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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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Svncretic Forms of Cultural Expression The formation of many syncretic indigenous music/dance forms in the slumyards, townships, hostels and compounds 1 which started in the last part of the nineteenth century and has continued until the present time, can be seen largely as a response to political actions as well as economic conditions. With the discovery of diamonds and gold, there was a demand for a plentiful supply of manual labour. Restrictive legislation culminating in the 1913 Land Act, together with the imposition of hut tax and natural disasters, resulted in a severe shortage of land and cash for rural black people..Migrancy became an increasing necessity for survival. The effect on dance was that not only did rural or traditional forms of cultural expreSsion change through urban contact 1 but the· new urban forms incorporated rural elements.

Although no attempt will be made to examine all these syncretic indigenous dance/music forms, a few will be discussed to sh8'tl how they e:!'.body a complex set of values or me.ssages which may include the political.

The creation of a large number of crowded urban slumyards in Johannesburg in the early twentieth century was a result of restrictive legislation and poverty. Situated in these slumyards, the shebeens provided a source of income as well as a social meeting point. Regular week-end parties with music and dancing were an essential part of the shebeen. A new class of semiprofessional shebeen musicians arose. Their music assimila-c.ed elements which included traditional African, Afro-western, Afrikaans, folk music,.American ragtime and jazz into a single urban style called marabi.· The marabi dance which could be performed alone or with a partner w:as ··not rigidly structured, but rather improvised, with the performers drawing on traditional African and western forms of dance.

Marabi became more than a form of music or dance; it became synonymous with the new culture that arose in the slumyards. This culture, including the dancing, grew out of a response· to the deprivation and the exclusion of the black people. It is important to place this form of cultural expression in its total context.

The shebeens were illegal, yet people continued to participate frequently in the rnarabi music and dancing. This marabi culture can be seen as an expression of resistance -- people saw no social stigma in going to jail as a result of raids during marabi parties at Shebeens. By being an integral part of the shebeen based marabi culture, dance can be seen to be· a part of the "resistance to a cruel system" to which Themba refers (1972: 108).

Marabi was not only a form of resistance, "it was also the desire of a largely un~cho"o:J_e"d an_d un-westernised urban African to modernise bY absorbi·ng new cultural elements within a familiar structure ~ (Coplan, 1985:107).

Here we can see how importam: it is to ·examine the location and the context of the dance in order to understand.the full significance of its performance. It should not be forgotten that for many of the shebeen frequenters the rnarabi dance ~as a form of socialising, a way to meet people.

Iscathamlya -- Many Messages Iscatharnlya developed out of many other forms of music/dance 1 including traditional Naoma songs and dances, Zulu wedding songs and dances, Christian hymnody, and American minstrel and ragtime music/dance. It is· the very diversity of these sources that enables Erlmann to demonstrate how Iscathamlya or its predecessor mbube cbuld express or contain within it such diverse messages as working-class consciousness, urban status 1 Christianity, rural nostalgia, pan-ethnic African nationalist ideology and Zulu nationalism (Erlmann, 1987:2).

Tscatharnlva competitions were, and still are 1 popular with Zulu migrant workers of the industrial centres of Johannesburg and Durban. The way that a particular group danced or sang was a way of identifying that group by members of that group and members of other groups. The groups could compete in weekly competitions against each other or they could perform together to expresS their solidarity as black workers for organisations such as the Industrial and Commercial Unions. Whereas the traditional element in Tscathamlva has been' seen by many as reactionary, Erlmann (1987) points out that the persistence of traditional elements could be an expression of opposition by the migrant workers to capitalism.

The a.ctual characteristic Iscathamlva 'st'ep' also developed as a response to social change;' more specifically, to change of attire fiom rural to urban dress. As one of Erlmann's informants puts it, This is where the 'step' comes from. The 1 step' and ngoma are different. The difference is that the 'step' allows you to dance with a tie, a suit. But with naoma you cannot perform it with a tie, wearing a suit 11 (Interview Mtshali 1 Erlmann 1 1977:21) Stick Fightina Transformed into Isishameni-Style Dancina :clegg (1981) describes how traditional stick-fighting matches, in which the participants followed rules and no one was hurt, were changed into real life-destroying contests. In the Natal Midlands the appropriation of land and the resulting scarcity of this resource 1 as well as jobs 1 led to intense. competion between traditional 'stick-fighting 1 districts. As an increasing number of people were killed by stick-fighting, another cultural response was needed, and it took the form of dance competitions. Many new dances were developed in the Isishameni style.

While the development of theser dances and the Competitions can be viewed as. a respons·e.-to' SOcial 1 political and economic factors, it should not be forg-otten that they also provide entertainment and recr.eation to performers and onlookers, as well as a sense of sheer physical exuberance and well-being for the dancers. Dance can be created as a result of many factors, and it can have ~any funi:ti.ons.

Apartheid and Dance The architects of apartheid saw cultures as bounded, fixed 1 homogeneous entities. They emphasized the differences between people and reified cultural traditions. The preservation of traditional cultures as discrete entities, frozen in time 1 was in keeping with their policy of racial exclusiveness. Tribalism or ethnicity was promoted as part of 1 separate development'. Tribal dancing was seen as something that should be preserved in its pure form and any signs of urban or western indluence were seen as a form of cultural bastardisation {James, 1989).

As a reaction agains government-enforced cultural differentiation and the oolicv of divide and rule, many of the opponents and 'victims Of ap2rtheid regarded any emphasis on cultural differentiation or ethnicity with suspicion. Terminology such as 'ethnic dance', 'tribal dance', or even 'traditional dance' has become an emotionally loaded concept. It is not only the words or terminology that have been affected. Cultural unity and solidarity are inevitably stressed, perhaps at times at the expense of diversification. Thus the variety of dance· forms which are to be found amongst the different language groups have often not been valued in terms of their richness as a cultural heritage. On the one hand, we have white·ethnocentrisrn and attitudes of cultural superiority, and on the other hand we have black suspicion of government promoted 'tribal' dance.

National and Reaional Dance National variations in folk-dance are universally found. For example, Italian dances differ from Slavonic dances -- the former have much more elevation than the latter 1 which have a downward quality or skim smoothly over the ground. Furthermore, within countries there are regional differences the dignified, controlled dances of the north of Italy, such as the Trescone or Furlana 1 dif;fer from the dances of central Italy, such as the freer, more relaxed Saltarello, as well as from the fiery, passionate Tarantella of the south. Similar regional variations exist in South Africa -- the undulating 1 almost lyrical movements of the domba dance of Venda have different dynamics from the stamping, military-like movements of the 'umoaonga' style Zulu dances (Clegg, 1981:11).

To carry the cross-cultural analogy further, countries such as Poland, Russia, Spain, Israel and,·Senegal 1 which have stroi/,g dance traditions, have forffied professiOnal ·theatrical folk or 'national' dance companies, which tour throughout the world and have been enthusiastically received. It would seem that South African traditional indigenous dances with their wide variety of {arms would provide ample material for an exciting professional folk dance company. Dances from all the regions could be included and theatricalised if necessary, so that one would not be promoting ethnicity in a divisive sense, but rather acknowledging the value of cultural diversity.

Dance and Protest Theatre

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Dance as Non-Verbal Communication The question is often asked how can dancer which is a nonverbal art, be political·? It. is precisely this characteristic which makes it a powerful tool of expression of an oppressed people. Dance and music can often express sentiments of opposition and resistance and the aspirations of people who are denied verbal or literary expression of these feelings.

Because of its non-verbal nature, dance can easily be ambiguous, so that ideas that may be censored in other media may be suggested or implied through dance. For example, in the Bambian Copperbelt the workers took part in regular recreational dances.

As part of the kalela dance (.Mitchell, 1956) they expressed their dissatisfaction with conditions in the mines and made insulting jokes about their white 1 bosses'. This criticism w.as acceptable be.cause of the ritual-like context of the dance.


If there is still any doubt about the strong political element in dance, one needs to look no further than the recent protest marches and demonstrations. The toyi-toyi is a central part of political protest. Dance is not only an expression of political feelings, it can also influence· the perceptions of the participants and viewers, and contribute to transforming socio-political systems. In South Africa, where you dancer whom you dance with 1 what kind of dances you do, and your attitude toward dance will say something about you as c political being 1 as well as a performer or 'artist'. This is not an attempt to reduce dance to politics, but rather to acknowledge that it is an integral part of the socio-political, economic and religious life of people, as well as a cultural or recreational phenomenon. As the country and its politics become normalised, one would expect dance to become de-politicised. As ethnocentrism gives way to a real openness and williness to understand and appreciate, so will suspicion give way to cooperation and collaboration in the dance community. Dance not only reflects the society, but it can also ~ould society.

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Clegg, J. 1983. "Towards an Understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isisharneni Style." Papers presented at' the Second Symposium on Ethnomusicology. ILAM.

Coplan, D. "The Emergence of an African Working-Class 1982.

Culture." In Industrialism and Social Change in South Africa (S. Marks and R. Rathbone, Eds.) London.

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James, D. 1989. "Research on African Music in South Africa. 11 Briefing for the Radical History Review, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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Themba, C. 1972. The Will To Die. South Africa: D. Philip.

·v·an Onselen, C. 19 82. "Randlords and Rctg""C.t." II"'.. Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, Vol. 1: New Babylon.

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