A Brief History of African Dance

Aesthetics: principles relating to what is beautiful, pleasing, and appreciated.
Polycentric: the idea that movement can initiate from any part of the body

Dance in African and African Diasporan cultures crosses many boundaries. It is part of celebrations, religion, war, and theatre. It comes in many forms, from masquerade to ritual spirit dance to theatre. Some of these dance forms are intertwined, and a masquerade dance can be done as part of a celebration or a ritual dance ceremony mourning the death of a community member. African dance develops and creates spaces through which ideas about person, self, gender, and morality are made and contested. Because Africa is a big continent with many different ethnic groups with different customs, traditions, and dances, there is not one single ‘African dance’, instead it is a phrase that should encompass the range of dances from across the continent.

In her book titled ‘Dancing Wisdom,’ Yvonne Daniel considers and explores African cultural continuity, performances, and behaviour amongst the diaspora through dance. Daniel looks at Haitaian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba (commonly called Santería), and Bahian Candomblé. In writing this book, Daniel aims to introduce African history and sacred customs to the broader public. Daniels pushes against the white gaze and lens of incorrect beliefs that African religious traditions and their associated dances are ‘cursed’ and to be viewed through a lens of superstition. We find a site for rich cultural and aesthetic knowledge in understanding and looking at African diaspora religious systems. We find commonalities within related ritual communities that link African spirituality to the experiences of the Diaspora. This serves as a form of cultural resistance in which the enslaved ensured that histories and cultures of dance were preserved and passed on. These dances throughout the diaspora are an example of cultural retention, a way for enslaved Africans to hold on to a piece of ‘home’. It was also a form of resistance, showing their captors that despite their current situation, their spirits and culture could not be oppressed. 

Additionally, African dance and music traditions are a way to bring ancestral and spiritual wisdom to the present. In doing so, African dance becomes a site of healing and health, bonding and goodwill, and deepening our connections to nature and our spiritual universe.

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 sectioned into separate areas of movement, with each area moving to different rhythms within the music. This is known as ‘isolations’ in choreographic terms.

Most African communities had a ‘dance master’ who taught the members of the group from a very young age how to perform the various dances. These dances needed to be performed precisely 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. For example, the Masai are known for leaping high in the air, while the Kalabari emphasises hip motions. The movements are exact in all cases, and the same dances you see today have most likely been danced the same way for centuries.

The aesthetic values of a society expressed through dance represent beauty and the best it has to offer. Therefore, African dance aesthetics represent beauty, commonalities, and the best of West, East, Central, North, and South African communities.

If you are curious and want to learn more about African dance, see here.

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