The Unique History Of The Dap Handshake

Dap, History, National Handshake Day

Source: Patrick Lane / Getty


Handshakes have long served as symbols of greeting, agreement, and camaraderie across cultures. However, within certain communities, particularly in African American culture, a unique handshake known as the “dap” has emerged as more than just a greeting—it’s a gesture rich in history and meaning. In honor of National Handshake Day, let’s take a look at the unique history of the dap.


The dap’s history.

During the 1960s and 1970s, amidst the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, the dap handshake emerged among African American soldiers, notably those stationed in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. Coined from “dignity and pride,” the dap became a potent symbol of solidarity and survival, embodying black consciousness and a commitment to mutual support on the battlefield and in camp, as highlighted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The dap arose partly in response to the devastating loss of Black lives in Vietnam, where over 275,000 African Americans served between 1964 and 1972, with more than 7,200 casualties. By 1967, many Black service members began embracing Black Power, questioning the war’s purpose and America’s treatment of its Black citizens. They protested the disproportionate casualties and dangerous assignments given to Black soldiers, alongside the lack of recognition and promotion on the battlefield.

Functioning as a covert communication tool, the dap conveyed crucial information among Black troops about survival tactics and ongoing military operations. However, its significance later became a source of fear for white soldiers and officers who perceived it as a coded signal of rebellion among Black soldiers. According to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, this fear prompted a widespread ban on the dap across military ranks, resulting in harsh punishments like court-martials, imprisonment, and dishonorable discharges for offenders. Ironically, this repression only intensified the Black soldiers’ quest for symbols of unity and protection.

Interestingly, as the war progressed, the military recognized the dap’s potential in therapeutic contexts. They introduced “dap therapy,” whereby Black soldiers proficient in the dap engaged with comrades suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This innovative approach aimed to foster trust and comfort, facilitating acceptance of medical treatment from predominantly white medical personnel.

The dap handshake not only served as a gesture of solidarity and resilience among African American soldiers during a tumultuous era but also underscored the complexities of race, identity, and power within the context of war and social change. It became a symbol of solidarity, unity, and affirmation of identity among African American soldiers. It represented mutual respect, camaraderie, and a shared understanding of the challenges faced both abroad and at home.


How do you do the dap?

The dap handshake is characterized by a series of intricate movements involving hand slaps, fist bumps, and sometimes elaborate handshakes, all culminating in a unique gesture that varies in complexity depending on the individuals involved. Each movement and gesture within the dap handshake carries specific meanings and can convey different messages, from respect to acknowledgment of shared experiences, according to a YouTube video posted by Will Gao in 2019.

Beyond its military origins, the dap handshake has permeated various aspects of African American culture, including sports, entertainment, and everyday interactions. For example, a 2019 video captured LeBron James dapping up Damian Lillard and several other members of his team during the 2023 NBA All-Star game. It has become a way for individuals to express solidarity, celebrate achievements, and forge bonds that transcend traditional handshakes.


The dap may have roots stemming from West African culture.

Historians believe that the dap can be traced back to 18th-century West African culture. European traders, accustomed to more formal handshakes, were intrigued and sometimes bewildered by the elaborate salutations of African community members in the region, particularly their tendency to snap their fingers after shaking hands. Inside his book, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, trader, John Matthews observed that greetings among friends in this region often involved handshakes followed by finger snapping. Similarly, missionary George Thompson documented in the mid-1850s how different groups in Sierra Leone employed intricate handshakes, including actions like placing hands on shoulders and rubbing them together, concluding with distinctive finger snaps, Black Perspectives noted. 

The dap handshake has transcended its origins as a symbol of solidarity among soldiers, becoming a powerful emblem of resilience, unity, and cultural pride within African American communities and beyond. Across various settings—whether among friends, colleagues, or strangers—the dap continues to remind us of the bonds that unite us and the richness of our shared human experience.

In different locales, the dap handshake has adapted and transformed. Historically, Black churches employed secret handshakes like “giving skin” or “high-fiving,” affirming identity within the group, as highlighted by Black Perspectives. Today, this cultural tradition persists, evolving to fit contemporary contexts while preserving its core symbolism and significance. Modern variations may incorporate personal style, regional influences, and individual creativity, reflecting the diverse backgrounds of those who practice it.


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The post The Unique History Of The Dap Handshake appeared first on NewsOne.

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