There's no real consensus about where the "black bottom" started: New Orleans, Nashville, and Detroit have all laid claim to the jazz dance. Musician and dancer Perry Bradford said he invented it in the early 1900s, based on a dance affiliated with "rounders" (pimps) in Jacksonville, Florida. Some say its fundamental gestures—two-footed slides, shaking the hips, slapping the body—originated in Africa.
Wherever the dance came from, it sprang up at the Century Ballroom last Sunday night in a five-minute performance by dance group Sister Kate during the final evening of Seattle's annual Lindy Exchange.
At 10:20 p.m., the Century Ballroom was having more collective fun than any room I've been in for a long time—the 13-piece band sounded bright and sweet while dancers spun, slid, high-stepped, and froze in dramatic poses for seconds at a time before breaking back into the swing of the music. At 10:21, the bandleader asked everyone to clear the floor. By 10:22, Sister Kate had taken the room, 18 dancers performing in a combination of black bottom and Busby Berkeley: body slaps, high kicks, and costumes that looked like bathing suits. By 10:26, they were on their backs, arms undulating and legs kicking like water dancers. By 10:28, the audience—warmed up, literally and figuratively—cheered as Sister Kate quick-shuffled out of the room. It was a refreshingly brief performance; everyone seemed thoroughly delighted.
But I had to ask: Do the members of Sister Kate, at this moment of heightened discussion about race and culture, feel any awkwardness about performing a dance called "the black bottom" with a predominately white company for predominately white audiences? "We do discuss and think about it," said Casey Schneider, codirector of Sister Kate, who teaches Lindy Hop around the country. "The fine line is: Are we taking it in our own way or are we trying to pay tribute to people who've come before us? We take steps from all those influences and try to be sensitive." The hotter topic on Lindy Hop dance floors, she said, is how often men assume they should lead.
Sister Kate will perform at the Century Ballroom on Friday, August 21, at the Dance Your Pants Off! fundraiser for a longtime Ballroom employee and single mother who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.