Dance Tidbits – African Dancing

There is probably no other culture in the world that embraces dance as not only a ritual but a huge part of daily life – the African people do exactly that. Even tiny, little babies, as they are carried on their mother’s backs, are trained to move every part of their body when they hear a song or musical instrument. Of course, African dance is used in celebrations, festivals and funerals. But African dance also teaches social patterns, values, helps people work, mature, give praise and even reprimand members of the community.

African dance mainly refers to the dance of Sub-Sahara Africa. However, throughout the African nation there are many cultural differences in the music and movement of the dancing. Africa is a continent three times the size of the United States. As big as it is, with each country within Africa having its own history, language, songs and purpose, they must still abide by strict codes of their country with no cross culture dancing. All dancing must comply with the Sub-Saharan African music tradition and Bantu cultivation of rhythm.

African dances are participatory with spectators being part of the performance. There are traditionally no barriers between dancers and the onlookers. Dancing in Africa is collective. It focuses on the community more than the individual or couples. It was considered immoral to close couple dance in many traditional African societies. Even touching while dancing is not common practice. There are exceptions for special circumstances.

African dance utilizes the concept of polyrhythm as well as total body articulation. This truly sets it apart from other dance traditions in the world. Polyrhythm is a dance technique wherein the dancer’s body is segmented into separate areas of movement with each area being able to move to different rhythms within the music. These moves are called “isolations” in choreographic terms and are quite complex and difficult to master.

Photo Courtesy of Sandor Havasi

Different areas of Africa have very different dances. The Masai are known for leaping high in the air. The Kalabari emphasize hip motions. In Agbor, they use strong contraction – release movements of the pelvis and upper torso. The Akan of Ghana use their feet and hands in specific movements. In all cases, African movements are precise and must be done expertly. Through the years, tradition stays intact. The dances of yesterday are still the dances of today. Dances are often segregated by gender, reinforcing gender roles in children, or the passage from childhood to adulthood, kinship, age, spiritual worship and status. Many dances are performed by only males or females, indicating strong beliefs about what being male or female represents. Young girls of Zambia spend months practicing in seclusion for their coming of age ritual. Boys show off their strength in energetic dances and can be judged for their physical endurance.

In African dance, the drum is one way to set the mood and bring everyone together as a community. In Africa, coming together in response to a beating drum is a time to give one another a sense of belonging and solidarity. It is a time to connect with one another and be part of a collective rhythm of life for the young, old, rich and poor. Everyone is invited to contribute to society. This is when it is very important for master dancers and drummers to be disciplined in learning dancing and drumming exactly as taught with no variation. To be able to improvise in these areas, one has to be recognized for achieving these goals only by appreciation from the spectators and the village elders.

The most widely used musical instrument in Africa is the human voice. Drums are definitely a close second and gourds strung with beads are also used. Clapping, stomping feet and singing all create rhythmic music for African dance. Babies and children learn to play games that develop a feeling for multiple rhythms. As dancers become trained, they learn to portray expressions and inner feelings in sync with the rhythm and the music. The heart and soul of African dance is all in the rhythm and music and are always considered inseparable, one and the same. Here are the traditional categories (and reasons) for dance used in cultural activities: Warrior Dances, Dances of Love, Rites of Passage/Coming of Age Dances, Dances of Possession and Summoning and Dances of Welcome.

The Dances of Possession and Summoning I found most interesting. The Orisbas are the Deities found in many forms of African religion. Each Orisha has their favorite colors, days, times, foods, drinks, music and dances. The dances will be used on special occasions to honor the Orisha or to seek help and guidance. The Orisha could be angry and need appeasing. Kakilambe is a great spirit of the forest who is summoned using dance. He comes in the form of a giant statue carved from the forest out to the waiting village. There is much dancing and singing. During this time, the statue is raised up, growing to a height of 15 feet. Then the priest communes and asks Kakilambe if they will have good luck over the coming years and if there are any major events to be aware of, such as drought, war, etc. These are common themes and very important in many traditional African religions. They all share one thing in common: a call to a spirit. These spirits can be spirits of Plants, Forests, Ancestors or Deities.Every phase of life is well defined by African dance. If there ever was a continent rich in culture brought to life by dance that would be Africa. For the Africans, there is a dance that signifies all walks of life!

Today, African dancing is very exciting to watch on stage. It is also considered a popular modern dance in America. We have the very wonderful Alvin Ailey to thank for that. Alvin Ailey was an African American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York City. Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African American participation in 20th century concert dance. Ailey’s choreographic masterpiece ‘Revelations’ is believed to be the best known and most often seen modern dance performed. The Alvin Ailey dancers do perform internationally. If you ever have a chance to see them perform, you will not be let down. They are magnificent!

If you have ever talked to anyone who has or is taking African dance classes, I always notice they say the same thing. They say it is the most comprehensive form of exercise they have ever done because you use every part of the body. Also, the dancing itself, may be difficult to learn but once you get the hang of it, the beauty of the movement and the rich cultural style make it the dance of choice. They all say, African dancing is the best of exercise and dance combined! Alright then, what are you waiting for?

Happy dancing,

Thought Of The Week:

Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people. – Alvin Ailey



Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website