In West and Central Africa dances done in a circular formation are widespread. The most important are performed on sacred occasions such as marriage ceremonies, at burials, and to honor the spirits of departed ancestors. Africans in Togo, West Africa, have been observed carrying the bodies of deceased persons around their homes to gather the ancestral spirits before going to the burial ceremonies. In Central Africa the BaKongo people participate in an ancestral ceremony whereby a cross inside a circle depicts four phases of human life between birth and death, similar to the phases of the sun’s daily movement from dawn to night. In these dances participants move in a counterclockwise manner accompanied by drumming, clapping, and singing. In Africa certain dances are considered forms of worship designed to summon ancestral spirits or deities into the celebrants’ midst.
As enslaved people adopted Christianity in the South Carolina and Georgia lowcountry, the foregoing rituals became a profound aspect of the Africanized Christianity they practiced. No longer accompanied by drums (which were prohibited), the singing, hand clapping, and counterclockwise movements remained part of ecstatic worship services, where the “Holy Spirit” frequently entered the celebrants. The ring shout, as the practice was known, evoked controversy because black and white religious leaders sometimes denounced it as the vestige of “paganism.” Aside from its strictly religious function, during the slave era as Africans from various ethnic groups joined together in the ring shout, it became an important mechanism through which a new common African American identity was formed. The ring shout was still practiced in the early twenty-first century, but comparatively rarely.
Parrish, Lydia. Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. New York: Creative Age, 1942.
Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.