Gullah, and the Circle Dance

The Old Plantation. Anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, c.1777-1794. (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, VA)

The Old Plantation. Anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, c.1777-1794. (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, VA)

I am really into circles lately, the spiral of the conch on the beach, the perfect geometry of the nautilus shell, the water in the tub, circling, before it descends below.

This fabulous rare painting, according to the painting’s original owner, Mary E. Lyles of Columbia, South Carolina, was painted by one of her forebears, probably on a plantation in South Carolina somewhere between Charleston and Orangeburg between 1777 and 1794. It shows a rare glimpse into the original culture of the slaves, the clothes, the musical instruments that we can trace to Africa. The women are playing what Sierra Leoneans easily recognize as the shegureh, a women’s instrument (rattle). Scholars think what’s portrayed here is actually a communal social dance gathering, participants forming a circle with the dancers taking turns in the center to express themselves through the medium of dance as well as to perform a solo exhibition of their dancing skills.

On the sea islands nearby, the Gullah tradition of the Ring Shout continued as a blend of traditions and was a form of praise and thanksgiving to God.

By 1710 South Carolina became the first mainland colony to have a black majority and by 1740 the black population outnumbered the whites by two to one. The African influence was obviously a big one on the English, French, and Barbadians who settled Charleston. Slaves adapted to Christianity and the planters began to eat rice and okra and watermelon. We all (even the French, in France!) say “ok”, a word derived from the Gullah word, “okeh”.

Old Charleston was always a proud city, proud certainly of her old beauty, but proud I think, too, of her individuality, her blend of cultures, of her religious tolerance. She has soul. I would like to think that we are ready, now, as Southerners, as Americans, to hold hands in a circle. We have a smart and accomplished American President who is African American. Michelle Robinson Obama’s family were slaves, from Georgetown, which north of Charleston.

Don’t you think we need a little more dancing in lives, in our everydays? Yes. The circle dance will work for me.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, beauty, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, Poetry, religion, South Carolina History
4 comments on “Gullah, and the Circle Dance
  1. I love this, and I see it all the time at weddings. People take their turn doing their own thing, dancing in the middle of the circle. Who knew it came from Africa? And okeh…that is cool. What did it mean? Dancing is such an important part of life, it’s too bad we don’t have more excuses to engage in it.

  2. Hadley, Okeh meant just that: OK. There is some discussion about it also being an Indian word, too. I am no linguist, but there was a record company called OKeh, in the 1960’s, whose recordings best typified the distinctive sound of Chicago soul. Most of the songs performed by OKeh artists came from the prolific pen of the great Curtis Mayfield, and best known Chicago artists on OKeh were Major Lance (“The Monkey Time”), Walter Jackson (“It’s All Over”), Billy Butler (“Right Track”), and the Artistics (“Get My Hands on Some Lovin’”). Speaking of music and soul music, James Jamerson, the legendary bass player for the very best of the Motown hits, was born on Edisto Island, and lived in Charleston, before heading to Detroit. That is another terrific story, for another day!

  3. Jae Jaxon says:

    The circle is truly a powerful symbol across the world. In America the reason why the American Indian and the African bonded together is due to the customs that were similar in nature. I’m sure that the tradition of the Round dance complimented the Circle dance of the black. Like the black the coming into the circle depicted worship and respect to the creator. There were more that were alike then different between the two groups. This article was very interesting.

    • Wonderful insight, Jae. The Scots, interestingly, bonded with the Indian too, because they arrived in skirts, and I am sure, for other reasons! (the Darien settlement in the Georgia Sea Islands ) I hope you will continue to contribute your perspective, which I very much respect. Thank you, sweet friend.

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Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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