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By: Sheruel Williams, Tyra Robinson, Jozanne Layne, and Tracy Robinson
History of African Dance

African dance has traditionally played an essential role in the culture of

the tribes. Dance wasn’t just used for entertainment, but also to
communicate emotions, celebrate rites of passage, and help
strengthen the bond between members of the tribe as a whole.

Historical African Dancing

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 segmented into separate
areas of movement, with each area being able to move to different
rhythms within the music. Known as "isolations" in choreographic
terms, these moves are quite complex and difficult to master.

Most African villages had a "dance master" who taught the members of
the tribe from a very young age how to perform the various dances. It
was very important that these dances be performed exactly 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. The Masai are known for leaping high in the air, for example,
while the Kalabari emphasize hip motions. In all cases, the movements
are very precise, and the same dances you see today have most likely
been danced the same way for centuries.

The Importance of Music in African Dance

In African dance, the drum is one way to set the mood and brings
everyone together as a community. However, many other instruments
were used as well, such as gourds strung with beads. Clapping,
stamping feet, and most of all singing also create rhythmic music for
African dance. As dancers move in an expression of their inner
feelings, their movements are generally in rhythm to the music. It is
the sound of the music and the rhythms that are played that provide
the heartbeat of the dance. Groups such as the Alokli West African
Dance Ensemble, who perform historical, social, and ritualistic dance
forms from all along the Ivory Coast, illustrate the wide variety of
dance forms.
African Dance and Slave Trade

The 1500s saw the beginning of slave labor as Africans were brought
to North and South America and the Caribbean. Hundreds of different
African dance styles, from various ethnic groups, were merged
together, along with styles of European dancing. Because of the
importance of dance in the daily life of Africans in their homeland,
many Africans that were enslaved continued to use dance as a way to
keep their cultural traditions and connect with their home country.

Enslaved Africans that were taken to colonies in South America, the

Caribbean, Spain and Portugal were given much more freedom to
carry on their dance traditions than those who were brought to North
America. Sadly, many of the North American slave owners prevented
Africans from performing most of their traditional dances.

The importance and spirit of dance were not stopped by these

restrictions, however. African slaves found ways to adapt their dancing
and continue their traditions in secret. Out of necessity this caused
some changes in the dances. For example, since slaves were
prevented from lifting their feet, they created moves that included
shuffling the feet and moving the hips and body.
African Dance in North American History

Throughout the eighteenth century there were several dances that

dominated on plantations. These dances included:

 The Ring Dance, also called the Ring Shout

 The Juba
 The Chica
 The Calenda
The nineteenth century saw the plantation dances move onto the stage
as minstrel shows became popular. During these shows, which were
performed by both black and white performers, dances based on
African cultural heritage were introduced to large numbers of people.

As the century came to an end, a dance called the Cakewalk was

introduced in The Creole Show, a Broadway revue. This African-
influenced dance was the first to become popular with white
audiences. From 1891 on, there were many African-influenced dances
that became popular in the years to follow. African-influenced dance
trends through the present include:

 The Charleston
 Tap Dancing
 The Lindy Hop
 The Jitterbug
 The Twist
 Jazz dance
 Hip hop
 Crunking
The History of African Dance Continues

Although Western culture has spread throughout Africa, many of the

traditional African dances have also spread throughout the world. For
example, the KanKouran Dance Company has celebrated West African
dance for over twenty years in Washington D.C. Troupes like this help
preserve and share the culture and traditions of African dance
throughout the world, sharing the joy far beyond the native tribes and
keeping the history alive.