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In Anacostia, 'Ring Shouters' Break World Record

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Ring shouting, like what's seen here in Georgia in the 1930s, began during slavery as part of church services. Over the 20th century, its popularity waned, and today it's danced as a performance art.
Smithsonian Archives
Ring shouting, like what's seen here in Georgia in the 1930s, began during slavery as part of church services. Over the 20th century, its popularity waned, and today it's danced as a performance art.

The Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum recently put together the first national exhibit on Gullah culture: the descendants of African slaves who live in the low country region of South Carolina and Georgia. To mark the end of that exhibit's stay in D.C., the museum invited Gullah leaders from across the country to participate in a tradition known as a ring shout.

The ring shout is almost exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of people gathering together and dancing in a circle while singing a song.

The Geechee-Gullah Ring Shouters, a performance group based in Georgia, made the trip up to D.C. on a hot July Saturday for this event. They are hoping it'll be big -- 'Guinness Record' big.

"We're gonna set the Guiness book of world records today, and all of you gonna play a part in it," says Griffin Lotson, the Geechee Gullah manager, standing at the front of the group.

They're trying to execute the world's largest ring shout.

Lotson, known to most as 'the ring shout man,' says the tradition goes back to when African slaves gathered for their own church services.

"The church services could be way off away from the slave masters, way out in the woods, and sometimes the children of the whites would sneak, and they would see these people in a circle, and they would be jumping and hollering," he says.

The shout was born out of a mixture of African and Christian rituals. Scholars have linked the term 'shout' to a ritual common in African Muslim culture called a 'sh'aut.' Lotson points to all these as influences, but says, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how the ring shout originated.

"For the African culture most of what we do was hid away, so there is no written document," he says.

The tradition thrived for a century, right until the end of slavery. It was actually the Black churches, Lotson says, that put an end to ring shouting. It was embarrassing, and nothing like the worship at the more proper, quieter white churches.

"After slavery, even newly freed slaves started backing away, and backing away," he says. "'Don't shout, no we don't do that in this church.' And then it died out."

Actually, it didn't exactly 'die out.' It evolved.

"The shout, as it evolved, became the stomp," says Mary Brown Zigler, a professor at Georgia State University. She studies how Gullah customs -- like the ring shout -- have influenced African American culture.

"Now, the young people are doing the steppin'. Steppin' is stomping. Stomping is shouting," she says. "The foot movements are the same. Just new names."

Whether you're stepping, stomping or shouting, Zigler says. You're engaging with a bigger group, moving together and deepening community bonds. She admits, though, that on the surface, it looks like a party.

Back in Anacostia, with everyone in place, Lotson counts it down. "Are we ready ? We at the countdown," he says. "Five, four, three, two, one ... the ring shout!"

And with that, a new record was set. In Washington, D.C., 400 people danced and sang in the world's largest ring shout.

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