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African Dance, Moves, Costumes,& History

Africa is known for its cheerful music and dances. In this lesson, explore African dance and learn about its history and cultural significance. Also, discover some basic formations found in several dances and examine the traditional costumes.

African Dance
Drums start to beat and it’s time to move your body. But enthusiasm and following the rhythm are not enough. You need to know the steps, wear the right outfit, and be aware of your role in the community. Each element of African dance is full of cultural significance.

African dance refers to a form of performing art found among most cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa. Still practiced today, it involves rhythmic body movements combined with music and sometimes theatrical representations. There are as many forms of African dance as there are human groups.
Dance is a fundamental part of the cultural fiber and important activity that serves several purposes in the community. People dance in festivals, religious ceremonies, marriages, funerals, and almost every social occasion. Dances serve to impart knowledge and traditions.

More than a mere performer, the dancer becomes an active member of the community. Local storytellers, teachers, healers, and ordinary individuals adopt specific roles while dancing.

Some dances help define individual roles within the community. The Maasai Adumu dance in Kenya is part of the coming of age ceremony for men. It involves each young man trying to jump higher than the other. Those who perform the best gain social recognition as warriors and earn priority when choosing their future wives.

The themes of dances can be traditional concerns, like fertility, rain or good harvests. One example is the Kakilambe fertility dance from West Africa. They can also be inspired by contemporary issues such as racism or political demands. The Gumboot dance of South Africa was developed by miners during Apartheid when music was not allowed. Instead, the miners used their boots to make rhythmic sounds.

History of African Dance
Each dance has its own origin, closely related to the culture and beliefs of the tribe that created it. It is unclear how or when dances first appeared, but they have been part of the African life for centuries.

Dances are passed down to younger generations. The young learn the movements, often dating back to the times of age-old ancestors. Since there is usually no room for improvisation, many dances have remained intact for generations.

African rhythms expanded from Africa to America, mostly through the forced migrations of Africans taken as slaves. The influences are especially strong in the Caribbean and South America. Rhythms like salsa, Afro-Cuban jazz, Brazilian samba, Colombian cumbia, Venezuelan drums and many others have African roots.

Today, traditional dances are strongly tied to cultural identity, and continue to be practiced both for their symbolic meaning and as a way to preserve cultural heritage. Throughout Africa and among African descendant communities in America and Europe, there are many schools that teach the traditional rhythms.

Formations and Moves
We find dances exclusively intended for men or women, for the young or elders, for those who have completed initiation rituals. Usually, every member of the community participates in at least one. Most dances have a strong narrative character and they often tell us a story.

Drums are the prevailing instrument, and most groups use them to indicate the rhythm and provide the musical background for dancing. Chants are also frequent.
Close couple dancing is rare in traditional African dance. Moves are more often collectively done, and dancers assume various formations. The most common are group performances with eventual solo dancers, free-flow floor patterns with dancers moving freely on the dance floor, and defined pattern formations with dancers forming circles or lines. While in formation, participants follow the rhythm in intricate movements.

Body articulation is very important. Most steps involve independent movements of different parts of the body. The hips and the chest might move in opposite directions while the arms bounce back and forward. However, every movement is related to the rhythm. To master any African dance, you first must learn to control and move each part of your body separately.

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