African dance. Dance in Africa. Africans dancing. There are many conversations to be had around this topic. As a dancer, as a choreographer, as an African, I’m interested in this conversation and the way in which there is so much angst around this conversation, which could possibly find its roots in yes – you guessed it – colonialism. (No! No! Not colonialism! We’re fucking sick of all that!) But colonial history remains a pertinent issue. Let’s have a quick history of dance in Africa…
So dance in Africa started properly when Europeans saw Africans dancing for the first time (please note the overly-aggressive sarcasm in that sentence). And thus began long adventuring tropes and tales about the noble savage and his war dances and ritual dances and the primitive rhythm that emanated from Africa (much later, this way of thinking would develop into a charmingly lucrative tourist industry). Then, along with many things Europeans brought across the seas to our dark and savage continent (lol), came ballet.
Ballet you could say is the folk dance of Western Europe. You see, African natives have ‘tribal dance’ and European natives have ‘folk dance’. When the European Kings and Queens (notably the French royalty) saw how much fun the Peasants were having with their folk/tribal dance, they decided to bring it into the courts, and naturally, with lots of gold, glitter and funding, what was once folk became the highest form of dance – ballet.
So let us generalize and summarize: Traditional dances from Europe became ballet. Ballet got old and contemporary dance was made. Then postmodern dance. Then non-dance, physical theatre, performance art, dance film, sculptural dance, anything, you name it. Ballet kept going, but it also kept changing. People are trying out new things and giving these new things funny names.
This is the thing about the various crazy things that people decide to do, they do it and then it changes. It grows, revolts against itself, goes backwards, goes forwards. Art is constantly evolving. And this is where I begin to get defensive about dance in Africa because I feel like dance in Africa is not expected to do the same thing. I have spoken to many fellow choreographers who are making work in Africa, who have felt criticized that the content of their work is not immediately perceived as something that has originated in Africa. Often one cannot tell exactly where an artist comes from based on their art and this in no way negates the legitimacy of where that artist is from or what kind of art they’re making.
But dance in Africa is always changing, expanding, reacting and evolving; it is overwhelmingly diverse and varied. It can include ballet, breakdance, pantsula, gumboot dance, contemporary dance, voguing – it can even include pooping on a stage and it is still African dance. In fact, dare we call it – just dance?
Written by Nicola van Straaten, a dance artist who thinks dance is pretty much related to everything.