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The Cultural Functions of African Dance

Determining the cultural functions of “African dance” is no small feat, mainly because Africa is such a vast continent with boundless examples of diversity in language, religious beliefs, ethnicity and tribal traditions.  Ranging from the heavy Islamic influence in North African to the traditions of indigenous people in the Sub-Saharan regions to the lingering essence of European culture which remains in the aftermath of colonialism, Africa as a continent and in some cases, the individual countries that exist within its borders cannot be easily classified.  However, there are some basic commonalities among the dance traditions of the indigenous people of the Sub-Saharan regions that can be explored.

A research study conducted by the University of California at Santa Barbara provides a comprehensive analysis of African dance traditions.  One of the most important tenets of traditional African society is the sense of community.   Therefore, dance is one way in which community members express ideas about the shared and important experiences of their communities.  Dances are employed joyful settings, such as weddings, births or a successful harvest as well as in more solemn situations such as religious ceremonies, events signaling rites of passage or funerals.

Early explorers however did not have a good understanding of the purpose and context of many of the tribal dances that they observed.  In contrast to the orderly, partner dancing with a prescribed set of steps common in European society, African dance could appear disorganized, highly emotional and perhaps even violent.  The stereotypical views that some Europeans held against Africans:  aggressive, highly sexualized savages may also have fueled the idea that dance was nothing more than a vehicle for expressing what Europeans may have viewed as baser instincts.

However, despite the lack of prearranged steps, African music and dance does, in fact have structure and “rules”, albeit different from those common in European music and dance.

At the heart of African dance is the drum beat.  Drums serve to illustrate the collective heartbeat of the community and while the individual movements might appear to be random to the casual observer the rhythm provided by the drums provides a sense of connection among the dancers.  The complex movements engage all parts of the body.  Early explorers tended to interpret these movements as sexual in nature.  However, upon closer examination the involvement of the entire body actually seems more in keeping with the sense of community or “many members in one body” working in concert together as opposed to European dance which is often characterized by a rigid pattern of steps assigned to the feet alone.

It is also ironic that Europeans viewed African dance as being sexually charged, because in actuality, the complete opposite may be true.  Male and female dancers rarely, if ever touch one another during the dance since some tribal traditions view this practice as immoral.  No doubt that some African tribal members would find the close embrace of European or American style ballroom dancing to be far more shocking that the hip movements of their traditional dances.

Traditional African communities also tend to be hierarchical in nature and traditional dances often mirror the community structure.  Dancers may be grouped by age, gender and social status as well as by other factors.  Some dances even make a point to recognize elders who have passed on since, even in death they are still considered to be an integral part of the community.

Dance movements are designed to communicate both ideas and feelings; some traditional dances make use of masks and are more suggestive of pantomime.  Dances consisting of everyday movements may be used to tell the history of a particular tribe or village in a type of rhythmic storytelling not unlike the more well known Hula dance styles of Polynesian culture.

 While the dancing and drumbeats may be steeped in tradition, surprisingly there are examples of dances that have been updated to address the issues and challenges of modern life.  The Takada dance of Anlo-Ewe people of Ghana is one example.  Tradition once held that women in this community did not share in the right of free speech and equal participation in community affairs.  When a group of revolutionary Anlo-Ewe women challenged these customs their struggle was eventually immortalized in the Takada dance.

In keeping with the theme of connection and community, another striking difference between African and western forms of dance is the highly participatory nature of traditional dance.  Western audiences generally enjoy the ballet or other dance exhibitions as observers only, content to watch and listen to the performance on state.

African dances by contrast or usually community affairs with a palpable connectivity between the musicians, singers, dancers and audience at large all held together by the common beat.  Some traditional dances may include a “call and response” feature, where drummers tap out a rhythm and the dancers and singers provide an answer, either copying the same rhythm or with a slight variation of their own.  This “call and response” ritual still persists to some degree in many modern day churches where the congregation is predominantly of African descent.

Many African dance forms have survived despite the threats that rose against them as a result of colonialism and the arrival of Christian missionaries.  The dances simply evolved to reflect the social and political concerns of the day. Although urbanization has served to loosen many of the tribal and community ties that once existed within and among various African nations, perhaps the preservation of traditional dance forms will help to keep the total disintegration of community life at bay.

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