isle"

But what gets deep is when we explore where Black children got the idea for that longways game formation. A lot of children's game songs and rhymes are lifted from songs that the entire family sang and danced. And I believe that the original source of the formation of the "Zudio" game song and the other African American game songs such as those shown in the above posted video came from the once very popular longways set that was called "Sir Roger Coverly" in England and the Virginia Reel in the United States.

"The Virginia Reel, named after the state of Virginia, is an American dance in contra formation. The dance was first published in England in 1695 in John Playford's "English Dancing Master" by the name "Sir Roger De Coverly." It was danced by New World colonists. Perhaps because movie directors have used the Virginia Reel in many films portraying early American life, it has often been thought of in Europe as "THE" American folk dance. A similar Greek Pontic dance / game is called Miteritsa, whose origins, however, are thought to be Russian...

Sir Roger is cool because it is mentioned in "A Christmas Carol" by Dickens in the Fezziwigs warehouse scene. The 1936 Alistair Simms version on film actually includes the correct dance."

The dance may be done to a live caller, a recorded caller, or according to the dancers' memories to strictly instrumental music. The Virginia Reel is a "living" dance, and as such, has developed several variations."
In the United States, simply put, "contra formation" is another way of saying the longways set. Here's a video of the Virginia Reel:

Virginia Reel

Uploaded by jschultz78 on Apr 12, 2008

Leo and Krista as lead couple in the Virginia Reel
The Atlanta Bazaar scene in the movie Gone With The Wind includes the Virginia Reel dance. What most interests me about that scene is that the music was played by Black men:

For those interested in the significant African American contribution to contra music, I highly recommend watching "The new Contra commercial - A short history of Contra - Part 2 of 7". Thank goodness that video was honest in its telling of the history of contra music. All too often articles about that music's Appalachian roots fail to mention the contribution of Black folks. And all too often readers forget that Black people lived and made music in Appalachia and Black people still live and make music in Appalachia today.

That said, I'm not sure if Don Cornelius was hip to the Virginia Reel or contra music. But he certainly should go down in history as the person who used a revised form of the Virginia Reel to show the world how Black people dance.
This concludes Part 1 of this two part post on the Soul Train line. Click for Part 2 "Soul Train Line Formation - Video Examples.

For more information on the Virginia Reel, click

For the words to "Here We Go Zoodio" and other African American game songs and movement rhymes, click "Five Traditional African American Game Songs" and Cocojams Children's Game Songs And Movement Rhymes.

UPDATE: 2/9/2012
I've received several inquiries as to whether I've found any videos of traditional African dancing that has a Soul Train line formation - that is, with dancers in two parallel lines facing each other with one or two dancers moving down the middle. My answer is that I haven't yet come across any such videos or information about that type of traditional dance formation in Africa. However, toward the end of the video from Botswana which is posted below, the dancers form two horizontal lines facing each other.

Even if this video has nothing whatsoever to do with the Soul Train line, I think it's worthy of increased viewers.

Traditional Dance Troupe, Tlokweng Botswana

Uploaded by kimmy28bots on Jul 23, 2011

A team of young local dancers entertain the crowd with an exciting piece of traditional setswana dance during a wedding inTlokweng..Enjoy the scincillating performance!

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Because some people appear to have misunderstood what I wrote about how Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius may have come up with the idea for the Soul Train line, to be clear, I believe that Don Cornelius came up with the Soul Train line idea to showcase dancers because of his memory of late 1950s/early 1960s line dances such the Madison and the Stroll. Those dances used the same formation as African American singing games such as "Zudio" with its verse "here comes Sally Sally Sally/walkin down the alley, alley, alley/all day long".

    The FORMATION and not the steps of those line games or the words to that singing game are partly based on the Virginia Reel, a longways set (contra dance/square dance) which I rather doubt Don Cornelius ever danced.