This is a guest post comprised of notes, observations, and an email interview with Karen Abdul-Malik (Project Director) by AFC staff member, Stephen Winick, on her project, Community on the Line, as part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The project focuses on cultural documentation of urban line dancing practices and gatherings associated with African American communities. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Urban line dance is not necessarily something familiar to all our readers. Could you describe the tradition a little for us?
The R&B or alternatively known as, Soul Line Dancing Community embodies a body of expressive creative culture associated with the African American Community. It is an intangible art form that includes dance, music, language, dress, gatherings, and celebrations. In part, it was developed to create spaces for dance and socializing without the need of a partner and to dance to popular R&B music as a choreographed unit, with individualized styling. It is a vital and constantly reinvigorated artistic tradition that is shaped by values and standards through demonstration, conversation, and practice.
Soul line dancing in the tri-state area (Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware) started getting popular roughly in the 1990’s, being in dance clubs around the area. The music and/or artists used, included, but not limited to are: The Temptations; Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Stevie Wonder and Prince to name a few. Some of the basic dance steps that are still woven into current dances are the cha, cha, salsa, and derivatives of swing such as Chicago stepping and the Philly Bop. Steps and call outs have become a part of the sub-culture language within the community. Urban line dancing goes beyond the most universal dances such as those that are choreographed within popular songs like the Cha-Cha Slide, Cupid Shuffle or The Biker’s Shuffle. Thousands of dances have been created to R&B, soul, smooth jazz, gospel, house, hip hop and other genres of urban music. The favorite dances are performed throughout the nation at dance classes and events. There are dances that become classified as “classics,” “from back in the day,” and those that may fade with time. In the 21st century, the tradition continues to grow and develop at a rapid pace, through live events and instruction on social media. Due to the internet, Soul Line dancing has crossed cultures and continents.
As an award winning storyteller and folklorist, how did you get involved in line dance?
One day back in the early 2000’s I ventured from over the bridge in New Jersey to go dancing in Philly. I have loved to dance since I was a little girl, living in North Philadelphia. I remember being six years old and choreographing a dance called the “Sally Star,” that I performed at my Nani’s house. So here, I am three decades later, going out to cut the proverbial rug. That is when, I witnessed Soul Line dancing on the floor. There were such performative dancers as the Party Boys, a group of four men whose styles and synchronicity blew me away and an elder named Sylvia whose footwork and exactness struck me with awe. The rhythm and joy of the atmosphere pulled me into question: What is this? What have I been missing? Where did this come from? How do I learn the steps?
When I returned home that evening I began searching the internet for dance instructors in New Jersey. I found classes by Kenny J that were being held in Trenton. I was hooked from learning the first step to a dance called Sakeem to Plastic Dreams by JayDee, I deeply became embedded in the tri-state area community of Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware, becoming a founding member of the I am Kenny J Productions Social Club, recording and telling the story of an historical instructors’ meeting, telling stories of Line dancing at I am Kenny J Productions Social Club Annual Soul Line Dance Symposium, traveling to soul line dancing conventions, participating in competition and even choreographing a few dances. In conversations, with such line dance historians such as Aline Goodman, Gloria Kingcade and Kenny J, I repeatedly stated, “We have to document this culture. This is our story and we need to archive this rich culture in the Library of Congress.” Hence, some 20 years later, The Community Collections Project has made that possible.
What specifically do you want to document with this project?
The Community on the Line Project: The Culture of R&B Urban Line Dancing in the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware Tri-state Area is designed to develop a better understanding of the R&B/Soul Line Dance community from the perspective of its culture keepers and to initiate a new and original digitized cultural heritage collection at the American Folklife Center. The collection will also be offered to the Philadelphia Library and depositories in the other two states and used in the long-term goal of a book publication. We are documenting dance events, instructional classes and taking oral histories of featured practitioners. Within the body of the collection, you will hear the story of R&B Line Dancing in the tri-state area, it’s impact on the health and wellness of it’s practitioners and the community, the generational connections of the tradition, and the relevancy, interpretation and fluency of R&B Line Dancing as a living tradition.
What are one or two of your favorite stories or lessons you’ve learned so far?
An example of the relevancy, interpretation and fluency of the art form is the story of Chris Blues. Chris Blues is DJ, Choreographer, Instructor and event producer. Chris is the most sought after DJ throughout this community, and is requested behind the tri-state area. There was a time when the steps to the line dance had to be done exactly to the word, verse and/or beat of the song. Chris stretched the fluency of the tradition and began mixing the music. His creativity changed and enriched the tradition influencing generations, hyping the dance energy and elevating #blackjoy on the dance floor.
Witnessing the impact of line dancing on emotional, physical and mental health has been astounding. Aline Goodman, one of the most historical minds in the discipline, has been suffering with sciatica that immobilizes her at times. But let the right song come on, like Goodman’s Groove, and there is Aline with cane in hand instructing anyone nearby who may not know the steps, or leading the whole dance floor in the groove. At each event, Aline tells me stories of those who face their medical challenges through the art of line dancing, like Ms. Turner who has dementia, but joins the floor near the back and follows through on the steps to her favorite songs.
I know your goal is always to help the community. So what’s the importance of having this collection at the Library of Congress?
The importance of having this collection in the Library of Congress is to build awareness of traditional culture keepers and provide documented research for the knowledge about and the study and impact of the R&B/Soul Line dance community. The Tri-state area is a beginning touch point for the documentation, but hopefully this collection will open up pathways for other communities within the tradition to document the culture and provide archival information to their local libraries and increase the collection at the Library of Congress. This is a story that should and must be told, and the collection allows the story to be told by the heritage keepers of the R&B/Soul Line Dance Community.
In January, 2023 the Project team consisting of Aline Goodman, Kenny J, Gloria Kingcade and I will be presenting the components of the community collections project at the UC Star Awards in Baltimore (The Oscars of Line Dancing), attended by Soul Line dancers from across the country. This will help us to engage other R&B Line Dance communities in the process of documenting our culture to reinforce the telling of our own stories and to record that story in perpetuity.