Guide Dance and Its Audience: Appreciating the Art of Movement

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Secular masqueraders who perform as entertainers have emerged from the ritual societies. The Egungun entertainers of the Oyo-Yoruba, for example, perform at Egungun ancestral festivals, but they may be invited to perform for a fee as entertainers, often traveling to neighbouring towns to earn money although they are obliged to offer sacrifices to their ancestors before performing.

The company members usually start with popular acrobatic dances and then display their magic powers by changing into a series of animal and masked figures. They use an inventive range of mime and dance to praise gods and heroes, to satirize politicians and wrongdoers, and to ridicule strangers, such as visiting Hausa traders or Europeans, with wit and humour. Accompanied by singers and led by a drum ensemble, they present a form of communal or folk theatre. Masqueraders may play an individual role, as with the circumciser during the initiation rites of the young Nyanga men in eastern Congo Kinshasa.

Initially he dances as a masquerade to send the boys out of the village to their ritual seclusion, where he taunts the initiates before and after the rites of circumcision. As an authority figure, he inspires awe in women and children. In some cultures masquerade performance is not allowed to be seen by women, and nocturnal performances are often used to control women and even threaten them into accepting their social role.

This is aided by the fact that in many forms of masquerade the body of the carrier is entirely covered in order to hide his identity, and his voice may be distorted by a kazoo or voice disguiser.

In all African cultures, dance, music, and song help define the role of the individual and the group within the community. In hierarchical societies a ruler is expected to state his authority in formal dances, and failure to meet the required standard may seriously damage his prestige. At the crowning of an oba king in Yorubaland, for example, the ruler leads a procession through the town as he dances with upright carriage and dignified step, his gestures dictated by the nature of his kingly role and the insignia he carries.

His wives follow, interpreting the rhythms in a style suitable to their rank, inclining forward from the waist with their attention respectfully directed toward the earth. When the oba is seated in state, his war chiefs greet him, each with his appropriate dance rhythm. The hunters then dance to their rapid and complex beat. Palace chiefs and women market chiefs have their own distinctive music, song, and dance to praise the ruler, and girls, young men, and children honour him with dances appropriate to their status.

Dance is also important as an educational tool. Repetitive dances teach children physical control and stress accepted standards of conduct. Children may form their own dance and masquerade groups, join adults at the end of a dance line, or simply have a space allocated to them in a performing area at the time of a festival. In some places, particularly in West Africa , boys have their own masked dances in training for membership in adult societies. Throughout Africa children enjoy dance games, as when Makindu boys of Kenya sing as they play leapfrog to a dance rhythm.

In societies that stress horizontal stratification into age sets, the qualities proper to a particular age are expressed in dances, as in those that keep young men physically fit and teach them the discipline necessary in warfare. The dances of young Zulu and Ndebele men in Southern Africa recall the victories of past warriors. Among the Owo-Yoruba the stately Totorigi dance is for senior men and women, while adolescent boys perform the lively Ajabure with ceremonial swords. The transition from one age grade to the next may be marked by rites and festivities. In initiation rites for adolescents, dances may stress sexual fertility as well as customary behaviour between the sexes.

In the Otufo initiation rites for girls among the Ga of Ghana, dance is part of their preparation for womanhood and enables them to display their talents to suitors. Young Kaka men of Cameroon perform their Midimu dance after the circumcision rites as a formal precondition of admission into the society of adults.

In some areas dances are designed to be performed during funeral rites, after burial ceremonies, and at anniversaries. Dances may be created for a specific purpose, as in the Igogo dance of the Owo-Yoruba, when young men use stamping movements to pack the earth of the grave into place. In some areas a circle dance surrounds the men performing the required ritual autopsy. The individual is not left alone to bear the emotions that accompany critical change, as members of the community carry him and his family through the crisis with appropriate ceremonies containing the emotions of the moment in music, song, and dance.

Dance and Its Audience : Appreciating the Art of Movement by Tami White (2013, Paperback)

Within traditions of long standing in many cultures, it is unusual for men and women to dance in direct relation to each other, and they seldom perform the same style of dance—though combination of the sexes is more common in areas where the original dance has been disrupted by non-African forms. Idealized male and female qualities are normally expressed in the movement patterns of their separate dances: for example, Tiv men dance with an attack of rapid, forceful movements to express masculinity, whereas the women dance with a sustained grace to reflect their femininity.

If men and women join a common dance circle, their dance patterns are usually distinct, as with the Kambari of Nigeria: men and women dance to the same musical rhythm, but they hold different postures, with the women singing and using a simpler foot pattern than the men. Dance occasions for formalized flirtation between the sexes before marriage are common, as in the Sikya dance of the Akan of Ghana.

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The Bororo of western Cameroon celebrate the coming of the dry season with a dance for young men and women, and couples pair off at the climax of the performance. Among the Nupe of Nigeria ribald songs and joking insults between the sexes have replaced performances allowing for sexual license at harvest festivals. The dances of Ika men and girls western Igbo, Nigeria have become openly erotic since the early s, when a master dancer brought the sexes together in a single dance team to entertain visitors to the palace of the oba of Agbor in Nigeria.

Thus, erotic patterns of dance movement are encouraged in some societies, usually with bawdy humour, whereas the limits of flirtation are clearly defined in others for the sake of social decorum. Men who work together often celebrate a successful project with beer drinking and vigorous dances expressing their occupational skills. In Nigeria, Nupe fishermen are renowned for their net throwing, which they formalize into dance patterns, and young Irigwe farmers on the Jos Plateau leap to encourage the growth of crops at festivals related to the agricultural cycle.

Occupational guilds and professional organizations of experts, such as blacksmiths, hunters, or wood-carvers, have their own expressive dances. Hunters may reenact their exploits or mime the movements of animals as a ritual means of controlling wild beasts and allaying their own fears. The Akan of Ghana perform the Abofor dance, a dance-mime staged after the killing of a dangerous animal. This is meant to placate the spirit of the beast and inform the community of the manner in which it was killed. Tutsi hunters in Congo Kinshasa commemorate a successful hunt in their lion dance.

Dance is the most popular form of recreation in Africa. In towns, men and women of all ages meet informally in dance clubs to dance to the rhythms of popular musicians. In villages there may be opportunities in the evenings for informal dancing, but relations between the sexes there are more tightly controlled. Highlife was a style of urban recreational dance popular in West Africa in the s. It originated in Ghana, where musicians adopted Western dance-band instruments at open-air nightclubs to celebrate the exuberant spirit of independence.

In Nigeria, local instruments were used as the Yoruba created juju rhythms, while the Tiv danced the Swange. Francophone countries elaborated the Latin American rhythms of the cha-cha, while Southern Africans danced to the modern African beats of the kwela. Zairian dance bands excelled in the creation of their own popular dance music. These have given way to styles influenced by Caribbean reggae and Western pop music , but they retain a distinctly African character.


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Although often similar in social purpose, dances are realized in radically different styles in the multitude of diverse cultures of Africa. Movement patterns vary greatly from one culture to another, depending upon the way in which environmental, historical, and social circumstances have been articulated in working, social, and recreational movements. People living on dry, spacious farmlands, for example, have different movement habits from those living in swamplands.

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For farmers of the savanna, the ground is solid and their space open to the far horizon. They place their feet firmly on the sunbaked earth as they follow their team leader on the circular path of their dance, performing simple foot patterns at a steady tempo.

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The Ijo people, who live in the mangrove swamps of the Niger delta, traditionally wrest an uneasy living by fishing creeks and rivers. As they dance, they lean forward from the hips, their torsos almost parallel with the earth as they use a precision of light, rapid foot beats, moving their weight from heel to toe to side of foot in a variety of rhythmic patterns, as though balancing on an unsteady canoe or picking their way through the swamp. Many other riverine peoples mime paddling in their dances.

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Manipulating their flowing gowns as an extension of gesture in stately, measured dances, the Kanuri of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria conserve energy with economy of movement—a common feature in the dance of desert peoples. By contrast, some forest dwellers dance freely. The southern Yoruba continuously alter their foot patterns and sequence of movements at the dictates of the leading drummer.

Their movements suggest finding a way through forest undergrowth, which necessitates reactions ever alert to the unexpected. Working movements feed into styles of dance.


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  • Architecture, furniture, and dress are among features that also influence posture and gesture, producing a distinctive use of energy. The Kambari of Nigeria continuously bend forward to enter their low doors, and their dance posture reflects this habit.

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    The Jukun sit on low stools or on the floor with legs crossed or extended; their flexible knees and strong leg tendons allow for the performance of continuous deep knee bends in their dance movements. These cultural influences in the development of dance style have been offset by such historical events as migrations, wars, and slave trading, which have displaced people as refugees over the centuries, changed their habitation patterns, and brought them in touch with new environments.

    The development of trade routes introduced influences from Arabic and other cultures. Conversion to Christian and Muslim faiths severely disrupted ritual and ceremonial life and thus often disturbed the traditional patterns sustaining music and dance. Colonialism also resulted in the dissipation of cultural homogeneity and the gathering of disparate dance patterns into new styles.

    There are four principal African dance formations: a dance team using a formalized floor pattern; a group using a free-flow floor pattern; a group using a formation from which solo dancers emerge to display their individual skills; and the performance of a solo dancer—usually a ruler, ritual specialist, herbalist, or comic entertainer—who may be supported by a group of musicians. The most common form of dance within the indigenous traditions of Africa is a team dance performed either in a closed circle, with the dancers facing the centre, or in a line following a circular path that is often centred on the musicians.