African Dance

African dance is a subject on which I have long wanted to write. I have hesitated due to the complexity of the subject, the lack of published research and the paucity of my own knowledge. Very little early documentation exists. What there is, is limited in the main, to a few drawings or grainy, jerky footage often filmed with amateur cine cameras by travellers, missionaries, and early colonial functionaries. These people usually had no interest in dance and were merely illustrating one aspect of “native” life.

African governments and institutions face enormous problems on such fronts as health and education for example and it is difficult for them to to prioritize and stretch resources. Government funded dance research has been sporadic and limited.

What follows comes from my limited but personal knowledge.

I have not lived in West Africa for many years and can no longer claim to be closely in touch with the dance scene.

Africa is a huge continent. There is no way in which individual dances can be described. Dances are sometimes considered to be the property of an ethnic group of which there are many thousands. Sometimes one group so admires a dance associated with another group that they negotiate the rights to perform it themselves.

To-day traditional dance is facing the challenges of presentation on the stage.There were government sponsored groups who performed with great success world wide such as the Guinee Ballet. But governments can no longer necessarily afford to do this.

The study of dance has become associated with Univeristy Institute’s of African Studies. They have attempted, some with more success than others, to adapt dances for a western style stage. Formerly many dances were performed within a circle. Stage performance demands a greater variety in the use of floor space and must also deal with the fact that the audience sits facing the stage. At times the results have been crude and lead to a weakening of the structure of the dance.

African dance as taught and performed outside Africa can on ocassion be an utter traversty. I remember seeing a group in London performing a dance of which I have personal knowledge and experience. The “energy” was quite wrong and as a result the dance was emasculated. The matter of bringing the right ” energy” to the dance is of paramount importance.  In Jakarta, Indonesia I watched a Russian girl dancing in a group of Indonesian girls. She performed the steps absolutely accurately but she was dancing on  a different “energy” and for that reason she stood out.

Groups teaching and performing outside Africa play a valuable part in keeping African dance alive and evolving.

Dances associated with traditional religious practices are especially threatened with dying out or becoming simply social dances. These dances are part of the act of worship and are not danced at any other time.When there are no traditional worshippers what happens to these dances? Hopefully this category will become like some classical ballets – preserved and revered as part of the national heritage.Documentation in the form of photographs, notation and film is absolutely vital.

The whole dancer/spectator division is a new development. Before it was a matter of dancers and potential dancers.The distinction between dancer and spectator changed from minute to minute. Dance is a part of all important aspects of life. Worship has already been mentioned.Within this category trance dances can often be included. I have seen young men in Ghana slashing at their arms and legs with sharp cutlasses (machettes). The dancer’s skin was not cut nor did it show signs of bruising. Some dances are performed secretly. When I lived in Ibadan, Western Nigeria if the Ogboni secret society (which expresses reverence for the Earth) drums sounded for dancing no one ventured out of their houses. Also in this part of the world there is the Gelede cult where the dancers are hidden frm view by beautiful costumes and ancient masks. Their dances unite this world with the world of the spirit [LINKsacred dance] and the ancestors  There were also special dances for puberty (LINK) celebrations. War dances are, of course, fierce adrenaline producing events with the older women shouting and screaming obscenities as to what they would do if any man showed signs of cowardice. The history of some of the war dances is still known to the elders.

There are also innumerable Court dances performed only by the Chief and members of the Court.

Personally I fervently hope that Africa never loses the community enhancing aspect of dance. I remember an aunt of mine in her fifties who had been telling all and sundry that she felt unwell. She heard the drums announced “the drums are calling” and went off to dance like an enthusiastic twenty five year old. It doesn’t matter what age or shape you are. No one thinks it odd that you should want to dance.

The Ewe ethnic group who live in the Volta Region of Ghana though did have a way of making their feelings about an individual dancer known. If a man was dancing badly the drummers simply stopped playing until the offending dancer left the floor. Apparently, though, no matter how badly a woman performed the drummers would continue playing.

Children can often dance as soon as they can walk. This is because their mothers have danced with them tied on their backs. The children enjoy the rhythmic movements and the music. Children were not taught to dance. They learnt through watching and simply joining in.

In Andalucia, Spain where I now live I met a young woman who is  seven months pregnant and who intends to continue dancing Flamenco for her entire pregnancy. Everyone assured me that this is good for both mother to be and her baby.

I hope most sincerely that African dance will like Flamenco never lose sight of its roots and historical past but continue to evolve in many directions to meet present day needs.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: