Reviving Culture Through Ring Shout

Tamara Williams

The Ring Shout.  What is it? It is an African American spiritual tradition many regarded as long lost and forgotten, but that manifests today in the black Baptist Church, and in a spirit that has been carried along through Methodist and other Protestant churches and praise houses—all of these bear the history evolved from the very first Ring Shouts. The ancestors brought to the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade used dance and music as a coping mechanism:  the original Ring Shouts were a mix of rich cultures, traditions, songs, and dances from various communities, a mix designed to create a new community within the violent New World. In Cuba, Trinidad, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Jamaica, these traditions are closely identified with the Orishas (divine spirits of nature). I was curious to understand why the Ring Shout culture has not been preserved in the United States in the same way that it has been across other parts of the African diaspora, where the same cultural and ethnic groups were displaced during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Investigating what we call the tradition that was practiced in the United States by our enslaved ancestors, I learned we called it a Ring Shout. I learned that over the years and through the forced indoctrination of Christianity the Ring Shout tradition has drastically morphed and changed.

Why is Ring Shout significant?  It holds the memories of those who came before us.  I am interested in understanding and preserving the songs and dances that my great, great grandmother would sing, move to. It's the shuffle of feet, singing of arms, shoulders pulsing, that I see in my grandmothers and mothers today.  Ring Shout is blood memory.  It simultaneously finds itself in the children of our mothers today.  The spirit of Ring Shout is not only in the gospel churches of the United States’ south, but the same energy and culture can be found in the Shouting communities of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and more.  The memory holds thick.

I grew up a young girl in the Bible Belt of the United States attending church with my mother and grandmother. My grandmother's church was an old white building with wood floors and benches in the back woods of South Carolina. I recall every Sunday going and hearing the women’s feet patting on the wooden floor to the old hymns. As an adolescent, I began to study spiritual dances of the African diaspora, starting with dances of the Orichas. Later, I travelled to Brazil, Trinidad, Jamaica and Nigeria to continue studying these spiritual dances, or movement prayers as most practitioners would consider them. In reflecting on my own culture as an African American woman, I started to question why the spiritual dance forms of the enslaved people in the United States were not preserved in the same way as they have been in other areas of the Americas, as they have been throughout the Caribbean, in Cuba, Brazil and Haiti.

When I traveled to Trinidad, I realized how similar the movement vocabulary and patterns were to the “Holy Ghost” dancing that I observed as a young girl in my grandmother's church. The Shouting that occurs in Trinidad is closely aligned to the Yoruba Orisa (divine spirits) lineages and also has influences of Christianity. This was my “Aha!” moment in finding the link. I knew that the Ring Shout existed in the US and there are some remnants of the practice either as performances or educational programming in Georgia and South Carolina. I decided to embark on my journey to investigate and understand the implication of Ring Shout, my end goal being to reconstruct or even re-imagine Ring Shout as it was practiced in its earliest form during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My intention was also to seek out songs that were primarily used as messages or code that were utilized later in Ring Shout. I remember being in church as girl and hearing the songs that the elders would sing. I never asked, but always wondered, why aren’t any of these songs about Jesus Christ or God? There are a few songs that come to mind:

Song #1: 
Call: Sit down servant
Response:  Sit down 

Call: Why don’t you sit down servant
Response: Sit down

Call: You need to sit down servant
Response: Sit down, sit down n’ rest a lil’ while

Song #2 (Fare- Ye Well)

Call: This may be the last time we get together
Response: Fare- ye well, this may be my last time 

Call: This may be the last time we sing together
Response: Fare- ye well, this may be my last time

Call: This may be the last time we praise together
Response: Fare- ye well, this may be my last time

Call: This may be the last time we dance together
Response: Fare- ye well, this may be my last time


Ring Shout is the earliest form of resistance that African Americans embraced in the United States. It is an African diaspora dance form, meaning that it is a dance and cultural form that was developed away from the continent of Africa, but created by the descendants of African people, with significant African influences. The African influences include polyrhythms, syncopation, movement aesthetics, songs, and artistic cultural practices. The Ring Shout is an amalgamation of traditions from the Yoruba, Akan, Bantu (Congo), Angola, Ewe and Fon people of West Africa and Central Africa. The Ring Shout’s resistance was applied to the inflictions of the state. The Ring Shout was practiced in the back woods, barns or cabins on the plantations, or in the slave quarters in urban areas, by the enslaved people. The tradition was practiced in the late evening/night hours to maintain its secrecy. In an era when the enslaved people received no time to properly mourn and/or bury the deceased, the Ring Shouts were performed as a ritual to honor the ancestors. The Ring Shout provided the suffering enslaved people unification and cultural fortification.

The South Carolina Stono Rebellion of 1739 gave colonizers in the United States much strife and worry. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 made the U.S. plantation owners more fearful of another rebellion, one that might be as successful as that that occurred in Haiti. The Haitians heavily relied on their religion of Vodou and the Loas as their form of worship and fortification to fight through the revolution. The literal movements from the spiritual dances from this religious practice were ammunition against the French colonists. For the Haitian practitioners, the movements not only served as a spiritual practice but a means of communication, using the body as a conduit of information from the deities. The U.S. colonists and plantation owners made note of these religious practices, and although they were not banned immediately, later on drums became illegal to use and English was established as the only language that could be spoken.  The Ring Shout was frowned upon by slave owners and their watchmen because it provided a means to preserve culture through language (songs), religious beliefs, community care—and to foment rebellion. Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald states that,

The Ring Shout frequently puzzled whites who viewed it with suspicion, disgust, fear and misinterpretation. After the Second Great Awakening gained momentum, the Protestants in the low country prohibited dancing and the use of drums. The drum was eliminated, and the wooden stick and plank was added by the enslaved people. “The walking stick became significant after 1739, the year of the Stono Rebellion. The relative success of this slave revolt left slave owners weary which resulted in passing of legislation outlawing the drum, horns, bells, etc.1

Benches were situated in places of worship to regulate the dancing meditation associated with African Spirituality.

Practitioners of the Ring Shout sing and move around in a counterclockwise circle with movement gestures relating to the songs and rhythms present. The circle represents life energy and its infinite cycle, which may change in quality but is never broken. The counterclockwise direction in Ring Shout tradition honors the ancestors, since this direction specifically connects beings to the ancestral realm. This may be viewed by some as a way of reversing or traversing time in order to unite with spirits. This type of connectivity to divine spirits is rarely found within the linearity of western spiritual practices.

The Ring Shout adapted to fit the strict the regulations in place while continuing to honor family and community. The movement changed, as the body posture became more upright. The Ring Shout songs changed as English became the enforced language. In the 1840s, white missionaries found that the Ring Shout was too African. Charles Colcock Jones, a missionary, heard the songs and started enforcing the replacement of Ring Shout songs with hymns of white Protestants. The songs changed from the West African Oriki (or praise songs) to Christian spirituals. The enslaved people utilized this change as a form of empowerment and began to sing symbolic hymns that informed about freedom.  For example, the song, “Low down the chariot” spoke about the chariot coming to take the runaways to freedom. 

Call: Low down de chariot,
Response: n’ let me ride

Call: Low down de chariot,
Response: n’ let me ride

Call: Swing low de chariot,
Response: n’ let me ride

Everyone: Low down de chariot, n; let me ride

However, all aspects of the Ring Shout did not disappear: polyrhythms from clapping and boots shuffling on the ground upheld the connection to West African syncopated rhythms. Percussive rhythms played on the body known as “juba” and “the handbone” became significant parts of the Ring Shouts in adaptation.

There was a push by slave owners and missionaries to eradicate all aspects of African cultural traditions and advance the assimilation of the enslaved into white culture. This eradication was strategically deployed further through Jim Crow laws. Ring Shout veneration and devotion changed from ancestor worship to honoring the Judeo-Christian God and the spiritual possession changed from the ancestors to the Holy Spirit. Before this change occurred, Dr. Hazzard-Donald explains that,

the dance movements in the sacred circle were initially more vigorous and elaborate, retaining much of the African ceremonial character. Spirit possession was true to its name as a particular divinity or spirit spoke through a possesee in the language of dance. In this instance, the possessing spirit gave council and advice to individuals and the community.2

Continuing to practice the Ring Shout under these conditions defied the laws established to control and oppress the enslaved communities.

In its earliest practice, the Ring Shout served as a safe space for people of different West African ethnic groups to convene and communicate with each other using dance, music and song. The Ring Shout was a form that helped cultivate community: many of the enslaved populations during the late 1600s and 1700s spoke different languages as they were coming from different coastal regions of West and Central Africa. The Ring Shout served as the vehicle for communication among all groups.  After the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade ended in the US in 1807, the Ring Shout continued to serve as a means for community building, notably as Praise Houses were being formed. Praise Houses were built for worship during the 1800s for enslaved and freed people. An overseer was present, and an evangelist would preach specific verses from the Bible to the enslaved people. There were enslaved men appointed as the lookout to make sure everyone adhered to the strict rules. Many slave owners did not live on the plantations, so there were assigned people to make sure no one practiced African culture including language, songs, dances, music and religion; the culture was completely stripped away. Nonetheless, the Ring Shout held the communities together and preserved aspects of the West African traditions and cultures. “As a marginalized group in American society, African Americans found Ring Shout to be an essential element in sustaining identity through historical memory and cultural practice3 ”.

Later during the 1900s, Ring Shouts would occur in each established black community. Church was held within a community once per month and people would travel from one area to another for church service Sunday. The “Shout” would occur at that particular church holding the services for the week.

In every form of the Ring Shout, the element of improvisation has been constant. The enslaved people and sharecroppers would integrate movements that represented their daily life chores and actions. This form of structured improvisation allowed space for liberation, trance, and transcendence through the repetition of movements. Trance is any state of awareness or consciousness, other than normal waking consciousness. During trance, a person’s physical consciousness leaves the body and mind, and is replaced by the higher consciousness and awareness of either another entity/ energy or a higher consciousness held deeply within oneself.

Our history of negative depictions of African people is responsible for today’s mis-education about traditional spiritual practices. In 1688, a well-known author and slave owner, Jean Barbot, published travel narratives featuring his account of West African dance customs. Katrina Thompson explains the description:

The slaver richly detailed a scene of music, dance and debauchery in his narrative, describing men and women ‘leaping and stamping their feet’ while continually ‘running against each other, breast to breast, knocking bellies together very indecently... and uttering some dirty mysterious words.’ The Frenchman described the participants as ‘more like devils than men’ who danced in ‘strange posture... as if they were possessed’.4

This passage exhibits an obvious misunderstanding and misinterpretation of trance; it shows that early historians and owners of enslaved people implemented negative perceptions of the movements and dances of West Africans in their religious and spiritual gatherings. The wrongful interpretations of movement as wicked spirit possession has drastically affected the worldwide view of African spiritual practices involving dance for centuries.

Colonialization shaped the dissociation of the body from spiritual practices. However, in indigenous African spiritual traditions, it is in the body that the spirits are called upon, and oftentimes within the body that the ancestral spirit, in the case of Ring Shout, manifests and takes the person into trance. Dancing conjures the powerful energy known as ase in Yoruba culture and the African Diaspora.5  Ase is life- force energy or divine energy that is present in all living things and can be created from living bodies. Trance occurs in dance providing that all movement has the potential power of ase. The spiritual dances of Ring Shout are essentially prayers that involve the body assisting in the ascension of the mind to a higher consciousness. Transcendence happens frequently so that one can become wiser in their spiritual journey. Therefore, ase as it manifests in trance may occur so that a message can be delivered, to protect a person(s), to heal, hear messages from the ancestors and complete spiritual work needed for people in the place.

Since the drums were abolished during the majority of the Ring Shout era of slavery, wooden sticks played on wooden boards acted like the drum rhythm and call.6  The drum is the heartbeat. It has its own power of ase. The drum speaks and it calls upon the spirits. The drum itself is a powerful spirit. The ancestors hear the call of the drum and respond. Movements together as a congregation are key to reaching spiritual transcendence; whether in the form of rocking, swaying, or other movements. The counterclockwise circle of Ring Shout is a characteristic of African dance ceremonies that honored the deceased. The belief carried on into the Ring Shout tradition is that “The grave is the most sacred point upon which a person can take an oath or affirm that ‘life is a shared process with the dead below the river or the sea.’ ‘Drawing or singing a point’ on the ground summons the power of God and the ancestors.7 ” This summoning of power occurs in the movement of Ring Shout; it is in the feet. The shuffling of the feet on the ground and the movement of the torso above provides direct connection with the ancestors below. The energy that is generated from the friction of shuffling feet with the earth creates the foundation to directly communicate with God. Once the energy of the circle builds, the presence of Divine Spirits and the ancestors can be felt by the practitioners in the circle. The movers burst into sudden moments of trance, which can be signified by the movements of the person affected: these may include a dropping of the knees and torso, spinning, bouncing of the knees, shoulders and other parts of the body. Such movements would occur as the circle continued around the person in trance. “Iron pots were placed in the center of the circle, turned upside down to absorb the sounds of the dancing, singing and rhythms allowing the practioners to continue their ritual in secrecy.”  “The pots also focused the ancestral energy to the center of the circle and acted as a conduit to connect with those spirits.8 ” This aspect of the “shout” was removed later in the practice. It is my speculation that the increased presence of Christianity amongst the African Americans contributed to this change.

This text investigates methods used in the preservation of Ring Shout and explores how it was and still is used as a form of resistance. I have documented my encounters, travels, developments, and creations that relate to my research of Ring Shout from the 1700s to the present.  In my analysis of reconstructing and re-envisioning Ring Shout dances, I have contemplated how creating a structure of movement serves a community of people.  Historically, dance in black culture has been a form of worship, communication, celebration, resistance and unity.  I question, what occurs when this aspect of culture is removed? What does it mean to have it replaced? What does it mean to have it reconstructed? People adapt, as a matter of survival. The people try to maintain as much of their ancestral identity as possible while simultaneously creating a new cultural identity.

To Dance the Ring Shout

For African Americans, dancing the Ring Shout has been a part of our mother and father’s being. The essence of Ring Shout is as deeply connected to us as the blood flowing through our veins. The Ring Shout is our founding voice of dignity; it is the voice of resistance and power, and the voice of our creativity. Ring Shout opens the gates to bluegrass, jazz, and hip hop. Our mothers' breath keeps us going through the songs. It has been the movement of our ancestors and the divine spirits that carry us when we can no longer carry ourselves. The Ring Shout has been our escape from reality, during the past and the present, from the lives stolen from us using knots and ropes to the lives taken to the senseless firing of a gun.

Our ancestors and elders sing, “Fare-ye well, this may be my last time”. Yes, this may be the last time that we dance together… in all of our uncertainty.  Through all of the suffering black people in the United States have survived, sustained, overcome, and maintained.  Why then, is our history so easily forgotten? Whose work is it to make sure that our rich culture, stories and contributions are not left untold? My work in reconstructing and re-imagining the Ring Shout in its earliest form, before the saturation of Christianity, seeks to uphold the rich traditions of Ring Shout and honor those that have preserved aspects of Africanistic culture through the form.

Reconnecting to Ring Shout

Through my research and reconstruction, I created a series of codified movements that I have related to Ring Shout traditions of the south. The codified movements are performed as a technique with principles, theories, sequencing and progressions that are set for pedagogical purposes. When I first started my Ring Shout project at my teaching institution, it was emotionally challenging to learn that no African American students were interested in my course. I was curious to know why none of the students that have a direct connection to the form had no interest. In asking students, I learned that many of the black students had never heard of Ring Shout, nor its significant contributions to American social dance and society. This discovery revealed why this course, reconstruction, and movement codification is vital and necessary. Our students must learn about the Ring Shout to understand the impact of African American dance and music culture in all aspects of American dance forms. The students in my course were being introduced to Ring Shout not only through research, but through movement practice as well.

Working with Students: Reconstructing the Ring Shout

On during the second week of January in 2017, my Reconstructing Ring Shout course began. I opened the brown wood door, stepping onto the marley floor and the light chatter came to a stop. As I walked further into the studio holding my attendance book, syllabus and bags, I looked at the students and smiled. My mind was speaking to me. I felt strange. I walked over towards the students and thought… “Where are all of the African American students?” Of course, I was grateful for all of the students enrolled in the course wanting to expand their knowledge. I was curious to know why there were no African American students enrolled, since this course offered a rare opportunity to learn history that is not taught as the core curriculum and may have a direct link to the practices of their ancestors; the songs, dances, rhythms, and motions that have birthed present-day African American culture. We did have one Haitian-American student, who often compared the information obtained in the course to practices of her family traditions.

The Reconstructing Ring Shout course offered the following:

Course Description

Reconstructing Ring Shout is a research-based course focused on investigation and the analysis of traditional Ring Shout movements created and preserved by the enslaved African Americans of the United States of America. During the course of the semester students will engage in research of the history, structure, traditions, culture, songs, rhythms and movements of the Ring Shout. Research investigations will occur through physical practice, as well as in the main campus Library and during field study in Charleston, South Carolina. Students are expected to work in groups, complete research papers, analyze movements via photos and videos. Students will engage and dance on film during the course of the semester. Documentation will be a vital element of this course.

At the start of the course, the class engaged in a discussion about race and how different bodies are viewed performing cultural dances. We also discussed cultural appropriation, imitation, investigation and education.  These were critical dialogues, which informed the students about respectfully investigating dances and cultural traditions while honoring the intentions, the history and people who created the forms. The students’ first writing assignment was a one-page reflection on the significance of reconstructing Ring Shout movement. The students were also to include consideration of how the reconstruction of Ring Shout dances was significant to them personally. During the course of the semester, we examined the Ring Shout as a form of resistance that honored the ancestors as it did in its earliest form during the 1700s and early 1800s before the forces influences of Christianity.

We referenced several scholarly texts in during the semester including, but not limited to “Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout” by Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery by Katrina Dyonne Thompson, and Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia by Art Rosenbaum. In addition, students analyzed movements of Ring Shout footage from the PBS documentary Free to Dance, Episode One, “What Do You Dance?”. Through our movement construction, deconstruction and physical practice, it was important for the students to perform the movements taught accurately, but also understand the nuances and idiosyncrasies within the movements that are improvised and come with cultural understanding. Students learned specific movements such as “gathering the seeds”, “picking from the earth”, “swatting”, “rocking the baby”, “catching”, and others as codified movements and were given prompts for structured improvisation of the movements.

During the spring 2017 semester, one of my research goals was to create a short dance film highlighting Ring Shout movement for dissemination in academia. The students in my Reconstructing Ring Shout course participated in this film, which was documented while studying in Charleston, SC.

Reflections from Charleston Visit

I spent the past few days in Charleston with my students. As part of my Reconstructing Ring Shout course, we visited several plantations, museums and listened to historians speak about the culture of the enslaved people and Gullah life in the low country. The highpoint of our trip was our visit to the Moving Star Hall Praise House on John’s Island. This praise house, which was established around 1917, is the only one remaining in South Carolina’s low country. The praise house was founded not only as a place of worship but as a community organization to address political, social and economic needs of the people. Today, the Moving Star Hall has preserved that purpose as a community-centered organization focusing on upholding cultural traditions. During our visit to the Moving Star Hall Praise House, Sister Jacqueline Jefferson and Pastor Kay shared the touching history of the Moving Star Hall Praise House with the students. We then learned several Ring Shout songs that the praise house still sings today as part of their tradition. To end the evening, the students were invited to dance and share the Ring Shout movements they learned during the semester. Pastor Kay and the other sisters of the house sang, clapped and patted their feet on the wooded floors providing the students with strong rhythmic patterns. One student, Sam, began to dance alone with fiery energy and the sisters became more energized. All of the students joined in and began the counter clockwise circle of the Ring Shout. Feet shuffling against the ground, bodies bent forward at the waist, sternums pulsating, arms swaying… Sister Jacqueline picked up a wooden stick and kept the rhythm going. The stick was later passed on to Pastor Kay as Sister Jacqueline jumped into the circle singing and smiling. She told us that she had studied some traditional West African dances in the past, and I noticed that she performed several of the traditional dances inside of the Ring Shout circle. She says, “We dance what our hearts guide us to”. The energy of the dance, rhythm and song were so powerful that this moment has become the most talked about aspect of our trip.  After returning back to Charlotte, we later learned that one of the sisters, Mother Johnny Mae transitioned not long after our visit. I, along with the students, was deeply saddened by this news. We were grateful for the experience we were able to share with her and all of the sisters who gave a tremendous amount of themselves during our visit. 

Additional experiences in Charleston

During our field research in Charleston, my students experienced multiple racist perspectives and misinformation disseminated at the plantations and mansions owned by descendants of the original families. For example, in justifying the daily lives of the enslaved, one mansion curator informed us that "the slaves could do whatever they wanted after their tasks". At another location the guide for the plantation tour stated that, "the slaves had a better diet than their masters".  These types of plantations and mansions continue the systematic erasure of the culture and narrative of the enslaved people from our nation’s history, while validating the inhumane conditions and treatment of the enslaved. While visiting these plantations I was able to clearly see the calculated work of erasing cultural spiritual practices through colonialism and lack of documentation for the public.

During the course of the semester, students learned life-altering facts that have informed their language in speaking about enslaved people and other people of color. The Old Slave Mart Museum was once an auction gallery for enslaved people. It was here that the students learned that a Prime Gang refers to a young group of enslaved people being sold at an auction. This information provided students with a new perspective on the significance of the word gang, especially when referencing descendants of the enslaved. The students also learned to use the term enslaved instead of slave, since slave is not an ethnicity.

Student Reflections

Students were assigned several reflection activities during the course of the semester. Two of the student reflections are shared here: 

Results of Resistance: Ring Shout Reconstruction and Documentation

By Anna Edwards:

“The Ring Shout movement started as a form of ancestor veneration that adapted to the laws of slavery, Jim Crow, and Christianity to evolve into movement that is still practiced today in select Gullah communities. The Ring Shout was used as a form of resistance among enslaved people to retain parts of their African heritage, build and strengthen community, and to resist and transcend the regulations and subjugation of their daily lives. As a form of worship, expression, and resistance the Ring Shout is a cornerstone of American history.9

Student Reflection by Sam Qumhiyeh:

“My interest in academic research also extended into the arts. I was part of a group of students that assisted Professor Tamara Williams in her project to reconstruct the lost culture of enslaved African Americans. We mainly focused on an art form known as Ring Shout, which was a ritual practice that originated within West Africa and was drastically amended over time in order to fit the restriction set by slave owners. My responsibilities included data collection through articles and photos, reconstruction of movement and codification (analysis of movement patterns that signify defining aspects of dance techniques), and a trip to Charleston, SC to investigate historic landmarks that contained remnants of the lost culture of the Gullah people. This area of research was significantly different from my previous experiences collecting data and proved to be beneficial in providing an understanding on the various fields of research outside of STEM fields. The data collected are set to appear in a documentary that is being directed by Professor Williams that highlights the unspoken history of American culture.10

Through reconstructing Ring Shout movements, I am interested in honoring the ancestors that practiced the tradition by performing that which became prohibited. The movements that I have reconstructed emphasize various aspects of African diaspora dances such as bending forward at the waist- so that the heart has a parallel relationship to the earth, the knees fully bending, the arms swinging high above the head and the legs moving in wide, open strides at times- allowing the pelvis to have a close relationship to the earth. This movement gives reverence to the body’s relationship to the earth and the ancestors, as well as the crops that were cultivated through wearying work.

The students enrolled in the Reconstructing Ring Shout course performed several movements learned during the course of the semester during our annual Traditions Concert. The dances shared were short excerpts of two to three minutes, and included codified movements developed during the course of the semester and structured improvisation. The next semester, I decided to extend the choreography of the Ring Shout performance.  I taught a Performance Practicum in which eight students enrolled to learn a Ring Shout dance to be performed in the 2017 Fall Concert. Four of the students were in enrolled in the previous Reconstructing Ring Shout course and participated in the creation process of developing a dance inspired by Ring Shout movements. During the first week of the fall semester, the students and I met to discuss their thoughts and opinions about the significance of performing Ring Shout dances and how race may or may not inform the dance. Since several of the students were of European descent, it was important to start the semester examining the history of the dance with everyone in the class. We had discussions about the Ring Shout, as a dance created by enslaved people as a form of cultural resistance and ancestral worship.  After examining the history of the Ring Shout, the sociopolitical contexts of the movements, the issues of race in America and our work within an institute of higher learning, together the students came to the conclusion that:

Within a university setting, it is even more important to educate about the value of the Ring Shout, its history and its culture with integrity… this is more vital at this time, than who is performing the work. In essence, if the Ring Shout can be shared with diverse populations and communities of people, with respect and integrity, the more impact this dance form will have on society. Students learn about the culture and the history through doing. The lost movements and songs are also revitalized through the practice of Ring Shout in academia.11

I created Re-Discovering Cycles during the fall 2017 semester. The dance highlights lost traditions of Ring Shout dances and songs that were created in the Sea Islands of the United States by enslaved African Americans. The dance draws connections between the movements of enslaved Africans in Cuba, Trinidad and the United States. The students who also traveled to Charleston shared their experiences with the new dancers. The students learned songs in Yoruba to perform during their Ring Shout sections of Re-Discovering Cycles. The dancers also learned traditional Ring Shout songs that I remember from my great grandmother’s church:

Song #1:

Call: How did it feel when you
Response: Come out the wilderness (3x)

Call: Did you feel like dancing when you
Response: Come out the wilderness (3x)

Call: Did you feel like shouting when you
Response: Come out the wilderness (3x)

The dancers finished the piece singing, “Fare- ye well, this may be my last time”. Throughout the work, the dancers created and maintained rhythms utilizing a long walking stick. In addition, they danced with boots to enhance the multilayered work of movement, rhythm and song. 

Re-Discovering Cycles was well received by the Charlotte audience. The dance continued to be performed during the spring semester at various venues including the UTC Aerospace’s Signature Event for Black History Month. Here, the dance was performed for leaders within the Charlotte community, including newly elected Mayor Vi Lyles. The students also performed at the North Carolina Dance Education Organization (NCDEO) in Charlotte; the American College Dance Association Mid-Atlantic South Conference (ACDA) in Richmond, VA; the Tuckaseegee Recreational Center in Charlotte; and at the McLeod Plantation in Charleston, SC. The performance at the McLeod Plantation is significant since students visited this plantation during the spring 2017 semester. Their experiences at this plantation had great impact since the McLeod Plantation is one of the few plantations that we visited that continues to educate the public about the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked the land. This information is not provided as a separate tour but integrated as part of the overall experience of the plantation. The plantation keeps in contact with the descendants of the enslaved people who are buried on the land and exhibit a high level of respect when speaking about the enslaved people who once lived on the plantation.


One of the goals of my Ring Shout research is to continue the dissemination of information that I have learned through my studies and experiences. I have been able to provide lectures and movement workshops focusing on Ring Shout history and movement forms at various universities and colleges. It is important to continue to debunk negative stereotypes about Ring Shout and other spiritual dances of the African diaspora that have been misinterpreted and purposefully misrepresented through colonialization. The dissemination of the Ring Shout traditions in academia and throughout communities provides platforms for open dialogue about western society’s overall treatment and attitude towards traditional spiritual practices, specifically those that utilize movement. Presenting Ring Shout dances in non-traditional performance spaces, such as recreational centers and plantations, makes this information accessible to people who generally may not attend shows in a concert dance theater due to the historical context of the proscenium stage.


Today, the Ring Shout is practiced in communities as a celebration of community and life. There are churches and organizations that I have experienced in the southeastern region of the United States that have maintained Ring Shout traditions. The McIntosh County Shouters and the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters are two organizations that have been preserving the culture.  Rashida Bumbray revitalized Ring Shout practice in the northeastern regions of the United States through her research and creation of Run Mary Run.12  

Revitalizing Ring Shout traditions educates contemporary society about the enslaved people of the United States, people whose history has been often forgotten, untold and perverted. In continuing Ring Shout traditions, the spirit of resistance endures. We uphold west and central African cultural practices that have been erased from North American society. We honor the dances that were created for the ancestors who literally built and created the New World.

1. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, PhD, "Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout," The Journal of Pan African Studies 4, no. 6,  (September 2011): 194-212.

back to text

2. Ibid. back to text

3. Ibid. back to text

4. Katrina Dyonne Thompson. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014). back to text

5. Thompson 2014; Art Rosenbaum, Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia.(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). back to text

6. Rosenbaum 1998. back to text

7. Ibid. back to text

8. Thompson 2014. back to text

9. Anna Edwards, November 2017, "Results of Resistance: Ring Shout Reconstruction and Documentation". back to text

10. Mohd Hisyam Qumhiyeh, "Reflection," interview by Tamara Williams, April 2017. back to text

11. Students of the 2017 Ring Shout Practicum, interview. back to text

12. Brian Seibert. "'Run Mary Run' Features Rashida Bumbray at SummerStage." Review July 22. Accessed March 10, 2018. back to text

Works Cited

Edwards, Anna. November 2017. "Results of Resistance: Ring Shout Reconstruction and Documentation" (Student Reflection).

Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. 2011. "Hoodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions: Rethinking the Ring Shout ." The Journal of Pan African Studies 4, no. 6 (September 2011): 194-212.

Qumhiyeh, Mohd Hisyam. April 2017. "Reflection." Interview by Tamara Williams. 2017.

Rosenbaum, Art. 1998. Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Ruggi, Steve, dir. n.d. Great Performances: Free to Dance Episode 1: "What Do You Dance?".

Seibert, Brian. 2015. "'Run Mary Run' Features Rashida Bumbray at SummerStage," Review. New York Times, July 22. Accessed March 10, 2018.

students, Re-Discovering Cycles. November 2017. "Reflections on Ring Shout and Race." Interview by Tamara Williams.

Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. 2014. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. Champaigne: University of Illinois Press.