In the novel, dance is shown to be both a source of joy and of suffering. Dance has an important history within African-American communities; under slavery, it was a way of connecting back to cultural traditions in Africa, as well as a rare moment at which enslaved people could feel joyful and free. However, traditional African dance was mostly banned in an effort to cut off enslaved people from their heritage. Slave owners also regularly forced enslaved people to dance for their entertainment, as Terrance does early in the novel. Because of this, dance takes on a sinister edge, and can become a reminder of the control white people exercise over the bodies of the enslaved. Unlike many of the other characters, Cora is averse to dancing completely. While other characters are able to shake off the negative associations with dance in order to enjoy dancing, Cora cannot disassociate dance from enslavement. Furthermore, the experience of being in such close proximity to male bodies—even in a happy and innocent setting—reminds Cora of the night she was raped. In this way, dance also represents sexuality. Whereas sexuality is sometimes shown to be a source of joy in the novel, most of the time it is associated with violence, violation, and powerlessness. The institutionalized rape of black women during slavery means that, like dance, sex often becomes irrevocably poisoned with negative associations.
Dance Quotes in The Underground Railroad
On Randall, on Valentine, Cora never joined the dancing circles. She shrank from the spinning bodies, afraid of another person so close, so uncontrolled. Men had put a fear in her, those years ago. Tonight, she told herself. Tonight I will hold him close, as if in a slow dance. As if it were just the two of them in the lonesome world, bound to each other until the end of the song.