A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

African Dance: New Moves for a New Century
By ,
Tanya SerdiukThere's a fascinating new move afoot on the continent. Whether it is called neo-traditional, creative dance, or trad-contemporary dance, contemporary African dance has been building momentum, making itself seen, heard, and felt internationally. Faced with the same funding and exhibition barriers as other forms of contemporary arts on the continent, audiences for these choreographers and dance troupes have so far been limited to the cognoscenti or to the festival circuit. But this hasnt stopped these visionaries from continuing to create works for the domestic and international stage.

These are new dances for a new century. And, like many artistic expressions that have developed in response to a post-modern world, these creators are self-consciously political and theoretically informed. As defined by Opiyo Okach of Compagnie Gaara, contemporary African Dance is the practice and conception pf choreographic creation in Africa today based on concrete, theoretical, and historical understanding of dance and performance in Africa in relation to other world cultures.

Dance, like every other art form continues to evolve in response to historical change, social forces, personal interpretation, and the human desire to create. Does this mean that contemporary African dance, simply because it is contemporary, should be infected with a western sensibility, or is simply a mimicry of western forms? Most emphatically not. Just as traditional dances have incorporated new forms, social trends or new characters in dance masks, contemporary African dance interprets the mental and physical relationship of the body to boundaries of identity that now extend far beyond the family, the city, or the nation-state. As Beninois choreographer Koffi Koko expressed it, for cultures that preserve their histories in an oral and danced form, the body is a library, the memory of their past.

As the artistic expression that is based on the body, secular dance has had a bumpy relationship with culture. Either fossilized as a touristic attraction, promoted as ethnographic education, elevated to a class related status activity, harangued and suppressed as evil and sinful, a chance to see exotic semi-nudity, or simply relegated to the realm of the dead boring, the history of the dance as an art form closely parallels the history of the meaning of the body, and by extension, the question of its role in history and in culture.

Nowhere is this truer than with African Dance. To the ordinary person the picture conjured up by the phrase African Dance is one of drumming, energetic legs, flashes of breasts, buttocks, and thighs, raffia, cowries, leaps, kicks, and more drumming. Anything lacking these characteristics is increasingly seen as simply not authentic. Never mind that the average viewer cannot contextualize a dance from Senegal, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, much less whether its a dance for circumcision, birthing, or a good harvest. It's the drumming that dictates the dance, and the chance to see some flesh. But for modern African Dance, shattering expectations, dissolving boundaries and recreating possibilities is what it's all about.

Dance remains alive and integral to the different African societies, of that there is no question. Traditional dance, whether it is secular, ritual, or religious, is an integral part of one's social heritage. National Dance Companies, established originally as a radical political gesture of nation building, are now in an uneasy position of marketing traditional dance as an export product with an eye to revenue generation. Heritage tours infrequently target the continental African, but are rather marketed for cultural consumption to Europeans and American audiences of all races. There is a very thin line separating heritage as lived experiences of a people, and culture promoted in a consumerist orientation. If we attempt to freeze cultural forms simply to re-present them as marketable artifacts, then we are indeed falling into a western consumerist mindset.

Oddly enough, one factor that militates against the wider acceptance of these contemporary or avant-garde approaches to the arts or that opens it up to charges of European influence is the issue of authenticity. These charges more often than not are levied by non-african scholars of all hues. The teaching of traditional dance through dance classes, school programs and cultural institutions as a means of reinforcing self-esteem, or emphasizing Africa's contributions to world history and culture are laudable, but have the unforeseen effect of both de-historicizing and paralyzing the trajectory of African creativity in the present and into the future. It is a cultural history acquired that is devoid of context. To reference the Nigerian scholar and theorist Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi, "I do not deny the fact that the enslaved persons who were brought to America were Africans or that many aspects of African values were retained by African Americans. Rather, I merely want to make the point that, despite their African origin, for African Americans, the specificity of the history of capitalist slavery, resistance and the continuing struggle against racism in the United States are crucial to their self-definition. Significant as it is, the experience of African Americans should not be presented as an essential black experience which defines Africans and all other peoples of African descent in the same way across time and space."

Few, if any, of the various dance classes make reference to the strongly caste based social systems (many still in place) that define and restrict the roles of musicians and dancers historically and in their contemporaneous societies. Nor do those individuals who pride themselves on mastering African dance also immerse themselves in the traditions and cultural restrictions that are associated with the castes of musician, singer, dancer or actively engage in social and political issues that address alleviating both the specific and larger prohibitions to full participation of casted groups.

Lived traditions cannot be purchased, and then cast off for next years style. In demanding that particular forms hew to the traditional, to whom do these traditions belong the consumer, the producer, the community? Whose tradition? Which community? These are issues faced by both internationally known practitioners of traditional music, as well as contemporary artists, so in this regard, resisting compartmentalization that is either ideologically or consumer based is a shared challenge.

While creators and practitioners of contemporary African arts are justifiably concerned with the popular tendency to see African culture as frozen in a pre-colonial form, it is important to note that the artists themselves continue to draw on the depth of their cultural histories as they reinvent themselves in context of this new century. Traditional forms, as long as they remain meaningful to their communities, will accommodate to new developments. Their foundation in the traditions and the past is an essential source of strength and a focus of identity. So for instance traditional dances have also incorporated contemporary events and issues. For example, The National Ballet of Guinea, in the context of traditional dance and drum forms, has addressed issues of social change such as resistance to circumcision.

For contemporary choreographers, the positioning of traditional dance as a consumerist good, or the very restrictions of caste relationships, repetition, or required formulae are seen as restricting the development of African dance forms. Indeed, it can be difficult to address questions of western cultural capitalism, of globalization, of changing gender roles, etc. in a form that is increasingly marketed either for its exoticism, or as an index of a culture fixed on the past. Contemporary dance choreographers have imbedded stylistic references to traditional dance one cannot break tradition without knowing what that tradition is! But as African contemporary dance unleashes the innate power of the body to define space and place through movement, these new companies are slowly gaining the recognition they deserve.

The following sample list of contemporary dance companies is by no means exhaustive. Several of the companies listed were profiled in the dance documentary African Dance: Sand, Drum, and Shostakovich, produced and directed by Ken Glazebrook and Alla Kovgan. This documentary has been screened at several festivals and provides an invaluable overview of contemporary dance in Africa. A documentary that explores contemporary dance in Africa, the film introduces eight modern dance companies from Africa, Europe, and Canada that participated at the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse in Montreal, Canada in 1999. The film is distributed by Documentary Educational Resources. (www.der.org). A six minute quicktime clip is available on www.spiritofdance.com/s_african.html.

Koffi KokoBenin

Compagnie Kongo Ba Teria, Burkina Fasohttp://kongobateria.chez.tiscali.fr

Compagnie Salia ni Seydou, Burkina FasoChoreographer: Salia Sanou, Seydou Borowww.djeli.net/salianiseydou/page_cie/ page/bio_salianiseydou.htm

Compagnie Danse Nyata-Nyata, Congo/Canada Choreographer: Zab Maboungouhttp://www.nyata-nyata.org/eng/zab.html

Compagnie Rary of MadagascarChoreographer: Ariry Andriamoratsiresy

Compagnie Sylvain Zabli, Ivory CoastChoreographer: Sylvain Zabli

Compagnie TcheTche, Ivory CoastChoreographer: Batrice Komb Gnapa

Compagnie Gaara, KenyaChoreographer: Opiya Okachwww.gaaraprojects.com

Compagnie Jant-Bi, Senegal/GermanyArtistic director: Germaine Acogny

Sello Pesa, South AfricaCo-founder - Inzalo Dance and Theatre Company Choreographer: Sello Pesa

Compagnie Vincent Mantsoe, South Africa