What is BLUES?

Today I want to address a question whose answer might seem obvious, but, in my opinion, it is not… What is BLUES?

From my experience, whenever I said I am a blues dancer, the replies that I got were almost always a bunch of stereotyped comments that we could simply sum up in to “oh, slow, sad and sexy stuff, I see”. Well… honestly, that is not the definition that would come to my mind straight away, so let me tell you a bit about it here.

Before moving on however, there is something that I need to acknowledge… I am a white Italian woman, I was born and raised in a predominantly white country, whose history, culture and traditions are far from the African American experience.  It is paramount for me to honestly say that everything that you will read in this brief article comes from what I’ve studied, discussed and saw with the help of the international blues community and from what African American representatives in the community have shared about their personal experiences. Without the help and the very personal and profound conversations that I had with these wonderful humans, I would not be able to have the same understanding of blues that I have today. So whenever you approach a form of art, culture, history that is not your own, I deeply encourage you to go to the people representing it with respect and learn from them the more that you can.

Now I am ready to go into… WHAT IS BLUES?

Blues is a form of music that originates from the African American experience, with a specific identity and history and it incorporates a wide range of styles and emotions.

Blues history roots back in the 19th Century. It grew up in the Mississippi Delta, from the African American Diaspora, from the experience of slaves, ex-slaves and their descendants who sang as they toiled in the fields. During the middle to late 1800s, the Deep South was indeed home to hundreds of bluesmen who helped to shape the music.
Unfortunately, much of the original music followed these sharecroppers to their graves, but the legacy of these earliest blues pioneers can still be heard in 1920s and ’30s early recordings and it encompasses the African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.

During the years of the Great Migrations, the Delta blues made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, ultimately influencing how the music evolved. You can think of the electrified Chicago blues, the different regional blues subgenres (I will talk more about these in future blog posts), and various jazz-blues hybrids. It also gave birth to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll, so you see: blues music is already a lot of things! Its tempo varies in so many way, we cannot call it “slow stuff” only!

How about emotions? Well, I feel there is no form of music that can communicate more genuinely emotions, and I particularly like the definition of blues given by Blind Mississippi Morris who said “The blues is a feeling that most people can relate to. A feeling that hurts so bad, or  sometimes feels so good that you can’t find words to it, so you put music to it.[…] you feel it, you hear it and that’s how you know!”

Blues teaches to embrace emotions, accept one’s flaws, live the ups and the downs and, in a cathartic way, transform everything into a language that is not only made of words, it is made of music, movement, feeling and ultimately compassion.

With a deep sense of respect and humbleness, in my relationship with blues whenever I came to it, it has given me much more than just music, just feelings and just dance. I get very emotional when I talk about the blues, but to me… Blues is the healer.

Now… what is Blues Dancing?

I really like the explanation that Grey Armstrong wrote for Obsidian Tea.

“Blues dancing is a catch-all term used to describe dancing to blues music with certain foundational expectations. Some are movement-based, many are not. From these foundational values, there are many idioms, or styles, that have come out of that, that are all considered blues dances. These dances have come out of different points in time and areas of the country but are deeply tied to the music they were created for. […]As blues dancing is a more recent catch-all wording, it’s easy to divide blues dances into two general types: the type you’d do at a juke joint, and the type you’d do at a Black ballroom.”

So we can talk about Juke Joint Blues dances and Ballroom Blues dances and specifically about this, Damon Stone wrote this very clear explanation to clarify them out:

Juke Joint Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in juke joints, roadhouses, honky tonks, rent parties, basement parties, and other venues that were generally crowded, had limited floor space, of a more casual/private nature, and tended towards small combos playing rhythmically dominant music and vocalists who sang in a percussive or growling manner. These dances are frequently characterized by staccato movement, dancing on the spot or if there is traveling frequent changes of direction, sharp angles, extremely grounded movement, a low-to-the-ground posture, deliberate hip/pelvic movement, and greater independence of movement and rhythms between partners.

Ballroom Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in ballrooms and dance halls, that spacious floors, of a more formal/public nature, and tended towards big bands playing interwoven melodic lines on top of predictable shuffle or triple rhythms with the lead instruments frequently being a piano, brass, or reed instrument. These dances tend to travel more broadly around the floor, generating and manipulating momentum and are characterized by a somewhat more “upright” posture (though just as grounded as the juke joint dances), subtle hip/pelvic and counter torso movements, with footwork patterns making the baseline forms of expression.”

There is also Solo Blues Dancing, which creates a genre for itself and in the words of Damon Stone, “it includes any dance steps done without direct physical influence to another dancer — this includes not just a single individual dancing either socially, or in performance or competition regardless if it is improvised or choreographed, but also riffing and cutting where visual, stylistic, and rhythmic cues may be taken or shared between two or more dancers, as well as when a partnered couple relaxes or breaks the connection so there is no direct transfer of energy influencing the dance steps being done.”

What ties these different groups are some founding aesthetic principles, that create a common ground to the different dances, idioms and styles. These are:

  • Ephebism,
  • Groundedness,
  • Pulse,
  • Lag,
  • Musicality,
  • Asymmetry,
  • Integrated, polyrhythmic and polycentric movement,
  • Improvisational and conversational dancing,
  • Equal partnership,
  • Coolness

So if you have come to this point in reading… do you agree with me that blues is so much more than the stereotyped “slow, sad and sexy stuff”???

“Yes Bibi you kind of convinced me, but… Why can’t we find all these things easily explained and recorded online?”

 If you asked yourself this question, you should be aware that this is the approach used in White American and European cultures. It is not the one the African American community relies on. Historically, by law, African American slaves were denied education as slaveholders feared that this would have inspired or enabled emancipatory ambitions. So, maintaining its African roots, African American culture was and is deeply founded on oral tradition, direct experience, exploration and doing. Specifically oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. The community lead the way in the oral teaching and created the ground for direct knowledge.

I encourage you to leave your mindset and follow the way the African American community did it. We can learn a lot from this on the culture, the dance, the music and mostly in truly appreciating what we do when we call ourselves blues dancers.

Okkkey! This is it from me today, this blog post is a bit long and still it is not exhaustive nor complete, but I hope it has created a bit of curiosity for delving more into these topics.

I’ll see you very soon for more Blues Stories!


Published by Bibi

Blues dancer, insegnante e dj - Viaggiatrice compulsiva - Amante della vita, della natura e dei gatti!

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