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History of African Dance

Komal B. Patil
Africa is a continent with a rich cultural diversity. This diversity manifests itself in the various forms of dance. Every form depicts a unique emotion, a singular style, and a distinct link to its rich heritage. These nuances can be better understood when one learns about the history behind the dance forms.
When the music changes, so does the dance.
- Hausa proverb
Dances are central to the African culture and way of life. Entertainment is not their sole purpose. They are used to communicate emotions, pass down history, observe rites of passage, strengthen the bonds between people of the same community, and to promote a feeling of oneness between them.
They are instrumental in reminding and celebrating the community's rich historical heritage.
Being the most ethnically and culturally diverse continent, Africa has spawned a multitude of dances across the various countries and landscapes found there. Each dance has a unique history that lends itself to the language of the songs, and cannot be rendered in any other dance, be it of the same culture or of a different one.
Despite their vividly diverse nature, they are built upon the same foundations. They exhibit key similarities in the essence as well as the purpose of the dances.

Essence of African Dance


African dances are performed in linear or circular formations. The circular formations are believed to possess supernatural powers. These two forms are combined in various ways to give rise to more complex and sophisticated patterns.
The dancer's often stand with their feet flat against the earth in a wide stance, while bending marginally towards the earth, thus being "earth-centered". They also employ a polycentric stance that implies that different parts of the dancer's body move to different rhythms within the same piece of music.


The most noted aesthetic of African dances is that they are mostly participatory, and their call and response nature produces a link between the dancers and the spectators. Even spiritual and ritualistic dances have segments where the onlookers can join in.
Such dynamics reflects the communication between the dancers, music, and the audience. The common aesthetic observed across the dances is their emphasis on rhythm that is expressed by the body movements or by the use of props such as rattles and costumes.
Skillful dancers are capable of expressing numerous rhythms simultaneously, and using it to form a bridge between the dancer, musician, and the onlooker.


African dances incorporate movements as well as rhythms from daily life activities. The dances include the depiction of actions involved in pounding grain, fishing, eating, and even those of battlefield tactics.
The dancer's body, while dancing, describes the experiences of life, and becomes a medium to express deeply felt emotions.


It is the concept of simultaneously incorporating two or more rhythms within the same piece of music. The music played contains a typical repeated bell pattern that is identified as a timeline.
While the duration of these dances is not specified, the climactic end is brought about by the increasing intensification of the rhythms till a euphoric or saturated state is reached. Intensification is achieved by the repetition of individual as well as patterns of rhythms.
The concept of polyrhythm is the foundation that has also given rise to the music genres of samba, ragtime, jazz, and rock and roll.


Another crucial element of the African dances is the sensual and harmonious imitation of natural elements such as the movement of a wave, the way a tree sways, the walk of an animal, or even the shape of a river.
The masquerade also includes the use of masks and costumes to resemble and represent spirits, holy animals, and inanimate entities.

Traditional African Dances

The dances are as diverse as the communities found in Africa. The common elements seen throughout are the expression of the region's philosophies, the memory of the cultural wealth, and the evolution of the culture over the course of time. The dances are broadly of three types: ritual dances, ceremonial dances, and griotic dances.

Ritual dances

They constitute the most ancient of African dances. In Africa, religion is seen as a part of daily life, and its practice involves the expression of the individual's philosophies. Ritual dances are utilized for the affirmation of the beliefs of the community.
They are initiated by the tribe elders with the incredibly significant purpose of ancestral reverence and of communing with the divine.
Ancestral worship stems from the belief that each individual is a bearer of wisdom and experience, and upon his demise, lives on in the spirit world and watches over the future generations with the power of intervention, if required.
Dance is used as a medium to reach out and commune with these ancestors and other divinities that's relevant to everyday life. Such a way of life promotes the preservation of traditional values.

Ceremonial dances

Despite their commemorative nature, they have an underlying significance in the lives of the people. They are used to mark important events in an individual's life. Dances of love are enacted to honor the occasions of weddings and anniversaries. .
The coming of age and rites of passage dances are performed to mark the transformation of children into young men and women, and they build pride and a firm sense of community. The welcome dances are meant for the reception and entertainment of visitors. They are means of showcasing the characteristics of the tribe.
Dances of possession or of summoning are directed towards establishing a link with spirits so that the people via the priest may voice their concerns regarding the future and request solutions from the spirits. Specific dances are also performed as a form of healing

Griotic dances

In Africa, the griot refers to the village historian ,who is the keeper and teacher of the village's cultural traditions and history. The stories are relayed in the form of music and songs. The accompanying dance is a representation of the historical event being narrated.
The people believe that the death of a griot is akin to a burnt library that is unrecoverable. Griot dances are communal dances where the beat of the drum represents the heartbeat of the village. These dances promote a sense of belonging and solidarity. They involve the representation of the activities and the social structure in everyday life.

Examples of African Dances

❥ The Ndlamu dance is native to the Nguni group of tribes. It is performed by the young men of the tribe in linear formations, by stamping the ground with their feet. The tempo and style of stamping define the beginning and end of the dance. Variations of this dance are executed by the Itlangwini tribe from southern Natal and the Zulu people.
❥ The Adumu is a coming-of-age, ceremonial dance of the warriors in the Maasai tribe. It is also referred to as the jumping dance as the movements in the dance involve jumping. The pitch of the voices is also raised depending on the height of the jump made.
❥ The Ga tribe from Ghana perform the Kpanlogo, which is accompanied by the beat of conga-like drums. The movements of this dance are free-flowing, and cause the weight of the dancer to be rapidly shifted from one foot to the other.
❥ The Umteyo dance is performed by the young men of the Xhosa tribe. It is known as the shaking dance and involves inducing vibrations along the thorax such that the spine of the dancer appears to be undulating like a wave.
❥ The Mohobelo dance performed by the Sotho tribe involve high kicks, leaps, and mid-air twists. It is also called the striding dance.
Moribayasa, a dance native to the people of Guinea, is performed by women, who have recently gotten over an adversity. It involves the woman singing and dancing in circles around the village, while being accompanied by musicians.
As the woman dances, other women of the village join in. At the conclusion of the dance, the woman changes into new clothes and buries the old clothes at a crossroad.
❥ The people of Ketonu perform the Agahu dance. The dance progresses in the form of two circles―one with men, and the other with women. The main drum used is the agboba drum, and it is accompanied by percussive rhythms.
The history of any dance is only partially understood by reading about it. To gain the true sense of a dance's origin and history, one must observe it being performed by the natives, and if possible, try to participate and experience it firsthand.