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The Origin of Ballet and Indlamu Dance

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Ballet and Indlamu dance are both forms of dance which depict their respective origins – the Sun King’s Court and the demonstration of the expertise of isiZulu warriors. Both dance forms are immensely influenced by their respective political contexts which illustrate how the forms may or may not be displayed in concert theatre in South Africa in the 20s to 40s.

From the 16th century the creation and evolution of ballet from its origin – the Sun King’s court- was utilised to depict status, aristocratic power and a hierarchy in Renaissance Italy in its Romantic form to France by Catherine de’ Medici to the form that is now recognised as as classical ballet. Ballet has been defined by its steps, attires, poses or formal gestures which aim to convey a story, atmosphere, emotion or theme (Collins, M & Jarvis, J, 2016). With specific reference to Romantic ballets, it was characterised by female ballerinas being portrayed as fragile beings who were effortlessly lifted thus creating the illusion of floating in the clouds and air and dancing en pointe. Dancing en pointe is defined as the point at which the dancer’s leg and toes are relatively perpendicular to the dance surface whilst on the tip of their toes, hence en-pointe (Bruckner, 2005). Although this is one characteristic, it can be said that the definition of ballet itself differs depending on how it may be understood, who is questioning the form, who responds to the question and the various translations of gender from different languages and the multiple connotations that may be attached. In this instance it should be noted that the definitions of ballet have often been constructed and defined around eurocentric intentions.

From the stages forms of entertainment at King Louis XIV’s French court to the introductory exhibition in the seventeenth century of what was perceived as professional dances at the Paris Opera the elements and aesthetics of costume, style and dance techniques changed drastically (Collins, M & Jarvis, J, 2016). Though the elements and aesthetics gradually began to change it is important to acknowledge that the French Revolution initiated the popularity and independence of ballet as it developed into more than an extension of the Opera, but rather gained it’s owned identity through the assistance of King Louis XIV. During the middle years of King Louis XIV’s reign in the 1660s, dance began to shift towards the theatre from court. Simultaneously, King Louis XIV’s court ballets were exhibited as part of a musical, dance and voice spectacle that were designed to impress the ambassadors, courtiers and other visitors who were able to identify as wealthy, tasteful or the magnificence of the court. In his time King Louis XIV was recognised as an experienced and proficient dancer whereby he often showcased his expertise in productions that were referred to as ‘ballets de cour’ which is reiterated in the following extract: “Since his childhood, this prince, who had received from the hand of Nature a noble and majestic figure, had loved every sort of physical exercise and had added to his natural gifts every grace that could be acquired” (Collins, M & Jarvis, J, 2016).

WIth specific reference to South Africa, dance forms can be defined as political as they are inextricably intertwined into the socio-political, religious and economic tool utilised to express the lives that people. Although ballet was a form of expression which consisted of heightened emotions and mythical, it’s introduction to South African theatre can be categorised as political for example Pink Lemonade and The Square which mimicked cultural life in Cape Town during the 1950s and 1960s (Jaeger and Pretlow, 2019). The art of classical ballet was introduced to Cape Town through professional ballet dancer Dulcie Howes (Samuel, 2019). Taking into consideration that a white woman introduced ballet to Cape Town, one can analyse how the bodies that were introduced to this dance form were colonised. Therefore, ballet both directly and indirectly becoming a political statement. Additionally, the fact that French terms were utilised in South African court dances in the 20s – 40s to choreograph and create ballet performances and still have not been translated into respective African languages is an evidence of the influence of King Louis XIV’s Académie Royale de Dance in 1661.

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Muchlike ballet, indlamu dance is also a cultural expression which is specifically utilised by isiZulu people to celebrate the inauguration of a King, the birth of a child, winning a war or weddings. When indlamu dance was first introduced it was a military drill exercise, developed with the intention to teach and enforce a system of discipline within the ‘Black’ isiZulu male community and prepared the members of each unit in the army for way (Welsh-Asante, 2000). Though the war dance has been said to not have been influenced by Western ideologies, during colonisation whereby foreign colonies were forcefully established throughout African countries to introduce ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ (Seodial F. H, 2001), the hegemonic aspirations of colonisers left a legacy of complex political and social functions. Due to post colonial countries such as South Africa still negotiating their culture and aesthetics, most dances that formed part of South African dance theatre were contemporary (Samuel, 2019).

The reason why dance was used to enforce discipline was because dance is due to the intriguing form of body motion that that is provided. Dance can be described as an intensive energy exercise that makes use of muscle strength, muscle energy, momentum development and force of gravity (Mazrui, 1977).Though it may be true that dance stimulates an emotional journey, the term art indicates that dance is incapable of creating an experience in reality. Additionally, the perception of dance to Zulu people and African people as a whole is not limited to pure entertainment or ‘arts for arts sake’. This is because African dance dance, specifically indlamu dance, utilises polyrhythmic and polymetric body movement that signifies a deeper meaning (Ikibe, n.d.). Therefore the term ethnic respective expression would be more appropriate to describe ritually and culturally rooted dances such as indlamu dance.

Zulu dances fulfilled the purpose of symbolising power which represented dominance and self-control, hence indlamu dance emerging out of the war dances of the isiZulu warriors (Mazrui, 1977). According to Kariamu Asante in ‘Zimbabwe Dance: Rhythmic Forces, Ancestral Voices: an Aesthetic Analysis’, the remarkable Zulu King Shaka Zulu prefered that his soldiers walked for kilometers to harden their feet in order for their feet to have the ability to trammel over sixty miles each day in the most challenging terrain. Through this, in the indlamu dance the hardened feet became responsible for the high-powered stamping of alternate feet in single or double lines whereby the intensity of repeated movement was distinguished (Manyeneng, 2019).

The dance forms identified as ballet and indlamu dance are both a reflection of their respective origins- The Sun King’s Court and the demonstration of the prowess of isiZulu warriors. Additionally, through their respective socio- political contexts, their function, form and influence in theatre is comprehensible.

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The Origin of Ballet and Indlamu Dance. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
“The Origin of Ballet and Indlamu Dance.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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