The following post is co-written with Karen Abdul-Malik, also known as Queen Nur, a 2022 recipient of the American Folklife Center Community Collections Grant, as part of the Of the People blog series featuring awardees and their diverse cultural documentation and archival projects. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities 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.
On Saturday, February 25, at Wilson’s Restaurant in Hi-Nella, New Jersey, the Community on the Line project team held their packed culminating event. Led by Community Collections Grant recipient Karen Abdul-Malik, also known as Queen Nur, the project, Community on the Line: The Culture of Urban Soul Line Dancing in the Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware Tri-State Area, has focused since March 2022 on documenting Soul Line Dance traditions. Now nearing its end, the project was “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,” as Queen Nur states.
In a previous Of the People blog post about the project, Nur describes the tradition as follows:
“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. Soul line dancing in the tri-state area started getting popular roughly in the 1990s, 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.”
She also notes that it is “a vital and constantly reinvigorated artistic tradition that is shaped by values and standards through demonstration, conversation, and practice,” a fitting description that perfectly encapsulates the project’s culminating event: a celebration of the tradition, its community, and the ways it has developed, with continual innovation in choreography and musical influences, over the years.
The celebration began with – spoiler alert! – line dancing, set to the tunes and mixes played by beloved DJ AJ Rivers and DJ Chris Blues, who is also a choreographer, instructor and event producer. Esteemed project team member, choreographer, instructor and event producer Kenny J took the mic and welcomed participants – about 150 dancers and community members from the tri-state area and beyond.
The opening dances were followed by a moderated discussion, led by Nur, with panelists, Aline Goodman, Audrey Donaldson, Aaron Witherspoon, Sylvia Kenion, Gloria Kingcade, Nichelle Underwood and Chris Blues. Participants, including audience members, shared their memories of the first times they began line dancing, humorous stories that stretched back decades, and talked about the popular venues they went to, and the community leaders who welcomed them into the fold. The discussion then turned to the importance of documenting the tradition’s history and continuity, and dancers’ stories and contributions to building this key, regional community, especially in light of other soul line dancing groups and communities across the U.S., as it is a tradition that spans the country. Indeed, it is Nur’s hope that the Community on the Line project can serve as a model for other communities to adopt, documenting their Soul Line Dance traditions, as distinctively shaped over time by community members, and in relation to the places and spaces they have developed.
Nur also asked the panelists to share a little about their interview experiences to capture the impact of the project. Audrey Donaldson responded: “I was interviewed with some line dance people who were couples. To my far left was Dee or Bud. It was a really interesting situation. I have known them for maybe about 20 years or so, but this was the first time I saw them sitting down. As a group we were talking about our common interests and learning about each other. We had known each other for so many years, but we were on the dance floor, because that is what it is about for us. I also had Lanzy and Aaron there. I really started noticing them more in the places I attended during the pandemic because we were outside dancing…We compared a lot of notes.”
Next, the audience was introduced to a sampling of the documentation that will be submitted to the American Folklife Center through a screening of a 30-minute film curated by Michael Clay of Driven by Design Creative Agency LLC (who also took the photos featured here). The short documentary brought together project interviews and images with the tradition’s historians, choreographers, instructors, creatives, and practitioners from over decades to the present day, as well as footage of dance parties and events from over the past year. A one-hour muted compilation was also played throughout the culminating event, as participants took to the floor to do what they love – soul line dancing.
After the film screening, dancing opened back up with a sassy showcase by seniors from Step 4 Step, a line dance club that traveled down from North Jersey. Following the showcase, project team member and longtime instructor Gloria Kingcade led a workshop for beginners, teaching foundational steps and common moves, such as the cha cha.
Then, dancers Jeanette Edmond, Lynnda Bussey, Lenny Nutter, Rasheed Bellamy, and Joan Langford showcased the National Philadelphia Anthem, Running Man, created in 1995 by Dave Bush (ancestor), also known as the Godfather of Line Dancing in the Philadelphia Region. More joined in, adding their own styling flavor. The dancing and fellowship continued until the celebration came to an end.
“Is the future of soul line dancing secure?” was a question that sparked strong responses back during the discussion – “it is,” audience members enthusiastically replied, thanks to younger generations of dancers who are keeping it alive, and choreographing dances to further musical genres, such as Hip Hop. Chris Blues maintains, “It’s in good hands right now. But going forward, as long as we remain inclusiveness and are accepting of innovation, then it will be preserved.”
Community on the Line is meant to capture the story of the Urban Soul Line Dance community in Philadelphia, Delaware and New Jersey area of, for, and by its practicing folk artists and through its traditions. Attendees shared that witnessing the project’s goals and content, and listening to featured artists tell their stories, elicited joy, pride, tears, laughter, deep gratitude, and an overwhelming understanding of a valued underground art form. Nur states, “Without a doubt there is a great sense of community empowerment through the telling of our own story and knowing that it will be preserved perpetually in the Library of Congress, and that there is even more to tell.”
So proud of what we done here. Thank you Queen Nur for allowing me to be part of this.
Thank you to all the dancers and instructors for agreeing to participate and sharing your passion!
This was an awesome article. It makes me proud to be a part of the Line dance family. I am even prouder to be able to assist with the organizers in any way that I can. What a blessing to be a part of history.
I was at this educational and proud affair. I am patiently waiting for the next reveal. There’s nothing wrong with meeting wonderful people. From Ledisi/ Legend
Great Article! Line dancing has changed so many lives for the better! Its amazing to me to see the health benefits transform and disappear with about 30 – 60 minutes of dancing a day! Love my Soul line dance family
Loved that this ended on a multi-generational note! So, important to sustaining traditions.