Sometimes passion and responsibility go hand in hand. That’s certainly true for Frances Moore, the leader of the Santa Barbara Ring Shout Project, which is dedicated to preserving the oldest African-American performance tradition in North America, the ring shout.
Often considered a form of dance, ring shout was once a religious ritual, first practiced by slaves in the Southern states. Written observations of ring shout first appeared in the mid-19th century, but by the early 20th century, the tradition was assumed to have died out. Fortunately, it came to light that slave descendants living in the coastal region of Georgia and South Carolina (known as the Gullah people) had maintained this important cultural practice. Currently, several well-known ring shout groups actively perform in the area.
The term “shout” refers to the movement of ring shout participants, who take short shuffling steps in a counterclockwise direction as a “sticker” or “stick man” beats the rhythm with a wooden stick. Singers stand to the side of the circle, clapping and singing in a call-and-response pattern. (The clapping and beating of time with the stick apparently once stood in for drums, which were often banned by slave owners fearful of uprisings.) Historians have traced the ring shout’s likely origin to West Africa, where burial ceremonies were often performed in ring formation, with mourners moving in a counterclockwise direction around the grave.
For Moore, participating in ring shouts harkens back to her childhood in Forest Home, Alabama, where the call-and-response songs she heard in church fascinated her. “I just remember holding still, observing every word, watching every movement of their bodies,” she recalled recently. “I did not know back then that they were doing a part of ring shout; it didn’t have a name. I just saw the people in my church clapping and stomping and singing in a call-and-response way.”
The Santa Barbara Ring Shout Project was founded by Moore and Mark Ravitz in 2007. The group is multicultural and currently has eight active members (the youngest of whom is only 4 years old). Singing songs composed by Moore, the group has performed in Santa Barbara at the Solstice Parade, the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, and the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance’s annual festival. It is the only group of its kind on the West Coast. In recognition of this fact, the Santa Barbara Ring Shout Project has been invited to participate in a giant ring shout at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum this summer. The event is expected to be the largest ring shout ever assembled. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Moore noted, adding that she hopes First Lady Michelle Obama, who has Gullah ties, will be in attendance. (The group will perform this Friday at Trinity Episcopal Church to help raise funds for the trip.)
Moore is deeply committed to carrying on the ring shout tradition and maintaining the continued existence of the Santa Barbara Ring Shout Project. She points out that “the purpose is to educate, to come together as a community. I want us to continue to educate, celebrate, and pass it along to the next generation. Ring shout transcends age, race, and gender, and the energy in the circle transcends worldly things.”
The Santa Barbara Ring Shout Project will hold a fundraising event on Friday, May 27, at Trinity Episcopal Church (1500 State St.) to help raise money for the group’s travel expenses. A ring shout performance will take place from 7-8 p.m., followed by open dancing to Motown music. For more information, call 682-8029 or email email@example.com.