In traditional African villages the rhythm of drums, the blowing of horns, the clinking of bells, the whirling of clothing and stomping of feet are much more than entertainment. African dance offers a way of communicating with divine creative forces. Through it one pays homage to ancestors and asks their blessings on marriages, newborn children, initiations, and harvests. Each ceremonial dance has a different character: a dance to entertain visitors has different steps and a different spirit than a dance that’s part of an initiation rite. African dance brings communities together and establishes social order, giving different roles to participants, observers, elders, chiefs, and dance leaders. Respect is extended even to the deceased.
Yet as young Africans flock to cities seeking higher education, jobs, and contact with foreign cultures, traditional dance in its pristine state becomes more and more rare. “Let us say that in the name of progress, culture goes out the window,” says Chuck Davis, founder of the African American Dance Ensemble, performing this weekend as part of Columbia College’s DanceAfrica festival. For the past ten years Davis has made “cultural arts safaris” to Africa, He says that now when he speaks with village elders–the guardians of tradition–they often talk about changes in African dance with some sadness.
“They will demonstrate a certain kick,” says Davis, “where your knee touches your shoulder. [But to do this] you would have to have on loose clothing. Now the kick only comes waist high because, instead of wearing the pants normally worn by this ethnic group, the fellows all wear Yves St. Laurent-style jeans. The jeans are so tight they cant pick their legs up.”
Amaniyea Payne, artistic director of Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre, points to festivals like DanceAfrica–which drew some 13,000 last year–as evidence that the dance is not dying out. Most people will agree that the dance is evolving, however, and in a way that’s natural and inevitable–even if they use the word “unfortunate” to describe the changes.
Kariamu Welsh-Asante, a scholar and teacher of African dance at Temple University, notes that the dances are still being done in the cities but often their context and function have changed. In Zimbabwe a dance that was originally part of a rite-of-passage ceremony might now be performed by professionals before a large crowd in a soccer stadium. “I think good things come out these changes,” she says. “What you begin to have, of course, is what you mainly see in America–African dances that have been maintained and documented.”
Ten years ago many people–African Americans included–looked down on the dance, even giving it names like “ooga-booga” and “chaboo.” But more recently American dancers and audiences, realizing the form’s richness and power, have been sowing the seeds of its survival. “It’s been a savior to many people,” says Payne. “Our classes here in the city are culturally diverse. All ethnic [groups] come. People are beginning to maybe not understand the language of the drum, but the feeling of it. It’s a healing instrument. The dance itself is a healing dance, because of the release [it provides].”
“What the African American has done in a sense,” says Welsh-Asante, “has been to recognize African dance for the vibrant art form it is. And the Americans, by keeping it, by constantly returning to Africa, by having these numbers of African dance companies, have made the Africans begin to look at the dance with new eyes.”
The days may be gone when whole villages woke at sunrise to beat out rhythms in the dirt with their bare feet, chanting to ensure that a child would have all the things she needed in life. But “as long as you learn the dance, as you’re involved in the mechanisms of maintaining it,” says Davis, “it wont go anywhere, it wont be lost.”
DanceAfrica/Chicago 1992 will feature the frican American Dance Ensemble, Muntu Dance Theatre, and Urban Bush Women Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash. Tickets are $10-$15; call 271-7928.