Article written by dance company member Lizzy Jinkins
The music swells, building speed, the tempo permeates the air, filling hearts and lungs with every note. An energy ripples through the people as they are dancing vigorously in unison to the lively beat. It’s 1920, the newest dance craze is sweeping the nation and boy is it hotsy-totsy! This dance will be known to this day as Black Bottom.
Born in New Orleans during the great Jazz Era of the 1920’s, Black Bottom was originally signified by dancing solo or coupled with “exubertant moves” and “sinous movement of the hips and rock steps”. Many forms of dance that we enjoy to this day, such as the Lindy Hop and hip-hop, were created and cultivated by Black Americans. Black performer Edith Wilson and notable Black choreographers Billy Pierce and Buddy Bradley were credited with putting Black Bottom on the map.
I wouldn’t be surprised if famous performers, such as the incomparable Josephine Baker, danced the Black Bottom, too. It was so popular that by the mid 1920’s it eclipsed the Charleston in popularity. At one point, it is said that the dance began to resemble the Charleston in some ways. Think of it as the OG dance mashup.
Over the years, many jazz musicians would do their own take on Black Bottom. One such renown performer is the provocative pioneer of the blues, Ma Rainey. You may have recently seen the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom staring Viola Davis. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it is a prime example of her lasting legacy on American music and culture.
Ma Rainey sang about the Black Bottom dance with lyrics that were of a more literal nature, and it went like this:
Want to see the dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Want to see the dance you call your big black bottom
That puts you in a trance
All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Wait, what in heck is a Black Bottom?
What exactly is a Black Bottom, you ask? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary Black Bottom is, “a low-lying section of a southern town occupied primarily by black people”] : an American dance popular from 1926 to 1928 with sinuous movements of the hips and rocking steps.
An example of a Black Bottom neighborhood thrives today in Detroit, MI. In the 1950’s and 60’s it was renamed to Layfayette Park, but the historical significance is so important that the Detroit Historical Society preserves and celebrates it to this day.
Sister Kate’s Black Bottom
Sister Kate Dance Company has our own version of Black Bottom which the entire team knows from top to bottom (pun intended) as a stock routine. A stock routine is a dance number that the entire team must know so that at a moment’s notice, we can polish it up to be gig ready.
In our version of Black Bottom we dance to Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders by Buddy DeSylva, Ray Henderson, Lew Brownas as a chorus girl ensemble. There are line changes, a circular, moving kick line, and a fancy floor routine where we show off our legs and some serious core control (you’re welcome, world). What differentiates this from the original versions of the routine is that we dance as a group, not solo or coupled. Don’t believe me! – check out our Black Bottom performance on YouTube.
Black Bottom, Beignets, and Brew
On a personal note, Black Bottom has a very special place in my heart. It started five years ago when I saw Sister Kate perform at a Seattle swing event and I was absolutely hooked. I had to be in this dance company! When and where could I audition?! I was thrilled to learn that auditions were only 2 months away, so I immediately signed up and started learning the routine selected for auditions. I bet you one glass of giggle water that you will never guess what we auditioned to…
Ok, ok, obviously it was Black Bottom!
As the weeks went by my fever grew, I drilled moves like the *bees knees and the shorty George. It felt incredible making these new-to-me shapes with my body and I wanted to learn more. I practiced in my work cubicle, in my head while driving home, in the ladies room…. you get the picture. I was READY to audition.
Suffice it to say, I worked hard and made the team!
As the years went by, my love for the routine has grown. I performed it a few times with the team, and once at a beignet shop in New Orleans while I was awaiting my beignet and brew (felt kinda fitting since this dance was born in New Orleans in the 1920’s!). There was a gentleman playing hot jazz on the keyboard in the shop, I asked him if he knew Black Bottom. He looked pleasantly surprised by this youngish woman asking, smiled and said, “Oh, yes ma’am!” Picture evidence is below, I’m still quite proud of the standing ovation I got from the family to the right.
Like what you are reading? Have you seen us perform at an event and have the same feelings I did? Well, I’m happy to shamelessly plug, er, I mean announce that we have auditions coming up on June 5th as well as our upcoming 2022 bootcamps. Please click here to visit our website for the details: Sister Kate Dance Company. We hope to see you there!
*Bees Knees & Shorty George. To learn more about the vernacular Jazz Alphabet, please see this video taught by legendary dancer Chester Whitmore.