Breakdown Dance

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A Breakdown Dance refers to a particular 19th century competitive dance form from the USA.

Also known as The Break-Down or The Breakdown, or named after its place of origin (e.g. Birmingham Breakdown, Cincinnati Breakdown, or Virginia Breakdown), depending on the version performed.

It is described as "an African-American Slave dance that was popular around the Reconstruction-era of the 1880-90's" on Sonny Watson's website[1], which goes on to say that "The Breakdown was later mixed with other dances such as tap, Jazz and Swing dances. The dance has its roots in the Hornpipes, jigs, Strathspeys, and reels, Hoe-downs, Clogs etc."

In her history of American tap dance, Constance Valis Hill[2] also discusses the Breakdown dance, and mentions that it was also popular with white river boat crews. For example the Virginia Breakdown was a favourite of Ohio flatboat crews.

Inevitably the form also became part of blackface and Minstrel performances in the 19th century.

Performances of breakdown dances in South Africa

1862: A version referred to as "The original Virginia Breakdown" was performed in Cape Town on 10 May in the Theatre Royal by The Christy Minstrels along with the "Great Burlesque of Uncle Snow's Music Lesson", "Ten Gymnastic Acts", negro songs, and a performance of Whitebait at Greenwich (Morton) by Sefton Parry's company.


Sonny Watson's[3]

Constance Valis Hill. 2010. Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 6[4]

F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: p. 145

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