The role of dance in African culture
As an African dancing is as much a part of my life as eating, drinking and working, but it is also an important part of our worship, following the guidance of the Bible where it is frequently referenced, especially in the Old Testament. There, dancing is a form of worship – as recognition of the love and praise of God. This, along with other spiritual exercises, was meant to be accepted by God as satisfactory worship.
We can see this in a few passages of Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3: 4 refers to “A chance to sob and a chance to laugh, a chance to cry and a chance to dance.” Jeremiah 31:13 explains, “At that time their young ladies will dance and be happy, young and old too. I will turn their mourning into a dance. Exodus 15: 20-21 relates: “At that time Miriam the Prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and each of the ladies followed her, with tambourines and dances. The Psalms also allude to the joy of dancing before God: Psalm 149: 3 said: “Let them acclaim his name by dancing and make music to him with the tambourine and the harp” and “David praised the Lord while dancing”.
Dance in Africa expresses similar feelings, not only of worship but also of social communication: supplication, passionate relational feelings and even transitional life stages, as people move from one stage of maturity to another. It also communicates virtues, values, and even teachings about social ways that are used to help individuals mature and celebrate.
There are general reasons why dancing is so important. It’s an experience that takes us from the material to the immaterial, simply a way of expressing ourselves when words fail. We can feel the joy of a newly discovered love, the assurance in the midst of unbelievable distress or difficulty, the energetic fire of our childhood, and the serenity of our sweeter, sweeter years.
In Africa, what we call cultural or social dance are movements that embody our values and cultural norms. Each cultural dance has a story that reflects certain values or beliefs and therefore goes beyond simply learning different types of movements. The movements of a dance, taken together, tell a story that is a way for a culture to share or tell its way of life to another.
To ensure the correctness of the movements that will preserve the integrity of the culture, every clan in Nigeria has someone dedicated to the design and transmission of customary clan movements. Because there are unique moves in the culture of each clan, this “dancing ace” ensures that everyone knows what the moves are and how they should be danced. These instructions are passed down from generation to generation and some have never been adjusted.
Music and dance are an integral part of everyday life in Africa because music communicates feelings, expresses soul-changing experiences and even helps to bring together networks of people who share common values and life experiences – all important values. Dancing can create a sense of security and accomplishment and provide ice-breaking opportunities to meet new people and make new friends.
African dances are generally participatory and each country has many unique styles. Some are really amazing. To name a few: Indlamu from South Africa, linked to Zulu culture; Kpanlogo from Ghana; Moribayassa from Guinea; Eskista from Ethiopia; and many more. But, no matter how specifically conventional these dances are, each person who dances them brings their unique style and culture to the dance that also reflects their country and history. It’s always exciting to watch the variety of African dance moves and styles.
Besides being a fun and entertaining activity, dancing has many health benefits. It enhances physical and psychological well-being by strengthening balance, posture and flexibility, while helping with brain development and the moods of life.
But, there is something very unique about African dance. Although in general the dance uses a progression of steps and movements to resonate with the speed and rhythm of a piece of music and coordinates the body in a cadenced manner, most African dances are separate body movements that can be very difficult to organize intellectually.
They are known as polyrhythmic and polycentric movements. Emily Willette explains more in “Africanist aesthetics in American dance forms”:
Polyrhythm is the superposition of different rhythms on top of each other and polycentrism is the idea that movement can be initiated from any part of the body. These two qualities play together because different parts of the body dance to different instruments that play at different rhythms. [Robert] Farris Thompson describes learning polyrhythm and polycentrism, “my hands and feet had to keep pace with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second. All elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out. This dance method is another way to incorporate and enhance the whole body and bring music and dance together.
Another way of expressing this is that the artist’s body is somehow separated so that different parts of the body move independently of each other.
The drum is also an important part of the accompaniment of African dance. It can very well be seen as the heartbeat of a particular clan, expressing its collective state of mind and connecting that collective energy to that of the ancestors. The drum is often accompanied by clapping or stomping, and is complemented by singing vocals as the dancers move in disciplined steps.
Unfortunately, dance as a unique aspect of African culture was not so appreciated by the missionaries who came to our countries. After Vatican Council II, most African countries began to use dance in our liturgies, but now the bishops of some of them do not allow this important part of our culture and worship. We can only hope that such restrictions will come to an end, recognizing that dancing is a biblical action accepted by God as true worship and true love.