Friday, April 10, 2015

Reflections On The History & Meanings Of African Americans Walk Arounds - From Andrew Antonio Allen In "The History Of [Chicago] Stepping Project"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on African American examples of historical and contemporary walk around (circle) movements.

Part I showcases Andrew Antonio Allen's essay about African American walk around dances and other movements including the Chicago style walk. This essay was written for the "Personal Recollections: The History Of Stepping Project. ("Chicago Stepping" is also known as "Chicago Bop" dance styles.)

I happened upon that website when I was searching for information about the Bop [dance] and I have no other information about Andrew Antonio Allen. I decided to showcase this entry because I was impressed with both the style and the content of the writing. I've not received prior permission from Mr. Allen to showcase his writing, and will remove this post if he requests that I do so.

Part II of this series features examples of religious walkaround movements - videos of religious ring shouts and other religious expressions. Click for that post.

Part III features examples of non-religious walk around movements including the cakewalk, Chicago stepping (dance), and historically Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority strolling. Click for that post.

These African American walkaround examples aren't meant to be a complete listings of such examples from that culture.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and aesthetic reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Andrew Antonio Allen for sharing his reflections and recollections with the general public. Thanks also to the for archiving and sharing personal recollections and other information about Chicago Stepping with the world.

Quoted Recollection: THE CHICAGO STYLE WALK by Andrew Antonio Allen
Personal Recollections: The History Of Stepping Project [Chicago Stepping]

Era Referenced 1962
The Chicago Style Walk
By Andrew Antonio Allen

"We walk around in a ring an suppose. But, the secret sits in the middle and knowz." - Robert Frost

"Back in the day, the Walk Dance had it's camouflage existence, as comedy walks and high kicking steps. The really passionate Cakewalk was hidden away in the privacy of Afro American houses. The intimate walk 'round reappears centuries later, in the graceful Chicago Style Walk. We stand 'round the edge of the dance floor and watch the couples circling ever so slowly, as they walk solemnly in a circle. Staring at the hypnotic look on the dancers faces, convey a mystic atmosphere. The sweeping sound of the music takes the dancers emotions away. They move alluring, as their feet are slightly lifted. Their faces shine with a solemn glowing expression for the gliding steps, as if some mystical force keeps the flowing couples in harmony to the stream of music. Men and women perform the Walk Dance with such elegance and grace its performance always commands dignity and respect.

They go in a deliberate procession as if to recreate some long lost ritual from some long lost distant past. The cool sway of their bodies becomes a musical meter with the precision of a fine tuned watch. In their passage see the beauty of dance art in it's highest form. Ladies and gentlemen phrasing their accents to the timing of a drum-beat. They flow to the music like the graceful flow of a river. The suave gentlemen move slowly foreword in solemn movement of resolve. While the ladies retreat in elegant motions of sophistication. And we ponder and wonder with surprise. And we stand there not knowing what to ask, yet asking ourselves, "What does that mean? Even those unfamiliar with the dance will have to pause and ponder for its performances command attention. We gaze into a dance ceremony that only our rhythm remembers in our soul.

Thousands of years ago, African people believed that sound created the universe and dance gave it order. These dancers walk counter-clockwise to imitate the movement and direction of the stars. Egyptian dancers walk in a circle, paused-a-moment and made signs of the zodiac with their hands. They walk dance to synchronizes their bodies in motion with the motion of the universe. In the unbroken circle the dancers feel the presence of cosmic energy. To walk dance symbolizes "the harmony of nature amongst the chaos in the stars."

The Walk Dance came to the shores of DancelandUSA as a West African Circle Dance. The Walk 'Round Dance was held as a religious ceremony. This dance took on a spiritual nature and became known as the Ringshout Dance. To dance in a circle (ring). To sing (shout). Chanting voices, clappin' hands or slappin' the body and stompin', produced the accompanying rhythms of the dance. From this dance came the treasured ol' Gospel hymns. Afro American merged with the Court of Versailles the dance became a couple's social dance. The ladies and gentlemen dress in their fineries. With all its jesters of pomp and circumstances; the highbrowed struts, the elegant curtsies and flamboyant bows as they move.

Because, Afro Americans for the prize of a cake the dance was named the Cakewalk dance. In competition, the dancers walk 'round in a promenade or march-like step for the judges and the audience. The dancers with the most complex and unusual steps won the cake. The Cakewalk Dance became the first popular dance in America. By the time it hit the minstrel stage there were a variety of Cakewalks. On the minstrel stage became the grand finale on the chittlin' circuit. Later, the Walk 'Round Dance was introduced to America in Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals. Today, the church congregations exhibit essence of the Ringshout in songs, when the choir sways side to side or the choir lines-up in a procession and march down the aisle.

As a Teenager, I remember how the music and the dance delighted and enchanted us. We travelled throughout the city, any place had a jukebox or record player was playing, to get our dance on. Yet, It never occurred to me, why? Until, one evening I showed up at all alone, at Herb Kent's Friday night dance party held at St. Phillips High School. I had searched fro my 'ace-coom-booms' (best friends) Lumpy, Jim, Boston and Boxdell and sometimes, Haywood, all that day.
They hadn't been at our usual hangouts. So, I went home and got ready for the set feeling sure I'd see them that evening. As I walked into the large gymnasium it was packed with hundreds of teenagers. The entire basketball court sized dance floor was packed. As soon as I entered, I immediately started looking for them. I creamed around the dance floor weaving through the people dancing and wallflowers standing. For a minute, I began anxiously pushing my way, through the crowd. I just had to find my road dogs. For a while, I stood in one-stop and stared into the faces of the circling dancers as they walked past. I circled the place 4 or 5 times until I was exhausted. So I looked up and saw the darkly lit balcony. So I could get a better view of the dance floor. I thought a good vantage point, above the crowd; I could not miss sighting them from up there. Alone I quietly moved into the balcony. My tired feet announced themselves when I reached that top of the balcony steps.

When I started peering over the balcony railing for Jim n' nem the gym lights suddenly went off. The room for a few seconds went totally black. When the dim lights slowly came back up Herb Kent was standing center stage in the bright spot light. He announced, "Here tonight! Donald Jenkins and the Delighters... singing their latest hit song, 'Elephant Walk'!! They came out on stage looking cool in their slick shark skin suits. As soon as the music came on hundreds of teens began walkin' slowly around the dance floor. Later, little did I know the dance, to some, would take on the name of the popular song, 'The Elephant Walk.'

The boys and girls on the dance floor had become a flowing sea of bodies riding on the flow of music. The Walk is purely a romantic dance. While the music made the couples dance smooth and dignified in style giving them a musical personality, as they travel gracefully around, it was a rhythmic tidal wave of faces that had me spellbound and stuck to that balcony railing. I stood there enchanted by a vortex of elegant movement and enchanting music below my feet. The couples in the center danced their Slow Drag Dance, moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves. Giving the circle a center of permanence. The Cool Walk Dance of sophistication and poise, took up the bulk of the circle. Those dancers mid way in the revolving disc danced in a ceremonious Cool Walk,, without lifting their feet, but slightly from the floor. Harmonious to the music, they maintained their position mid way in the circle. The beat and swaying motion gave a coolness that mesmerized me as I watched them. On the outer edge of the dance floor making the rotation faster on the outside came the Skip Walk Dance; a kind of Foxtrot that gave the rotating disc its feeling of a spinning motion. Dancing smoothly, flowing on the sound of the music. Then on the outside came the Gouster's; the guys with their pleated baggy pants, wide brim hats and 'ol man comfort shoes. The Gouster girls in their pleated skirts and suspenders, white socks and Buster Brown shoes. The Gousters came whirling the outer edge of the circle with their faster skip movements. "Quick! Quick! Slow-quick! Quick! Slow." Sometimes trotting their path, allowing the disc a spinning motion. A red spotlight reflected off of the ballroom globe that hung from the ceiling. The red light shined down onto the dancers like the spokes of a wagon wheel, appearing to lead the dancers leisurely moving them round and around the floor. Wonderful beautiful faces, "Let it flow baby!" to the music in time. I was totally awe struck. It was truly wonderful to my senses. Now, it all came together as a giant wagon wheel rotating to the hypnotic song "crazy melody, always haunting to me, Elephant Walk." Circling in time to mystical rhythms that endured a lost history in time. At that moment I said to my self; "How beautiful they are!" When the music faded and the lights came up it took a minute or two for me to snap out of the hypnotic trance the dance had induced. And our dancing has never been the same for me since. Later, I would learn some ancient ceremony had come to life before my eyes. It was so amazing to me to see a hidden splendor of Afro American culture displayed in the heart of our community. To see them in their finest moment of artistic beauty blending dance and music. Since that amazing encounter of dance for me, has become a steppers way of life."

Here's information about the term "Gousters"
"Gousters were cool and suave with an adopted style of fashion from the notorious Gangsters of the 40's and 50's, baggy suits and pleated pants, cool, calm, and collective. - Reproduced with permission DanLanProductions © From an article by: Mr. Daniel Land all rights reserved.
Additional information about "Gousters" is found on that website.

"Whether he was your lover, your good friend, or kind of like a play brother, back in those days, boys had one of two popular fashion styles, Gouster or Ivy League. An Ivy Leaguer was a collegiate wannabe, a 60’s version of J. Crew with just a touch of swagger. His style was straight-legged pants, sometimes with a belt buckle in back; a buttoned-down collar shirt; and tinted glasses.

Ivy Leaguers shopped at Brooks Brothers where they specialized in starched, buttoned-down shirts with French cuffs and cufflinks. The Ivy Leaguer would complete the look with a V-Neck, wool blend sweater thrown over the shirt to give us girls a thrill.

A Gouster’s style was dress-casual. He wore lose fitting, almost baggy clothes. His fine wool, alpaca and mohair sweater had three buttons at the neck, with a lazy, turned down collar. Pants with two pleats at the waist left a little room in the leg so that a Gouster could pimp. He usually pimped on down to Smokey Joe’s Fashion House to buy more fabulous outfits. As I said earlier, Gousters favored Jade East, while Ivy Leaguers spruced up with Aramis."
Also, click for a pancocojams post on the Five Du-Tones' 1964 record "Gouster" and additional comments about Gousters.

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