One woman’s quest to keep a uniquely American song tradition alive through dance
By Steve Sucato
In a small, one-room dance studio in the Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, Edna Duffy was rehearsing a handful of intergenerational female dancers for a Christmas show. The performance, given last December, was part of the Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble’s (abbreviated DuffyLit) 25th-anniversary season. This is not your typical liturgical dance group. Duffy’s passion, and the heart of her performing career and her studio, is preserving the legacy of the authentic American Negro spiritual.
“People say jazz was the first American music—not true,” says the petite, middle-aged Duffy. “The spiritual is the foundation for jazz, the blues, and gospel. We could not have had those art forms if we didn’t have the spiritual.”
Spirituals, sometimes referred to as plantation, slave, or sorrow songs, originated with slaves brought to the United States from the west coast of Africa. While in bondage slaves were forbidden to talk in their native tongues, dance, or make and play musical instruments like those they had used in Africa. They were, however, allowed to sing. Through song they communicated the hardships of slavery and expressed feelings of grief, hope, joy, and faith. “These songs were composed by people at work in the fields or in the kitchen,” says Duffy. “Slaves could not read, so information was passed down in song.”
Some scholars believe that the songs contained hidden messages about escaping from bondage. For example, “Wade in the Water,” one song in perhaps the most visible marriage of the spiritual and dance, Alvin Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations, includes these lyrics: “If you get there before I do / God’s gonna trouble the water. / Tell all of my friends I’m coming too. / God’s gonna trouble the water.”
Spirituals have a rich post-slavery history thanks to the music of composers like Harry T. Burleigh, Charles Tindley, and the “Dean of African American choral composers,” William Levi Dawson. “These are songs I grew up with in church with my father in Augusta, Arkansas,” says Duffy. “He was a great singer, and the rhythms and harmonies of those songs stuck in my mind.”
While Duffy’s father helped foster her lifelong interest in the spiritual, he did the opposite for any interest she might have had in dance as a child. He considered dancing a sin and forbade it in their household. It wasn’t until she attended college that Duffy developed an interest in dance.
Duffy attended a number of universities throughout her career, including the University of Arkansas, Hampton University, and Kent State University, where she earned graduate and postgraduate degrees in education as well as studying music and dance. She also received postgraduate vocal coaching and vocal technique training at The Cleveland Institute of Music and furthered her study of dance with trips to Europe and Africa to study modern and indigenous dance.
During her early college years Duffy began to research the Negro spiritual and its impact on American music. She also began researching ways to pair dance movement with the songs. “No one was really performing authentic Negro spirituals with dance,” says Duffy. “They were just singing the songs concert style.”
To develop her own choreography set to spirituals, Duffy watched old films depicting slave life and the way the slaves moved in their everyday labors. She also looked at the slave songs themselves and their descriptions of hardship and labor. “Dance is really everyday movement [that’s been] stylized,” she says. To those movements she added elements of modern, jazz, and African dance.
To develop her own choreography set to spirituals, Duffy watched old films depicting slave life and the way the slaves moved in their everyday labors.
In 1984 Duffy formed a quartet of singers; the group’s sole dancer, she also sang. The quartet’s marriage of spirituals and dance became the basis for DuffyLit, whose mission is to provide a creative vehicle through which artists can explore the implications of black music and dance on African American history and American history overall.
For its first decade DuffyLit existed as a performance ensemble of singers, dancers, and musicians that performed in theaters, churches, schools, and universities. After getting married and moving to Cleveland, Duffy started the DuffyLit music/dance studio in 1994, as an adjunct of the performance ensemble. The studio offers classes in piano, literature, African American culture, and language arts, along with ballet, modern dance, and vocal music.
“Having been an academic teacher, I don’t think dance can exist without the background story of how it came about,” says Duffy. “When I teach about the American Negro spiritual, I teach what it is and how it fits into the history of this country.”
In teaching and choreographing dance based on the spiritual, Duffy says she uses elements of black discourse as defined in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America by Geneva Smitherman. One of the main elements is a process developed in order to pass spirituals down from generation to generation. Called “MPP,” it involves three key elements:
- Memorization: Since the written word was not available, everything was learned by rote. Lines and cadences were repeated until everyone learned them.
- Practice: After the lyrics were learned they were practiced, sung over and over by small groups and then by the community as a whole.
- Perform: When work was done and everyone gathered together, the songs were performed as a way of uniting the community.
“These are life skills to be used in school and later in life,” says Duffy. “Throughout our lives we are memorizing, practicing, and performing.”
Duffy places no age restrictions on her students and performers. “Everybody dances in Africa no matter what their age is—not like in America, where it is discouraged after you’re in your 30s,” she says. “If you can walk, you can dance.” In working with her student dancers, she reveals a patient demeanor that belies the inner fervor she releases in her choreography, movement aimed at exalting the spiritual music that fills the studio. Joining in the dancing, she demonstrates the rhythm and attack she wants to see in her choreography.
In addition to the Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble, the studio has spawned several other performing groups, including a children’s choir, an adult singers’ ensemble, and adult and teen dance ensembles.
Adding to its local concerts, lecture-demonstrations, and television appearances, DuffyLit performs at schools, universities, churches, and theaters in the Cleveland area and throughout the United States. The group has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center as well as on tours in Europe and Africa and at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Incorporated into all of the Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble and the DuffyLit music/dance studio’s programs is a sense of community and social values that can be attributed to Duffy’s relationship with the church. Those values can be seen at the studio and at Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble and the DuffyLit music/dance studio’s themed programs, not only in their approach to celebrating the spiritual but in celebrating the participants. In one program Duffy had her young dancers tell of their accomplishments at the studio and give personal thanks to their families for their sacrifices in making it possible for them to dance.
Whether through outreach programs or performances, DuffyLit and its music/dance studio are unique in the liturgical world, helping to keep alive the legacy of the authentic American Negro spiritual.
“I want people to feel and see the beauty of these songs,” says Duffy. “The music and the movement may have been born from hardship, but what came out of it is tremendous and unparalleled.”
To learn more about spirituals, Edna Duffy suggests these books:
The Books of the American Negro Spirituals (Da Capo Press) by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson
The Story of the Spirituals (Alfred Publishing) by Edward Boatner
The Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh (Alfred Publishing) by Harry T. Burleigh
The Music of Black Americans: A History (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) by Eileen Southern
Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Wayne State University Press) by Geneva Smitherman
American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular (Dover Publications) by John Work
The Oxford Book of Spirituals (Oxford University Press), edited by Moses Hogan