The Role And Significance Of Dance For African Cultures

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Dance plays a big part in culture in many different societies. In African culture dance is for enjoyment, celebration, and honor (New World Encyclopedia). Dance brings together communities in Africa. As well as helping people find and understand their rules inside their communities (NWE). There are many different types of African dance. Traditional dance, African religion, Ritual dance, Ancestral worship, ceremonial dance and much more (NWE). During times of oppression traditional dance meant so much more. It was a form of communication, expression and freedom. The importance of African dance varies and is used in many different forms for various reasons. Getting through such hardship using dance helped shape what modern day african dance is today.

Dance has always been a big part of African Culture, long before they were even oppressed or taken from native lands. It had always been a very fundamental part of the lives of Africans. Special occasions like childbirth or marriage were a cause for celebration and they used dance to do so (African American Registry Organization). Different dance styles and meanings for dance vary depending on the tribe (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). There is the social context, division between the sexes and the religious context (P. Harper and J. Picton, African dance). Inside indigenous customs each performance has a purpose and principle. As well as secondary purposes that reflect on everyone’s shared values. A lot of the time there is no visible distinction between ritual celebrations and social recreation. The purpose and meaning of one dance can merge into the other. The more significant the concept in a dance is than the greater appreciation for the performance is (P. Harper and J. Picton, African dance). In African culture dance is appreciated as a social occasion as well as enjoyed as an everyday activity. The religious context in African dance is rooted from a constant interaction between spiritual forces and the people of the community. Dance in ritual societies is used as therapy. Many African religions have a union between the living and their ancestors (P. Harper and J. Picton, African dance) Then there is the social context in African dance. Dance is an important educational tool. For example, repetitive dance teaches children physical control. Children may take their knowledge and form their own dance that helps them in their own individual way. In some tribes there are specific dance that are only performed during funerals, after burials and anniversaries of death (P. Harper and J. Picton, African dance). Before oppression dance had already meant so much and had been done for many significant reasons.

African dance has many different components and characteristics that make it what it is. In African dance is about marking your experiences in life, honoring their kings and queens, celebrating and even just for pure enjoyment and well being (New World Encyclopedia). But what is the essence of African dance? There is a lot to do with proper formation, instruments used, and movement. A popular saying upon africans is “let the circle be unbroken” due to the belief that there is a supernatural power in the circle. That is why the most basic and commonly used formation is a circle or line of dancers. (New World Encyclopedia). A lot of the movement is characterized by isolation (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). Often leaning forward with flat feet towards the Earth, characterized as “Earth centered dance” (New World Encyclopedia). The most common and most important instrument that is essential in African dance is the drum. The drum provides an “energy point” and is considered the heartbeat of the dance. Also using their singing voices, clapping and maintaining a steady consistent rhythm brings together the dance as a whole (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). Combine all these components together and it brings African dance to life and make it what it is.

Slave labor started to spread worldwide in 1500s and many Africans were taken from their homes and spread across the Americas. But they found a way to bring their dance culture with them. (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). Bringing their dance culture with them helped the enslaved Africans connect with their motherland and bringing their cultural traditions to life (African American Registry Organization). In North America there were laws put in place that prohibited slaves from being able to dance and express themselves. Yet that did not stop them from finding new ways to adapt to these laws and circumstances, and continue to embrace their traditions (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). These dances then grew into something much larger. Rather than just being on plantations by slaves it was brought to the big stage. ‘Black dance’ then became introduced to a larger audience in the 1800s. It turned into something not only done by Blacks but whites participated in these dances as well (African American Registry Organization). Often times African Americans were mocked and ridiculed by many but they didn't let it stop them from performing and creating new dances. It started off with The Cakewalk, which was done in 1891 during The Creole show (African American Registry Organization). This then helped introduce and influence the creation of dances such as The Charleston, The Jitterbug, Jazz dance and many more (J.Lewis, FLO DANCE). It continued to evolve and spread from plantations, to the big stage, to what we know today as modern day African dance.

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The dance now referred to as Gumboot was used by African gold mine workers who used dance as a form of communication. The development of this dance started when rural laborer workers started to work inside the mines. They were facing oppression and the difficulties in the mine itself. If the workers talked to one another they had to endure some kind of punishment (World Arts West organization, pg 1). Under the harsh conditions the workers were forced to create new forms of communication. Through this dance many people of different ethnic groups and backgrounds came together and shared a language through rhythm and music, which made helped developed the dance more (World Arts West organization, pg 1). Workers worked long hard hours for three months at a time, in complete darkness and unable to speak. It got its name because in the mines the workers used their gumboots to communicate as an alternative to actually speaking. They slapped their boots, stomped their feet and even made noise with their ankle chains. As time went on ‘gumboot’ developed into something greater and gained more popularity. It turned into a social activity done by many. Gumboot was accompanied by songs that mocked mean bosses, low wages, and more. (World Arts West organization, pg 1). Gumboot since then how evolved into something great. It's a South African form of art. The dance become vibrant and theatrical, with boundless energy and brings a sense of joy and freedom to those involved. (T.Roberts, Gumboots) The people turned this form of communication used during a time of being oppressed and turned it into something greater.

Black culture strongly influenced dance in the 20th century and it all began in Harlem, New York. Harlem was home to many people of color of all backgrounds, traditions and beliefs, with their own dance styles and music. Harlem brought together many and became the “it place” to be amongst the black and white communities in New York. Everyone came together in clubs and brought upon new dances famously known today as The Charleston and Lindy hop (Victoria and Albert museum). This artistic explosion became known today as The Harlem Renaissance. It all started when a couple middle class black families moved to Harlem in the early 1900s. Of course during that time many whites did not accept the fact that many black families were moving into Harlem so they fought to keep them out. But when all attempts failed they left Harlem instead (History). By 1920, roughly 300,000 African Americans moved from the south into Harlem, giving its name the “it place” and becoming one of the most popular destinations in New York (History). During the Harlem Renaissance the black community started to break barriers never done before. One of those being the first all black musical on Broadway known as The Shuffle Along, which opened in 1921. The Shuffle Along created new opportunities for many black performers and dancers.

Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus are one of the first two African American women to inspire the black modern dance movement (Victoria and Albert museum, 2016). Katherine Dunham was an African American woman who broke barriers of race and gender. She used dance to influence many people and inspire generations to come (Joanna Dee Das, Dance the African Diaspora). Katherine was the first to incorporate folk and ethnic choreography into her dances. By doing so she revolutionized American dance by diving and digging deep into the roots of African dance and rituals, transforming them into choreography of importance that touches everyone (Katherine Dunham centers for Arts and Humanities). Dunham had a remarkable capacity for reinvention. Showing the world that African American dance and heritage is beautiful and speaks volumes. Dunham became one of the most important teachers for teaching dance that is still used today around the world. Combining Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African American rhythms and rituals to create what we refer to now as the ‘Dunham technique’ (Katherine Dunham centers for Arts and Humanities). As for Pearl Primus, she was born in Trinidad but raised in Harlem, New york. After her dream of becoming a medical researcher became irrational due to all the racial discrimination at the time, she ended up going to the National Youth Association. This is where miss Primus would be cast as a dancer and where her journey began (L. Mennenga, Black Past). Primus was the first black modern dancer. She used the arts to express the social and political injustices and restrictions on the black people in America. During 1940s Primus made an in depth study on black traditions. Using this knowledge to embrace West indian, African, and Primitive dance, being one of the first to do so (Victoria and Albert museum. Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham were and will always be important figures in the preservation and study of ethnic dance. As both women paved the way for black modern dance and turning it into something timeless and remarkable.

Then there was a rise in African American dance companies. The dance theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969, only a year after the assassination Martin Luther King Jr. This was a direct response to the lack of performance opportunities for black people. The following year, the Philadelphia Dance Company was founded for the very same reasons. The Philadelphia Dance Company said they wanted to to give black dancers the opportunity to perform on a worldwide stage. Such opportunities were not easily given or even allowed (S. Bailey, The Philadelphia Tribune). One of the most notable dance companies is the Alvin Ailey dance company. The founder Alvin Ailey was born in Texas in 1931. He was inspired to dance after seeing a Ballet, Russes de monte carlo. In 1958 he founded the Alvin Ailey dance theatre. The purpose of this company was to bring African American culture dance expression to the world. The company was used to provide jobs for those who were talented and wanted to make a career out of dance, but because of their skin color they had no where else to turn to (J. Dunning, The many colors of black dance). Ailey’s choreography showed elements borrowed from modern dance, primitive dance and jazz dance.

African dance has come a long way from just being done by different tribes in African, to being done by slaves in the American into what we know it as today in its modern day form. A form of expression and freedom. African dance wasn't always accepted by whites, a lot of the time African Americans weren't even allowed to participate in dance theatre because of their skin color. Slaves were often punished for dancing on plantations. People like Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus paved the way for new opportunities and jobs for African Americans. As well as creating new forms of African dance. Today African dance has many forms and is not only done in african, but around the world. Reaching many different audiences and cultures.

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