Saturday, February 25, 2017

Information About Two Very Old (African American Originated) Dance Forms: "The Breakdown" & "The Breakaway"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides information about the 19th century & early 20th century African American "Breakdown" dances and the 1920s African American originated "Breakaway" dance moves.

This post also includes a film clip that alleges to be a performance of a "breakdown" or "pseudo-"breakdown". A film clip of an early "breakaway" dance moves is also included in this post.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to all those who are featured in these film clips and thanks to the publishers of those film clips on YouTube.
Click for a pancocojams post & comments about the meanings of the term "breakdowns" in the context of 19th century and early 20th century American music.

Excerpt #1
From Black Dance From 1619 to Today (2nd revised edition) by Lynne Fauley Emery (Princeton Book Company, 1988, originally published in 1972) [given without foot notes numbers or citations]

page 90 [quote added Feb.26. 2017]
"Pigeon wing

The pigeon wing appears to have been performed over a large geographical area. Reference were made to the Pigeon Wing from South Carolina to Texas, and from Indiana to Mississippi. Horace Overstreet of Beaumont, Texas remembered the dance by another name. Overstreet stated that on Christmas and July 4 a big dance would be held on their plantation
".... Just a reg'lar breakdown dance. Some was dancin' Swing De Corner and some in de middle de floor cuttin de chicken wing."...
Click for a longer version of this quote, and for one pancocojams post on "The Pigeon Wing, The Buck & Wing, and Buck Dancing"

page 139
"While the Breakdowns, the Cake-Walk, fiddle playing, and patting Juba were taking place on the plantations there were Afro-American dances in other places as well."
Notice the plural for the word "Breakdown", which indicates that there were different types of dances that were referred to as "Breakdowns".

pages 186, 188
"On July 1, 1848, the (Illustrated London) News stated that "The most brilliant assemblage of rank and fashion have honoured the Gardens to witness the unparalleled PERFORMANCES of JUBA, immortalised by Boz in his American Notes...

Boz's description" was, of course, that of Charles Dickens in his book, American Notes, written shortly after his visit to the United States in 1842. While Dickens did not name the young Negro dancer he saw at Five Points in New York city, his description closely resembles later observations of Juba's dancing and is therefore included here. Dickens advised his readers that the dance he saw was a regular Breakdown, which began with five or six couples moving onto the floor and
....marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer ever known.

But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail: there is new energy in the tambourine...Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and crisscut: snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourines; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs-all sorts of legs and no legs-what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar counter, and calling for something to drink...
Notice that this description indicates that the male dancer (probably the famous dancer called "Juba") was dancing with a female partner.

On page 188, the same critic writing in that London newspaper mentions the "Virginny Breakdown".

page 192, 193
"Part One in the traditional minstrel show always ended with a dance, called the Walk-Around, done by the entire cast. Sometimes this was repeated as the finale of Part Three also. Discussing the Walk=Around, Nathan said in 1943 that this dance was still well remembered-borrowed from and modelled after the dances of the present day."

The Walk-Around was mentioned usually in connection with the Breakdown or old fashioned Hoe-Down. The Walk Around was derived from the Ring-Shout and the Breakdown from the old challenge dances such as the Juba....

Charles Sherlock described the format of the Walk-Around and continued with a description of a Breakdown which sounds similar to that of the Juba.
The walk-around was always made the finale of the first part, and was usually repeated at the end of the show as a spectacle on which to drip the curtain. It was intended to be written in march-time, and to its spirited strains the whole company would circumnavigate the stage, in a dance-step that was little more than a jerky elevation of the legs below the knees, much like the "buck and wing" dances of the present day. It was as long ago as this-the walk-around being in highest state with the Bryant's Minstrels in the sixties- that the spatting of dance-time with the outspread palms on the knees was invented. To this manual accompaniment the breakdowns were often done. Cleverly executed, this tattoo will set the saltatorial nerves in motion as quickly as the catchiest tune."

Excerpt #2:
"The Breakdown
The Break-Down was an African-American Slave dance that was popular around the Reconstruction-era of the 1880-90's. There are different versions of the breakdown and variations from one era to the next such as the Birmingham and Cincinnati breakdowns. The Breakdown was later mixed with other dances such as tap, Jazz and Swing dances. The dance has its roots in the Hornpipes, jigs, Strathspeys, and reels, Hoe-downs, Clogs etc.

In the Notebook "Jig, Clog and Breakdown Made Easy" by Wm. F. Bacon he states the "Plantation breakdown" as thus:
1st Breakdown STEP: "Jump on both feet crossed, then throw right foot as high as possible, at the same time hop on the left foot, (2 motions). Repeat it, leaving the right foot up in front. Then hop on left foot, bring the right down, tap it and carry it behind. Hop on left foot, (3 motions). Then make five taps quick, commencing with the right foot, which is crossed behind the left. This is the first part of the Breakdown step, and is repeated on the other foot, reversed. Then done again same as first time. Then make a Cross and five taps quick, moving forward and commencing with the right foot.

2nd Breakdown STEP: Shuffle right foot, hop on left, carry right foot behind and tap it firm (3 motions). Then hop on right foot, lift up left high and bring it down solid, (2 motions). Repeat it. Then hop on both feet together, jump up and strike the ankles together, bringing down the left foot first, then the right solid. Tap left foot, then spring, bringing the right foot down first, then the left. Then repeat all, commencing on the other foot, and reversing everything.

3rd Breakdown STEP: Tap left foot. Tap right, carrying it high in front, hop on left foot. Tap right, carrying it behind, hop on left foot, tap right, carrying it high in front, hop on left foot (7 motions). Shuffle right, hop on left, tap right, carrying behind.

Hop on left, tap right, hop on left, tap right, hop on left, tap right. Now repeat the whole, commencing on the other foot and reversing it. Then do it again same as first time, make a cross and three very firm taps, commencing with the right foot, with the feet wide apart.

The following Breakdown steps are to be done all together directly after the third step:-- Do the cross four times, reversing it each time, then bring the toes together with heels apart (1 motion). Then turn the left toe out, and at the same time carry the right far behind and across the left foot (2d motion). Then repeat it 3 or 7 times (reversing it each time), at the option of the performer. Tap left foot, shuffle right, tap right, tap left, slide back slightly on both feet (5 motions). Then repeat it a number of times, optional with the performer. Turn around on left foot, describing a circle with the right foot. Tap right, tap left, shuffle right.

Tap right foot, tap left. Then loop on left foot, at the same time slide the right in front and across the left foot. Then repeat it, commencing with the right foot, and reversing it all through. Then retire, jumping on both feet, with cap in hand, or any way that may suggest itself" (end notebook).

Basic Step for: The "Cincinnati Breakdown" (9/1927- Dance Magazine.) ...
Feet apart, Hop up and come down with one knee bent. Come up with short jerks. It is optional as to whether one or both knees are bent on coming down. This can be mixed with other movement to lengthen the dance.

Basic Step for: The "Down East Breakdown" (Music: Clog Dance.) ... Form as for Spanish Dance, except two couples face each other up and down the room. Eight hands round, all right and left--ladies chain--all forward and back, forward again and pass onto next couples (every other couple raise their hands while the others stoop and pass through then turn around at each end of the set."

Excerpt #3

[Added Feb. 26, 2017; italics added to highlight that sentence]

"Word Origin and History for break dancing Expand
1982, but the style itself evolved late 1970s in South Bronx. The reference is to the rhythmic break in a pop-dance song (see break (n.)), which the DJs isolated and the dancers performed to. Breakdown "a riotous dance, in the style of the negroes" is recorded from 1864.

SHOWCASE VIDEO: Vintage Breakdown / Buck dance (Pickaninnys Edison 1903)

Sonny Watson Uploaded on Feb 22, 2013

an old Edison video short of three dancers doing a kinda pseudo Breakdown / Buck dance.
The term "pickaninnys" is a referent for Black children and - in the case of this YouTube video-a referent for Black people in general. In both cases, I consider that word to be offensive whether intentionally or not.

From History of Dance by Mary Caldarella on 21 December 2012 1
"The Breakaway dance originated in the mid to late 1920s in Harlem by primarily African American communities. The Breakaway was danced to jazz and developed from the Texas Tommy and the Charleston. This style of dance got its name because while dancing you literally must break away from your partner and improvise your own dance moves."
Click for a pancocojams post on the Texas Tommy.

"The Break-A-Way ... (a Swing Dance) was originally a syncopated Two-step. The dancing couple would split or "breakaway" from each other still holding hands (open position) and perform a solo impromptu of the same rhythm/beat of the music and come back together again (closed position). The Break-Away was the name of swing before being named the Lindy Hop by Shorty George in 1927. The Breakaway was a cross between the "Texas Tommy, Two-step, Apache Dance, Turkey Trot, Cakewalk and Grizzly Bear.

Prior dances, with the exception of the Apache and Texas Tommy did not have sections that you "Broke-away" from your partner (or Danced in open position), they mainly danced in closed position...

The Break-Away was only danced by African-Americans at the time. Whites were just starting to find entertainment in Harlem and were not very fond of "Race Music" (the blues), they just were not quite ready to dance those "Negro Dances" of those (unfortunate) racially segregated times. It was mainly danced to slow to medium Ragtime music and Blues. Shorty George Snowden was the "King" of the Break-A-Way in the mid 1920's.

When the Charleston became popular in the 1920's, the Breakaway and Charleston merged, as Harlem grew, it to grew. The "Break-A-Way" was now ready to be called the "Lindy Hop" but would take a Newspaper, a Dance Contest (marathon dance actually,) a man named "Shorty George" Snowden and the "Savoy Ballroom" to do so in 1927/28.The Breakaway quickly lost a lot of the Turkey Trot and Grizzly bear, however the Texas Tommy, Charleston, Cakewalk and Apache remain in the Lindy Hop to this day!. The breakaway as a dance is no longer done today however. The Landler Dance of the 1720's also used a breakaway/ freestyle basic as a variation to the dance, it was almost described as a "solo Jam", done by the man.

Spellings used are Breakaway (most common), Break-away, Break-A-Way"

SHOWCASE VIDEO: Legend Shorty George Snowden dances the Charleston & Breakaway in After Seben (1929)

JazzMAD London, Published on Jan 20, 2016

Learn to dance like this with JazzMAD, the authentic swing and jazz dance academy in North London. Sign up for workshops and courses at:

In this clip: George Snowden aka Shorty George, and his dancers from the Savoy Ballroom (Harlem, New York), dance in a faux contest to music by Chick Webb And His Orchestra, in the 1929 film "After Seben." The announcer, James Barton, also dances in an eccentric style.

George Snowden is the third leader to dance, the couple is announced as "Shorty Stumps & Liza Underdunk". No resources seem to list the real name of his partner. I'm always troubled by the way swing dance history remembers leaders and forgets followers. From my research, I believe this is Mattie Purnell, Shorty's partner during this period. There are references to George & Mattie being "the smallest pair on the floor", and Liza Underdunk certainly matches that description in this clip. Please comment if you have information otherwise!

This clip represents a transitional moment in the history of partnered jazz dancing. You can see each couple dancing the Charleston on its way in evolution to the Lindy Hop, with what we call the "Breakaway" in between (being the moment the dancers begin to break away from closed position, to Lindy Hop's signature open position). These are early "swingouts".

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