African Dance

“Shall tradition be the impetuous torrent which runs into the modern world to shake it and not a stagnant water lake.” Maurice Béjart

How many times the African dancer who trains hard every day to create new choreographic moves has been disturbed by the cliché according to which “Black people have the rhythm in their blood”.

From Joséphine Baker to Michael Jackson, the stereotype of the African knowing how to dance before walking never cease till today.  According to the stereotype, the African dances everywhere, all the time, naturally….. No need to train in dance, to involve, repeat and even less to reflect, innovate, and create: the dance would be innate for black people.

Germaine Acogny, founder of Jant-BI, the international Center for traditional and contemporary dances African, located at Toubab Dialaw (Senegal), says: “the idea that the African dance cannot be taught is the biggest brake in this artistic discipline. We want to prove that  the African dance is an art with plural demonstrations, which is learned and is invented perpetually and is at the crossroads of several influences.”

From myth to realities…

In most popular thinking, “the African dance” was for a long time associated with a great deployment of energy such as jumps and acrobatics, with an exacerbated sensuality by swaying walks and bust moves, accompanied with percussions. With regards to the significance of the African dancing, traditional dances of Africa are primarily considered as social with a ritual and religious meaning, even magical. You can barely find theoretical writings on the “African dance” mentioning esthetical concerns.

Alphonse Tiérou, one of the first theorist of the African dance, says: “Ballet dancing privileges the formal beauty, whereas the African dance creates from the dancer’s inner well-being educational virtues and spiritual aspirations” Dancers and choreographers try today to break those stereotypes. The recent work of Mahalia Lassibille shows the willingness to prove that African dance is not what most of us believe.

Having examined the WoDaaBe dances of Niger, Mahalia Lassibille comes to the conclusion that those dances do not present the characteristics usually allocated with the African dances. Those dances are all in grace and in slowness, and are not assisted with drums and they aim at the demonstration and the election of the beauty of its performers. This example reveals that the African dances do not answer all the typical profile that one would like to draw up.

African dances are impressively diverse. When we use the term “African dance”, we globalize it. Therefore we have a misconception of the plurality and the blooming of African dances. From a traditional point of view, not only the dances differ from one area to another, and from one ethnic group to another, each ethnic group has his own dancing repertoire.

Each dance represents its own esthetical moves depending on the social position in the group. It becomes difficult, even impossible, to summarize them with a precise type of moves or from a social hierarchy point of view. Lassibille concludes: “The African dance is constantly in a construction mode…. in all aspects”.  We are tempted to add a western look “construction” on African dances practices. With the myth of the Negro having the rhythm in his blood, we note that the standards on which are evaluated the African dances are largely based on the appreciation of the explorer initially, of the colonizer then and finally of the manager of cultural businesses.

This myth on the dance rhythm running in Africans blood was paradoxically reinforced by the negritude movement concept created by to the poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, “the emotion is negro”. From that perspective, the artistic value of the African dance has been reduced to an emotional expression and the African dance has been viewed as mechanical repetition executed by the dancer. However, the African tradition, is just like all the lively traditions….not innate, nor immutable, and innovation exists inside its artistic structure.

Alphonse Tiérou, an African dance specialist, refuses the biological argument saying that the dance is a second nature for the Africans and emphasizes on the learning process of the African traditional dance: Dancing is not a question of blood, but culture. Africans are not born with more dancing skills chromosomes than other humans. Dancing is not more instinctive for Africans than for non-Africans ; this art is acquired with a master, learned, controlled after many years of practice, and then transmitted orally to new generations. As a living art, African dance has been appropriated by dancers with different bodies, sensualities, and ideas. This has contributed to a transformation and evolution of the African dance.

This perpetual evolution was largely present in African villages before exported to national ballets in town. What we commonly describe as being a “repetition” is in fact a “progression”. Obviously, traditional African dance is transforming through its performances and transmission. According to Zab Maboungou, philosopher and chorographer, improvisation is the base of African dance.

From the spontaneous move inside a very structured cultural context will emerge a new and dynamic configuration. This is why traditional African rhythms are so sophisticated. The definition of traditional African dance given by Alphonse Tierou goes in the same direction.. “true traditional African dance is a continuous creation and improvisation renewed in a well-defined cultural context

… A contemporary dance searching for its identity

If we consider the African tradition as being a living art, there is no more reasons to confront tradition and modernity…which is now main topic for many debates in African news.

If African tradition was considered as dynamic and creative since the very beginning, the contemporary choreographer would not been accused of reforming traditional African dance. We must admit that African dance never lost its traditional roots.

The African dance has demonstrated the importance to expand continuously within its traditional context. Viewing from this point, traditional and contemporary dances would never have been described as distinctive. At the contrary, they should have been considered as having a positive influence on the today’s African dance. Several contemporary choreographers agree with Leopold Sedar Senghor and wish that current African dances be inspired freely by their own traditions to better extend beyond African borders. We must offer to the today’s Africans and to the whole world, an art which feed into our past without being its prisoner.

For me, the artist must construct himself by going back and forth between himself and others, halfway between beauty of the art without which he cannot perform and the community from which he cannot be taken. This “back and forth” movement is at the intersection between “contemporary”, “afro-contemporary” and “creative African” dances.

Between tradition and modernity, between the expression of an individual artistic sensibility and the social involvement, between the Western public expectations and his community of origin. However, this situation, far from preventing the creation process in dancing art, becomes the object, the material from which several choreographers work.

Rather than problematic, this situation has encouraged the spirit of creativity among African artists. “More than ever, in the context where the African continent facing profound upheavals has lost cultural reference points, dancing art has become a bulwark to identity crises witnessed among African societies.

Additionally, given this ambivalence, the African artist claim the right to build his own identity and the expression of his art freely, without being “a prisoner of racial straightjacket, origin or continent”.

We do hope, as Michel Chialvo wishes it, that the public and the critics will give to the African artist the freedom to re-invent his art: “the African dance is in ferment…, it is necessary to give to the artist enough time to build himself through this evolution process and not be judged neither by African traditionalists nor by western world.”

Freed from stereotypes and drastic prejudgments, and with a better rooting in traditional values combined with a free exploration of modern world, the African dancing art will definitely establishes itself as dynamic living culture.