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«Dilem~a The of Dance in Societv There are two opposing beliefs or views that are currently debated in South Africa amongst the dance community the ...»

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112

IS DANCE POLITICAL MOVEMENT?*

Dilem~a

The of Dance in Societv

There are two opposing beliefs or views that are currently

debated in South Africa amongst the dance community -- the one is

that dance is political, whereas the contrary opinion is that dance

occupies a separate domain and is in no sense connected to

political matters. The adherents of the first view would argue

that particularly in South Africa 1 but probably universally, daP.ce or any form of cultural expression is inextricably interwoven into the socio-political, economic a:nd even religious, fabric of peoples' lives. On the other hand, there are those who believe that politics and art should not be mixed (echoes of sport!) and that dance is solely a form of entertainment. It is often those in the society who have political power who support the idea that art (or dance) is not political, whereas those who do not have any political power support the converse idea.

Another way of conceptualising these two views is to ask whether art or dance mirrors life -- does it portray and magnify the realities of· life, or does it represent an escape from reality or a fantasy world?

Terminoloay Before continuing, certain terminology needs to be clarified.

It is difficult to discuss dance in isolation, as it is often associated with other forms of performance art. The term 'art' is also problematic as it tends to suggest a domain or experience on a separate level of reality. I use the term 'cultural expression' which seems less exclusive. In indigenous African cultural forms of expression, dance and music are inextricably linked. The music is part of the.dance and vice versa. Therefore, in discussing indigenous black South African forms of cultural expression, dance and music are referred to synonymously.

The word 'traditional' also needs to be clarified -- it is used to refer to that kind of South African dance which has its source in the rituals and rites of passage (birth, initiation, harvests, death, etc.) of the indigenous black South African rural population. These forms have undergone change due to interaction *This article is reprinted with kind permission from the editors of The Dance Journal, The School of Dramatic Art, Witwatersrand University, P.O. Wits 1 Johannesburg 2050, South Africa.

with neighbouring groups of rural people, as well as transformation as a response to migrant labour and proletarianisation.

Definina 'Political' in Relation to· Dance If we are to d.isc-:..:ss ~·.'"he-=her c:::- :;.ot d.:.nce/r:'.'..:sic is 'political,' we need to establish in what sense the word 'political' is being used. The narrow or specific use of 'political' is connected with the state or government and its organisation at various levels. However, there is a diffuse or broader use, which t·he Concise Oxford Dictionary gives as "belonging to or taking sides in politics: relating to a person's or organisation's status or influence. 11 It is the broader sense of 'politic~!' that will be used in this article.

Erlmann points out that it is easy to dismiss the notion of music as political if one takes the narrow meaning of 'political,' which is to "communicate ideologies and specific ideas" (Erlmann, 1982:1), but that the bioader political role of music lies in the notion that "aesthetics ·instigates the changed forms of consciousness needed to generate practical changes in society" (Erlmann, 1982: 1). Blacking also sees a political function of music, as its performance "generates feelings a!1d relationships between people that enable positive thinking and action in fields that are not musical" (Blacking, 1981:35).

These sentiments can be appplied to dance in the same sense as to music in that it can act as a catalyst for political thought and action. However, I believe it is also political in the sense that attitudes toward dance, or aesthetic values relating to dance, are forged or influenced by the political actions and thinking at a particular time in history. Furthermore, the actual structure or form of dances and the way these forms are transformed is influenced by political actions and attitudes.

Although I argue· that dance "is political, I am not saying that dance is only political. The political aspect is one facet of the multitude of processes involved in dance formation and expression.

This is not to ignore many other functions of dance, such as entertainment, recreation, individual aesthetic exoression and social bonding, to mention but a few. This articie is. not an attempt to minimise the essential role that individual performers, teachers or choreographers play in creating new dance forms.

Although individuals involved in the creative process may not be consciously politically motivated, yet their position in South African society has been politicised through processes such as colonialism and the apartheid system.

Dance and Culture Dance needs to be understood in relation to a broad view of culture. Culture is not only a ~et of symbols, values or beliefs of people 1 but also a response to circumstances. These circums~ances encompass not only the material or economic but also the socio-political activities of any group of people. The notion of culture should·not be seen as a monolithic whole. Groups that exist within the same society to a certain extent share each others' C'...'.ltu.res, b'...'.t 11 just as groups are unequally ranked in terms of wealth and power, so cultures are differently ran.ked 11 (Clark, 1976:11). Even within the categories or 'classes' of culture there will be continuous flux and transformation. The conflict between classes is often fought at the level of culture, and cultural formations are often class-based. However, in South Africa, whereas one can conceptualise certain cultural formations such as dance/music as class-based to a certain extent, the concept of a class-based culture such as 'a working class culture' is complicated by black/white opposition and the whole historical process of colonisation.





Colonialism Colonial attitudes affected the extent and direction of cultural cross-fertilisation. The colonial settlers coming to South Africa brought with them their dances from Europe. Dance for these Europeans was a form of social communication or recreation and entertainment in the form of court or folk dances. For the indigenous black people dance and music was an integral part of their social, religious and political rituals and ceremonies. The dilemma posed earlier whether dance is separate from or integrated into other spheres of life -- was reflected in the different roles which dance occupied in the colonial and indigenous cultures respectively.

There was.in the eighteenth centure considerable crossfertilisation between the colonists, the indigenous population and the slave population. Coloured musicians were very influential in forging a popular western Cape performanc~ cultu·re. While s"egregation was a matter o~ s.oqia:l class and n:Ot legislated, a continuous cultural ex.change o'ccUrred between different groups of people. In the. West".ern Cape during a period of about two hundred years 1 when segregation was cuStomary, rather than legislated, a popular performance culture developed which was "based on Afrikaans and common to white as well as, Coloured people" (Coplan, 1983:10Co1oured" slave and freemen would perform on rural farms or country dances at official balls, as well as in "racially mixed seaside taverns and dancehall canteens 11 (Coplan, 1985:10).

The history of the dances, both social and theatrical, of the European settlers and their descandants in this country during the latter part of the nineteenth and twentieth century has been characterised to a large extent by its lack of adoption, absorption or adaptation of local indigenous black dance forms. In general, colonial attitudes, especially at the height of British imperialism 1 were characterised by disdain towards the culture and traditions of the indigenous population. Darwin's theories of evolution reinforced ~he European attitudes of racial and cultural s:;;:eri:Jrity. '!'l:e c-..:2.ture of the ind.:!.genou.s black populatio!"'. was perceived as simple, undeveloped and generally on a lower level of 'civilizatioD' than that of the Eurooean colonists_ Their music a::.d dance ·:as see::. as p::::-imitive a!"ld nOt vmrthy of understanding or emulation. These attitudes have persisted and are still to be found to this day.

The ethnocentrism of a large percentage of the dance community allowed them to see indigenous black dance as only 'repetitive' and 'boring', instead of learning to appreciate the structural subtleties, rhythmic complexity, intricate footwork, sudden shifts of weight and counterpoint of juxtaposed body parts. Johnny Clegg with Juluka and Savuku, Amaponda and groups such as Ladysmith Black Marnbazo, as. well as shows such as "Serafina" have brought African music and dance to a wide white population, and this has helped to change attitudes, but there is a long way to go before inculcated prejudice is replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

On the positive side, during the ·past two decades· there have been a small but growing number of choreographers and dance teachers in South Africa who have been working with non-racial dance groups and incorporating indigenous elements into their work.

Dance for Children and Dance Comoanies Ballet became popular in England in the early part of this century and the colonies and dominions followed the fashion. Until recently ballet has been a predominantly elitist activity taught ·mainly to white children (or in the Cape to 'coloured' children as well). Since both education and residential areas have been segregated, the majority of South African children have not had access to ballet, modern, or ot,her dance classes. Most of the syllabi taught by the various examining bOdies in South Africa have been formulated without consideration of the cultural and socioeconomic J:?.ackg:rounds of· the majority of the children of this coUntry.

When the state-subsidised ballet companies were formed in the early 1960's, they were modelled on westerri. European pro.totypes.

Although there were some forays into indigenous culture through the use of myths or stories, the form in which this material was expressed was still based on western aesthetic criteria.

One of the most obvious examples of how politics in this country has explicitly affected dance is the Separate Amenities Act. For over twenty years there were racially exclusive Peforming Arts Councils and hence racially exclusive ballet companies. The Cape, which was always politically more liberal, had a ballet comp.any which was not exclusively white. One of the first areas where the colour-bar was broken was in the state-controlled institutions of the Performing Arts Councils. PACT's recently formed Dance Company {contemporary dance) could not have existed in its prese!lt for!r1. fifteen years ago because of politics and not because of artistic or financial considerations. It almost seems superfluous to point out that the cultural boycott has also affected the da~ce community, in particular the followers of modern dance.

Dance and the Church Under the colonial regimen, the missionaries were responsible for both the conversion and education of thie indigenous black population. Most missionaries saw traditional dancing as part of the pagan rituals which they believed must be suppressed. The converted Christian black people who were 1 forbidden' to dance in ·their customary way at communal occasions channeled their need for singing social musicalisation into Christian congregational (Coplan, 1985:29). Dance for these Christians became separated from their.everyday social and religious life. For some time traditional African dancing became the preserve of the nonChristian black people.

However, in the early· twentieth century, with the establishment of separatist African churches 1 not only were traditional musical structures introduced into hymn singing, but traditional style dances were used as a form of communal worship.

The establishment of these separatist churches can be viewed as a form of political protest of black Christians against the totally western form of worship the missionaries imposed on them. Dance and music were an integral part of religious e"xperience and were often the means through which trance-like states were reached whereby mediums could communicate with the ancestors. By reintroducing dance into worship, the African people were reaffirming the value of their cultural traditions (Blacking: 1981;37ff).



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