African dance has traditionally played an essential role in the culture of the tribes. Much more than entertainment, dances communicate emotions, celebrate rites of passage, and help strengthen the bonds between members of the tribe as a whole.
Historical African Dancing
African dance is polycentric, which sets it apart from most other dance traditions in the world. As explained by the National Museum of African Art, this means that the dancer's body is segmented into separate areas of movement, with each area being able to move to different rhythms within the music. Known as "isolations" in choreographic terms, these moves are quite complex and difficult to master.
Most African villages had a "dance master" who taught the members of the tribe from a very young age how to perform the various dances. It was very important that these dances be performed exactly as taught, with no room for improvisation or ornamentation until complete mastery of the form was achieved. While almost all of the dances are polycentric in some way, different areas of Africa have very different dances. The Masai are known for leaping high in the air, for example, while the Kalabari emphasize hip motions. In all cases, the movements are very precise, and the same dances you see today have most likely been danced the same way for centuries.
The Importance of Music in African Dance
In African dance, the drum is one way to set the mood and brings everyone together as a community. However, many other instruments are used as well, such as gourds strung with beads. Clapping, stamping feet, and most of all singing also create rhythmic music for African dance. As dancers move in an expression of their inner feelings, their movements are generally in rhythm to the music. It is the sound of the music and the rhythms that are played that provide the heartbeat of the dance. The music and dance are considered inseparable, two parts of the same activity. Groups such as the Alokli West African Dance Ensemble, who perform historical, social, and ritualistic dance forms from all along the Ivory Coast, illustrate the wide variety of dance forms .
African Dance and Slave Trade
The 1500s saw the beginning of slave labor as Africans were brought to North and South America and the Caribbean. Hundreds of different African dance styles, from various ethnic groups, were merged together, along with styles of European dancing. Because of the importance of dance in the daily life of Africans in their homeland, many Africans that were enslaved continued to use dance as a way to keep their cultural traditions and connect with their home country.
Enslaved Africans that were taken to colonies in South America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal were given much more freedom to carry on their dance traditions than those who were brought to North America. Sadly, many of the North American slave owners prohibited Africans from performing most of their traditional dances.
The importance and spirit of dance were not stopped by these restrictions, however. African slaves found ways to adapt their dancing and continue their traditions in secret. Out of necessity this caused some changes in the dances. For example, since slaves were prohibited from lifting their feet, they created moves that included shuffling the feet and moving the hips and body.
African Dance in North American History
Throughout the eighteenth century there were several dances that dominated on plantations. These dances included:
- The Ring Dance, also called the Ring Shout
- The Juba
- The Chica
- The Calenda
The nineteenth century saw the plantation dances move onto the stage as minstrel shows became popular. During these shows, which were performed by both black and white performers, dances based on African cultural heritage were introduced to large numbers of people.
As the century came to an end, a dance called the Cakewalk was introduced in The Creole Show, a Broadway revue. This African-influenced dance was the first to become popular with white audiences. From 1891 on, there were many African-influenced dances that became popular in the years to follow. African-influenced dance trends through the present include:
- The Charleston
- Tap Dancing
- The Lindy Hop
- The Jitterbug
- The Twist
- Jazz dance
- Hip hop
The History of African Dance Continues
Although Western culture has spread throughout Africa, many of the traditional African dances have also spread throughout the world. For example, the KanKouran Dance Company has celebrated West African dance for over twenty years in Washington D.C. Troupes like this help preserve and share the culture and traditions of African dance throughout the world, sharing the joy far beyond the native tribes and keeping the history alive.