Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Various Late 19th Century & Early 20th Century African American Bird Dances

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about various late 19th century & early 20th century African American bird dances. The dances described in this post are "The Buzzard Lope", [Cutting] The Pigeon Wing, the "Buck & Wing", and "The Eagle Rock".

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

(The information about these dances are posted in what I believe is their relative chronological order with the oldest dances given first.)

"The Buzzard Lope was similar to the more modern Eagle Rock Dance and was very popular in the South and most likely related to the W. African Buzzard dance. Sunbury Georgia was the first discovery of this dance but may not have originated there.

The Buzzard Lope used outstretched arms like a bird and consisted of a shuffle step and a little buzzard like hop. The dance is said to be similar to the West African Buzzard Dance. It's [sic] original form is representing a Turkey Buzzard getting ready to eat a dead Mule (some report a Cow). Many people in the sidelines watching the dance would do a 'Patting', or make a rhythm by slapping (patting) their thighs, etc. while someone would call out the cues...

The Eagle Rock replaced the Buzzard Lope in popularity as the buzzard lope was considered to risque as well as [too connected to] Plantation life by city folk."
[This site gives 1890 as the first documented date for "The Buzzard Lope"].

Here's a video of a depiction of "The Buzzard Lope":

Throw Me Anywhere Lord

Uploaded by mediageneration on Dec 12, 2009

Georgia Sea Island Singers from the DVD- The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes- available from

"The dance is called the Buzzard Lope, and John Davis is the buzzard circling the carrion and picking it up at the end of the song".
-mediageneration; 20104
The producer of this video indicated that the man dancing said that if he had worn his jacket, you could have seen the arm flapping movements better.

Click for the lyrics to the song "Throw Me Anywhere Lord" and an explanation of the song's meaning.

From Tap roots: The Early History Of Tap Dancing
by Mark Knowles (McFarland & Company Jefferson, North Carolina May 2002)
Page 44
"Old style buck dancing consisted mainly of stamps and chugs, sometimes embellished with toe bounces. The origins of buck dancing are unclear, but sources indicate that it has many elements in common with the Cherokee stomp dance. There is conjecture that it is also related to the ceremonial dances in which Indians braves would put on the antlers and skin of a male deer.

Most authorities believe that the buck dance was the forerunner of the time-step. The connection with the term “wing” as in “buck and wing” generally suggest that wild footwork was accompanied by a flapping of the arms, and that the steps were syncopated. At the turn of the 19th century buck and wing was used as a sort of catch-all phrase for many forms of percussive dance.

One of the most popular buck dances among African American slaves was the pigeon wing (also called the chicken wing), When performing the pigeon wing, dancers strutted like a bird and scrapped their feet, while their arms bent at the sides, were flapped like wings. When interviewed for the Virginia’s Writers Project, ex-slave Fannie Berry described the pigeon wing thus:
"Dere was cuttin’ de pigeon wings-dat was flippin’ you arms an legs roun’ an’ holdin ya neck stiff like a bird do.”

...the pigeon wing imitated the courting of birds. The movements, scrapping the feet and fluttering the arms had been part of the juba and survived on their own to be one of the most popular steps among African Americans. Early minstrels used the dance often and expanded it with more elaborate foot shaking."
There are a number of references to the "buck & wing" and "[cutting] the pigeon's wing in folk songs. In his 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes Thomas W. Talley writes that 'cuttin the Pigeon's wing' and 'skinnin' the cat' in the song "Juba" refer to dance steps. [end of quote].

Too often these words are taken literally.

Here's a quote about cutting the pigeon's wing & the buck and wing dances from Lynne Fauley Emery's 1989 book Black Dance: From 1619 to Today(page 90):
"The Pigeon Wing appears to have been performed over a large geographical area. References 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. '...jus' a reg'lar old breakdown dance. Some was dancin' Swing de Corner, and some in de middle de floor cuttin' de chicken wing.' ...

The Pigeon Wing and the Buck dance appear as authentic dances of the Negro on the plantation, much before they were picked up for the minstrel shows and billed as the "Buck and Wing"."

"The Eagle rock is basically a dance movement, extending their arms in the “eagle wing”.... The head tilts back while the body sways back and forth...

The Eagle rock originally had a hop to it but as it spread north and south it was discarded in favor of a shuffle. The Eagle rock started to wane in popularity in the 1920s."
This site also provides several theories about the source of the dance name "The Eagle Rock". However, I'm not convinced about the credibility of those theories.
This site provides the date of the 1900s for the first documentation of this dance.

An additional comment about "The Eagle Rock" is included in the section above on "The Buzzard Lope".

Here are links to other pancocojams posts in this series: "African Roots Of African American Arm Flapping Dances"


** "Rufus Thomas & Crowd Control At Wattstax (The Funky Chicken Dance)"

Thanks to the creators of these dances, to those whose comments are quoted in this post, and those who are showcased in these featured videos. Thanks also to the uploaders of these videos.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

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