Dance Genre Buzz : The Many Movements of African Dance

In each issue of STEPS!, our monthly e-newsletter, we highlight a unique genre of dance that you can certainly get a chance to experience at Dance Parade or one of our many events we produce throughout the year.

This month, we bring you AFRICAN Dance. African will be one of several dances featured at Our 2013 Season Lift Off on Tuesday November 13 @ Taj Lounge! Click flyer below to RSVP on Facebook and find out more about the event…


The Many Movements of African Dance

Members of the Kankouran West African Dance Company perform during a ceremony in the Rose Garden, White House in 2007

African dance refers mainly to the dance of Sub-Saharan Africa, and more appropriately African dances because of the many cultural differences in musical and movement styles. These dances must be viewed in close connection with Sub-Saharan African music traditions and Bantu cultivation of rhythm. African dance utilizes the concept of polyrhythm as well as total body articulation[1] yet many African languages have no word to define music.[2]

Dances teach social patterns and values and help people work, mature, praise or criticize members of the community while celebrating festivals and funerals, competing, reciting history, proverbs and poetry; and to encounter gods.[3] African dances are largely participatory, with spectators being part of the performance. With the exception of some spiritual, religious or initiation dances, there are traditionally no barriers between dancers and onlookers. Even ritual dances often have a time when spectators participate.[4]

Source: Wikipedia



There is no singular definition of African dance: Africa, a continent three times the size of the United States, is ethnically and culturally the most diverse on the planet. Though similar themes may be found throughout dances across the many countries and landscapes, each has its own history, language, song, background, and purpose and cannot be translated to another dance of the same culture much less another dance from somewhere else on the continent.


African dance at Dakawa, Morogoro, Tanzania.

Traditional dance in Africa occurs collectively, expressing the life of the community more than that of individuals or couples. Early commentators consistently commented on the absence of close couple dancing: such dancing was thought immoral in many traditional African societies.[5] In all sub Saharan African dance there seems to be no evidence for sustained, one-to-one male-female partnering anywhere before the late colonial era when it was apparently considered in distinctly poor taste.[6] For the Yoruba, to give a specific example, touching while dancing is not common except in special circumstances.[7] The only partner dance associated with African dances would be the Bottle Dance of the Mankon People in the Northwest Region of Cameroon or the Assiko from the Douala people that involves interaction of Man and Woman and the way that they charm each other.

Rather than emphasizing individual talent, Yoruba dancers and drummers, for example, express communal desires, values, and collective creativity. Dances are often segregated by gender, reinforcing gender roles in children and other community structures such as kinship, age and status are also often reinforced.[8] Many dances are performed by only males or females, indicating strong beliefs about what being male or female means and some strict taboos about interaction. Dances celebrate the passage from childhood to adulthood or spiritual worship.[9] Young girls of the Lunda of Zambia spend months practicing in seclusion for their coming of age ritual. Boys show off their stamina in highly energetic dances, providing a means of judging physical health.[10]

Master dancers and drummers are particular about the learning of the dance exactly as taught. Children must learn the dance exactly as taught without variation. Improvisation or a new variation comes only after mastering the dance, performing, and receiving the appreciation of spectators and the sanction of village elders.[11] “Musical training” in African societies begins at birth with cradle songs, and continues on the backs of relatives both at work and at festivals and other social events. Throughout western and central Africa child’s play includes games that develop a feeling for multiple rhythms.[12] Bodwich, an early (circa 1800) European observer, noted that the musicians maintained strict time (i.e. concern for the basic pulse or beat), “and the children will move their heads and limbs, whilst on their mother’s backs, in exact unison with the tune which is playing.”[13] The sounding of three beats against two is experienced in everyday life and helps develop “a two-dimensional attitude to rhythm”.


The most widely used musical instrument in Africa is the human voice.[14] Nomadic groups such as the Maasai do not traditionally use drums yet in villages throughout the continent the sound and rhythm of the drum expresses the mood of the people. In an African community, coming together in response to the beating of the drum is an opportunity to give one another a sense of belonging and of solidarity, a time to connect with each other and be part of a collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society.[15]

Shoulders, chest, pelvis, arms, legs etc., may move with different rhythms in the music. Dancers in Nigeria commonly combine at least two rhythms in their movement, and the blending of three rhythms can be seen among highly skilled dancers. Articulation of as many as four distinct rhythms is rare. They may also add rhythmic components independent of those in the music. Very complex movements are possible even though the body does not move through space. Dancers are able to switch back and forth between rhythms without missing movements.

The drumming represents an underlying linguistic text that guides the dancing performance but most meaning comes from nonverbal cues and metalanguage of the performers. The spontaneity of performance creates an impression of extemporaneity, yet it is not to emphasize the individual and bolster her or his ego but to preserve the community and mediate the audience and the performer interaction.

Cultural functions

The character of dancing observed by travelers to West Africa in the 19th century depended on context, the people, and the gender of the dancers. In general men used large body movements, including jumping and leaping. Women danced smaller movements with much use of “shuffle steps”, the body in a bent position with “crooked knees”. The circle dance predominated everywhere, sometimes solo dancers or musicians in the middle, sometimes couples. The ecstatic seizure was an essential element of ceremonial dancing, both religious and secular.[17] It is extremely important that the dancers maintain clarity.[5] One does not dance to go into a trance but to come out of a trance, to join a diversified assembly with a separate contribution, for dancing is a reminder that one is only part of the whole.[18]

Traditional dances often do not appear in isolation but are parts of broader cultural activities:

  • Warrior Dances. One example of a warrior dance is Agbekor. Franci Elkins, a world renowned African dancer, has been quoted as saying that this is her favorite dance. Agbekor comes from the Foh and Ewe people. It is an ancient dance once known as Atamga. Agbekor is often performed at cultural events and at funerals. Dance movements mimic battlefield tactics such stabbing with the end of the horsetail. This dance consists of phrases of movements. A phrase consists of a “turn” which occurs in every phrase and then a different ending movement. These phrases are added back to back with slight variations within them, and make up the dance.
  • Dances of Love are performed on special accessions, such as weddings and anniversaries. One example is the Nmane dance performed in Ghana. It is done solely by women during weddings in honor of the bride.
  • Rites of Passage and Coming of Age Dances are performed to mark the coming of age of young men and women. They give confidence to the dancers who have to perform in front of everyone. It is then formally acknowledged they are adults. This builds pride, as well as a stronger sense of community.
  • Dances of Welcome are a show of respect and pleasure to visitors, as well as a show of how talented & attractive the host villagers are. Yabara is a West African Dance of Welcome marked by ”The Beaded Net Covered Gourd Rattle” (sekere-pronounced Shake-er-ay). It is thrown into the air to different heights by the female dancers to mark tempo and rhythm changes. This is an impressive spectacle, as all the dancers will throw & catch them at the same time.
  • Dances of Possession and Summoning These are common themes, and very important in many Traditional African Religions. They all share one common link: a call to a Spirit. These spirits can be the spirits of Plants or Forests, Ancestors, or Deities. The Orishas are the Deities found in many forms of African religion, such as Candomblé, Santería, Yoruba mythology, Voodoo, and others. Each orisha has their favourite colours, days, times, foods, drinks, music, and dances. The dances will be used on special occasions to honor the orisha, or to seek help and guidance. The orisha may be angry and need appeasing. Kakilambe is a great spirit of the forest who is summoned using dance. He comes in the form of a giant statue carried from the forest out to the waiting village. There is much dancing and singing. During this time the statue is raised up, growing to a height of around 15″. Then the priest communes and asks Kakilambe if they will have good luck over the coming years, and if there are any major events to be aware of, such as drought, war, or other things.

Townships created during the colonial period removed people, and their dance, from the traditional environment. Beer halls became community centers of sorts with drinking socializing, and dancing. Men still played the ngomas and the mukwas, but the dance took on sexual emphasis becoming something akin to bumping and grinding, almost violent in its urgency. Traditional dance clubs were created to protect the “purity” of the traditional dance and to regulate the dancers and musicians who performed on special occasions.[19]


Different parts of the body are emphasized by different groups. The upper body is emphasized by the Anto-Ewe and Lobi of Ghana. Subtle accent of the hips is characteristic of the Kalabari of Nigeria. In Agbor strong contraction-release movements of the pelvis and upper torso characterize both male and female dancing. The Akan of Ghana use the feet and hands in specific ways.[20]

  • The stamping dance known as Ndlamu, is done by the Nguni group of tribes, each in their own fashion. It is a secular dance performed by young men in single or double line. Different tempos, manners of stamping the ground, ending the dance, and ways of holding their dance sticks are used by each tribe: the Itlangwini from Southern Natal; the Baca from the Eastern Cape Province; the Mpondo and Mpondomisi from further south; and perhaps best known, the Zulu.[21]

Adumu, Maasai traditional dance.

  • Adumu is a Maasai dance which is performed during Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of warriors. This dance, also referred to as aigus, or “the jumping dance” by non-Maasai. (both adumu and aigus are Maa verbs meaning “to jump” with adumu meaning “To jump up and down in a dance”[3]) has made Maasai warriors known for, and often photographed during, this competitive jumping. A circle is formed by the warriors, and one or two at a time will enter the center to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Members of the group may raise the pitch of their voices based on the height of the jump.[4]
  • Kpanlogo comes from Ghana, more specifically the Ga ethnic group. This dance started in the capital city of Accra, but now it is enjoyed throughout the country. Kpanlogo is known as a highlife dance form performed to conga-like drums. The music of Kpanlogo is especially important. ET Mensah is considered the King of dance band highlife, and played in many bands and locations. Kpanlogo is a fairly recent dance and started around 1940 after World War II, which is when the dance band highlife scene picked up recognition. Odette Blum talks about the movements. There is a free-flowing motion to this dance, with arms swinging around. There is no stillness in this dance, the free flowing motion, of a move either beginning or ending, fills pauses. The torso acts as the stronghold base of this dance since the center of gravity shifts rapidly from one foot to the other.

Umteyo (Shaking Dance)

  • Performed by Amakwenkwe (young men under the age of about 20 or 21) of the Xhosa, the Umteyo (Shaking Dance) involves the rapid undulation or shaking of the thorax so that the whole length of the spine appears to be rippling. Older men, Amadoda, so a similar dance, Xhensa accompanied by singing and clapping while dancers draw their breath in and out through a relaxed larynx, producing a kind of guttural roar.[22]

Mohobelo (Striding Dance)

  • The Mohobelo “striding dance” of the Sotho features striding, leaping, and in some cases, sliding, and almost slithering along the ground. Two and sometimes three main movements occur: the slow Bahobela featuring high kicks, the swifter Molapo with leaping and twisting in the air, and the often left out Phethola letsoho which involves hand movements.[23]
  • In the Jerusamera of Zimbabwe the major movement for men is the mbende step, a quick darting movement from a crouched position. Twisting of the waist and hips is the main movement of the women.[24]
  • Yankadi and Macru are two common dances. They are from Guinea, West Africa. Yankadi is slow and mellow, while Macru has a faster tempo with lots of movement. The men and women who participate in the dance face each other in rows; everyone has a scarf, and the dancers put their scarf on the one whom they wish to dance with.
  • Moribayasa from the Malinke people in Guinea, is a dance for a woman who has overcome a great adversity. The woman prepares by putting on old, ragged clothes. Accompanied by musicians, she circles the village several times, singing and dancing. The women of the village follow her and sing too. Then the dancer changes her clothes and buries her old ragged clothes in a special spot. This may be at a cross-roads or, as in the village of master drummer Mamady Keïta, it is under a mango tree.[25]
  • Agbekor comes from the Fon and Ewe people. It is an ancient dance once known as Atamga. Agbekor is often performed at cultural events and at funerals. This dance is performed with horsetails, and the movements mimic battlefield tactics such as stabbing with the end of the horsetail. This dance consists of phrases of movements. A phrase consists of a “turn” which occurs in every phrase and then a different ending movement. These phrases are added back to back with slight variations within them.
  • Agahu dance was created by the Egun speaking people of Ketonu. Though this dance was believed to be based on the Yoruba dance from Badagry because the Yoruba costume was used, some Yoruba words were used in Agahu songs, and the dance is associated with the Nigerian town Badgry. Agahu is a popular social dance in West Africa. Agahu’s music is also very important to the dance. Dance movements are closely related to the percussive rhythms and songs. The lead drum called an agboba, a large barrel-shaped drum, can distinguish Agahu from other dances. In this dance there are two circles, one with men and the other with women.
  • In Zimbabwe, the Muchongoyo was performed by males with female participation. Women are primarily musicians playing the hosho (essentially a gourd with seeds inside it, used as a shaker [5]) and singing alongside the men. They improvise or use the standard side to side shuffling movement without lifting their feet from the ground. In contrast the men perform high knee lifts, returning their feet quickly to the ground. The women will sometimes move out of the choir line in a single file and dance around the drummer and male dancers until they return to their original positions.[24] The Muchongoyo commemorates, celebrates, witnesses and highlights events. Although not specifically a religious dance, it is spiritual, and the repetitious nature takes participants closer to the divine.[26]