Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Itch Dance Motions In Various African American Dances

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents information about and three* video examples of the "Itch" dance motions that has been performed in various African American non-religious dances.

*Updated on 8/22/2015 with a short video of a Nigerian dance from Ajegunle

I'm interested in finding online comments of and/or videos of other examples of "the Itch" in African American dance and in other dances throughout the world.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are featured in these videos, and all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

From "Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance" by
Marshall Winslow Stearns, ‎Jean Stearns [1968, page 27]
"A small but ubiquitous detail from another African dance has shown considerable power of survival. In Africa scratching is part of a dance to Legba, Guardian of the Crossroads who was identified with St. Peter by Negro folk in New Orleans because both are depicted carrying a bunch of keys. “Each went round and round in a circle” writes Melville and Francis Herskovitz of a Winti dance in Suriname, “arms crossed from time to time over his breast, the finger tugging at his clothes, as though scratching to relieve an itching sensation.”

This gesture became a standard routine known as the Itch in Negro dancing, accompanied by eccentric footwork. “Bull Frog Hop”, a song published in 1909 by Perry Bradford, describes the Itch as part of its routine, and the Butterbeans of the team Butterbeans and Susie used it in the teens to the tune of “Heebie Jeebies” as the climax of his vaudeville act. “I borrowed it from the great dancer named “Stringbeans” said Butterbeans.

The Itch is described by Elise Marcus as “a spasmodic placing of the hands all over the body in an agony of perfect rhythm.” It is the rhythm, of course, that makes the motions effective.

Other and later dancers adapted the Itch to suit their own purposes. Clarence “Dancing” Dotson who played the Keith circuit, combined elements of the Itch and the Quiver with singular effect to create what he announced as “Throwing A Fit”. James Barton’s “Mad Dog “ act also utilized the :Itch. By the late 1940s, at the Savoy Ballroom, the Itch was incorporated in the breakaway of the Lindy as part of the improvisation, and turned up again at the Palladium Ballroom in the fifties and sixties as an improvised addition to the Mambo. Indeed, the gesture has a universality that could lead to its appearance-with or without syncopated rhythms-almost anywhere."

From "Free To Dance": About The Film by Katrina Hazzard Donald
"African-American dance really early on is organized around a narrative, around the principles of the narrative. The dances were originally danced plays. When people dance in West Africa, it's organized and it has a purpose and it tells a story and it imparts principles. It imparts the norms of the society. It has a function, a high function. And that is not lost simply because we're transported a few thousand miles across the Atlantic a few hundred years into the future.

Early on, the African-American dances are danced narratives, danced plays. And of course, we see that retained right up through the 1930s and even today when African Americans organize embellishments to a dance -- for example, we'll be doing a basic dance step and then someone will throw in a hand movement or a turn, an embellishment, something to spruce up the dance, to make it more interesting, more exciting, to outdo their partner; those embellishments are drawn from the old dance narratives. Those embellishments are running commentaries on the basic dance movement itself. This is one of the principles that's used to create and organize African-American dances. We see it most clearly in the 1920s with the "Buzzard Lope," which, of course, had a caller on the side telling the story and someone patting the music and someone actually dancing out the narrative. And of course, we see some of that on the theatrical stage. When Bill T. Jones, for example, breaks into "The Itch," he is inserting that in the narrative of that dance. He is making a statement. He is pulling from the old smallpox dances of Africa in which scratching and itching was done to ward off the smallpox deity, to ward off the coming of the smallpox god.
This excerpt was reformmatted for this post. I also added italics to highlight that particular sentence.

Example #1: Charleston -- Original Al & Leon Style!!

Trickeration Uploaded on Aug 31, 2007

Al Minns & Leon James from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem

Filmed during the 50s-60s
I believe that the dancers did a form of the Itch between 1:24 - 1:46 of this video.

Example #2: The Dlow Shuffle

Bop King Dlow, Published on Dec 5, 2013

BopKing Dlow Present's the "Dlow Shuffle!" WORLD PREMIER!!!!
The "Dlow Shuffle" is a version of the contemporary Hip-Hop dance called "the Bop".

An example of "the Itch" movements occur at 1:52-1:53 of this video to the lyrics “Now touch on yo' body like you need a sweater”
Click for the complete lyrics.

UPDATE: August 22, 2015

Ajegunle on TWF

Talk with Funmi, Uploaded on Mar 22, 2010

Selected comment from that video's discussion thread:

C Larbi, 2010
"Dat must be some serious itch. lol"

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