Through dance, African people celebrate, worship, educate, and express social organization. Styles vary greatly from culture to culture, but most African dance shares some common features. In particular, it emphasizes rhythm. Elements of traditional dance and music often blend with contemporary or foreign styles to create new kinds of African dance.
Purposes of Dancing
In all African cultures, dance is an expression of social structure. People of the same status, age, or occupation usually perform together. In their dances, these groups demonstrate behavior that is considered appropriate to their place in the community and to the occasion. Dance unites them and reinforces their identities. For example, among the TUAREG of northeastern Africa, each social class has its own style of dance and music and even its own musical instruments.
In traditional societies with hierarchical organizations, dance can be an expression of leadership. A ruler is expected to proclaim his authority in formal dances. If he fails to meet the required standard of performance, his subjects may lose some respect for him. A ruler's wives and lesser chiefs also have their own specific forms of dance to show their position in society. Followers may pledge loyalty and honor their leaders through still other dances. One example of a royal dance is that of the ASANTE kings of Ghana, who wave ceremonial swords while dancing.
Pointing the swords toward the sky symbolizes the kings' dependence on the gods and the ancestors. Pointing the swords toward the earth represents the king's ownership of the land.
For many traditional African religious leaders, dance is a vital part of their role. Priests and priestesses use movement to describe the gods they serve. In Nigeria, YORUBA priests who serve the thunder god Shango show his wrathful nature with fast arm motions that represent lightning. They roll their shoulders and stamp their feet to indicate thunder. The leaders of many women's religious societies in western Africa use dance as therapy. They employ songs and dances to cure women of various disorders.
Masquerade dancers, who represent spiritual beings, play a central role in many religious societies. Often the masquerade dancer's personal identity is a closely guarded secret. The dancer performs completely covered by cloth and wearing a metal or wooden mask that symbolizes a particular deity or spirit. Before performing special rites, dancers may train for many years beginning at an early age.
In societies that are organized into sets, or groups, by age, individuals pass through many age-grades in their lifetime. The dances of each age-grade promote qualities that the society admires in people of that age. The dances of elders are usually sedate and dignified, while those of younger men and women may show off such characteristics as strength, endurance, and beauty.
Dance is an important form of education in traditional African societies. The repeated patterns of dances teach young children physical coordination and control. Dance can also introduce children to the community's social customs and standards of behavior. Children may form their own dance and masquerade groups or join adults at the end of a dance line.
Features of African Dance
In North Africa, some dance forms have sprung from the region's Arab and Islamic heritage. One example is the whirling dance of the Sufi Muslims known as dervishes. In their rituals, the dervishes enter a religious trance and dance wildly, spinning and twirling around. Other traditional North African dances share the emphasis on rhythm that is found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The BERBERS of Morocco dance to the beat of drummers who assemble around a bonfire. The dancers form two lines. Individuals in one line call out a phrase or line, and someone in the opposite line responds. As the calling continues, the dancers move as one—shuffling, bending back and forth at the waist, and raising and lowering their arms. In some Berber groups, men and women mix; in others, the women form their own line.
Rhythm is the central element in sub-Saharan dance. Music and dance are usually inseparable. Normally musicians lead the dancers, using drums, rattles, and other percussion instruments to sound a beat for the dancers to follow. But in some cultures the dancer may take over, challenging the musicians to follow his or her rhythm. Sometimes dancers wear leg or ankle rattles that emphasize the rhythm of their movements. In Western cultures, people focus on the shapes created by a dancer's body. African audiences also judge a dancer's skill by his or her ability to follow rhythms.
Styles of African dance range from the simple to the acrobatic. The Kambari people of Nigeria move in a circle around their drummers, sliding one foot forward while the other stamps a repetitive beat. The Ndau of southern Africa perform a more energetic war dance on the theme of “stamping the feet in pain.” The style of the dance changes rapidly as accelerating drumbeats encourage the powerful dancers to explode into vigorous new forms of expression.
Dance is a group activity. In addition to age-sets and occupational groups, such as hunters, that perform together, dance groups or clubs are common in Africa. These allow both sexes and various ages to dance together to perfect their skill. Once a dance club has acquired a reputation for excellence, it is invited to perform at major social events, such as marriages or funerals, or to entertain chiefs and important visitors. In some dance groups, the members follow a leader and perform rehearsed movements together, with little or no opportunity for individual expression. Other groups allow each dancer to develop a personal style or to step forward from the group for a solo performance.
Although it is a collective effort, African dancing can be highly competitive, even aggressive. Many traditional dance forms encourage individual dancers or groups to try to outdo each other. In the early 1900s, some wealthy urban Africans learned the formal steps of Western-style dances and competed in ballroom dancing championships modeled on those of the United States and other Western countries. With much emphasis on fine clothes, these competitions showed the enduring power of dance to establish a person's position in society.
Dance and Society
Dance reflects the social order, and as African society changes, so does its dance. The Dogon of Mali, for example, have long performed dances in honor of their ancestors in which they carry and manipulate carved wooden masks. In the 1930s foreign promoters discovered their outstanding dancing and took Dogon dance groups to Paris and the United States. The Dogon dancers learned elements of modern choreography. They also modified their costumes and modernized their masks for foreign audiences. After returning to Mali, they continued to perform traditional ritual dances in their home territories, but their choreographed shows gained popularity with both local and foreign audiences.
Dance is not always reserved for important social functions. It is also the most popular form of recreation in sub-Saharan Africa. Even on informal occasions, however, Africans usually do not dance simply for individual expression. They often perform for the admiration and attention of others.
Informal African social dance is continually developing into new styles either invented by talented individuals or drawn from foreign influences. In the 1960s a recreational dance called highlife became popular in West African cities. It originated in Ghana, where musicians were playing Western instruments such as saxophones and guitars in open-air cafes. Nigerian musicians began following the same lively style, using local instruments, and dancers adapted their movements to the new sound. Various styles emerged. In some African countries, music and dance took on the flavor of Latin rhythms such as the cha-cha. The people of the Congo excelled at jazz, which in turn gave rise to its own dance forms. Such examples show that although African dance draws on deep and honored traditions, it is an ever-changing expression of life as it is lived today. (See also Masks and Masquerades, Music and Song, Musical Instruments, Religion and Ritual.)