Friday, January 9, 2015

African Dance Movements Are Misunderstood

Submitted by Doris Green - January 9, 2015 

© 2015, Doris Green

When I realized that I was going to be the first person to teach African music and dance in Brooklyn College upon graduation, I knew that a culminating factor would be my going to Africa. After all I had been corresponding with Africans for years. After countries of African earned their independence there was an increase in African students who came to New York to study and shared their culture with us. This afforded me an insight into the music and dance of a number of different African cultures. I had formed a list of questions that I wanted to ask Africans on the continent for a definition of African dance, as well as the reasons why Africans dance was so commonplace throughout the continent.  I also needed a response to why African dances contained “contractions” or isolations, for lack of better terminology. This movement appeared to be in a number of dances.

Armed with my list of questions, I went to Africa in search of answers to these questions. I began my journey in East Africa. There I would see contractions in dances of this region. I was advised to go to West Africa because rhythm in West African music and dance was developed to the nth degree whereas the melodics of music received more attention than the rhythm in East Africa.  It would take me several trips to Africa consulting with cultural informants on a trams-continental basis before I was satisfied with a plausible response to the reason behind the contractions. It was obvious to me that the answer was not to be found among youthful cultural informants. Their response was ‘contractions’ existed for sexual flavor.  I rejected this answer, as I could not see any reason for contractions to be in all types of dances. I turned to the older cultural informants. When I asked Professor Opoku of Ghana, he told me that “sex: was not something they danced about in Ghana, sex was an act that they did. Further investigation revealed that in the traditional dances, the costumes worn contained secondary rattles that had to be moved in conjunction with the primary rattles of the musical ensemble.  The placement of these secondary rattles could be worn on the ‘waist’, the shoulders, the ankles, neck or arms. Wherever these secondary rattles were worn, would be the focus of the actions. Throughout Africa I have seen the movement, when the secondary rattles were worn on the waist, that we mistakenly call contractions’ done on one hip and also on a alternating basis of the hips.

Unfortunately research did not reveal a photo of traditional dancers outfitted in full regalia, together with a recording of the music of the specific dances so the primary and secondary rattles could be studied.  As dance became more popular and were taken out of their original setting, we see less of the traditional costumes. When Africans were enslaved and sent to foreign soil, these movements were transported with them, but they were without costume and the movement referenced everyday activities of work and play.

If you recall my explanation of ‘contraction’ to the attendees of the Theory Board meetings, I had them stand up and pretend to sit using their rear end, and at the last minute changing their mind and return to a standing position. I also told them that there was no forward thrust to this movement. But westerners have a tendency to misinterpret the movement and perform it in a licentious manner.

When I look at this video, I see all the greatness that the ancestors have been taking to the grave with them because African music and dance lacked written documentation.  I particularly enjoyed the bicycle wine.

My research reveals that African movements are taken out of context and misunderstood. In order to understand the movements, you must have knowledge of the music and its relationship to the dance.  I sincerely hope that my future publications, particularly my textbook Manuscripts of African Music and Dance will dispel these facile notions.

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