African dance? Which one?

The first time I saw the phrase ‘African Dance’, it was at my American university in the Pioneer Valley. Well, actually, there it was called “West-African Dance”. Thanks for specifying Five College Inc. I mean, an entire continent (or section of a continent) represented by ONE dance? And you know, if most of the classes I’ve come across were actually legitimate (i.e. taught by people who were trained in any existing form of dance from any African community), kind of how Jollof rice is often the official representative of “African food1”, I would have slightly less of a problem with it. But from what I’ve seen, get a bunch of drums (or Zumba music – who’ll know the difference?), some “jungle-print” fabric and a vaguely “African” teacher (or sometimes any black person who’s “journeyed to the motherland” will do) and there you have it: African Dance! And everyone gets so excited. And I (sort of) get it. It’s exotic, it’s rhythmic, and the drums are just irresistible. But there is so much cultural (mis)appropriation involved that I simply cannot look past it.

At my university, the teachers were a married couple – a Guinean drummer [who (according to him) used to drum for a dance troupe] and his African American wife. I have no idea what her credentials are other than the fact that she married a real-life African who had apparently drummed for some African dancers at some point in time. Now, while I am not (yet) an expert on any dance genre, ‘African’ dance included, I have studied enough (of the African ones) to weed out the BS. I also know that there is enormous diversity in the kinds of dances found on the African continent. In Nigeria alone, each of the one hundred and two2 ethnic groups has at least one method of traditional dance. Yoruba people alone have at least three that I’ve learned. So if we assume that other Africans outside of Nigeria dance (I don’t think this is too bold an assumption), and we also assume that each ethnic group has at least one style of traditional dance (or maybe some groups share the same style with other groups – even if this is the case, the difference is only marginal) we get… A LOT of African dances. So when I come across a college, university, gym or dance school in Western Europe or the US where ‘African dance’ is offered, I wonder: which one?

In my opinion, the ‘African dance’ phenomenon plays right into a long-enduring trend of not taking the continent seriously. Our stories, history and culture are often not treated with respect, if they are not altogether ignored or bastardized. This is just another case. The complexity and diversity of our dances are simplified into a bunch of jumping and arm and leg waving, and the history and stories behind them are not given any acknowledgement. Granted, there are some legit teachers who teach legit dances (most of them tend to teach Mande style dancing) but there are SO many quacks out there, it irks me to no end.

I am not trying to say that people outside the continent should not learn our dances. I mean, the people in this video are having a blast.

 I would not want to deprive them of that. But a) it’s more than likely that they don’t know the style of dance they’re doing or where exactly it comes from [and therefore can’t know if the teacher just made stuff up] and b) not everyone on the African continent dances like that. And that’s my point really; African styles of dancing should be treated with the same amount of respect and appreciation of nuance as classical, contemporary, jazz and the various ballroom dances. Each style of dance has a name. If the teacher is teaching just one style (which is often the case) then he/she should call the class by that name, for instance, Ekombi dance

 or Swange dance.

If the teacher is teaching more than one style from a country or region, then the class should be named after the place like South African traditional dance or dances from the Nile Valley. And if the teacher is a real boss and knows a bunch of different dances from several regions of the continent, then the class can be called African Dance(s). And when I ask “which one(s)?” I’ll get actual answers and it won’t be the beginning of a rant about the disrespect of my continent


  1. And speaking of misrepresenting the African continent, I’m considering filing a libel lawsuit against Baku’s restaurant in Amherst MA …
  2. A friend just pointed out to me that there is (still) no agreed upon number for the amount of ethnic groups in Nigeria. Some sources give the number as two hundred, and recently I heard three hundred, but then I suspect this last one was referring to tribes as opposed to ethnic groups and apparently there is a nuanced difference between the two.
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One thought on “African dance? Which one?”

  1. Very good point. Especially this:

    “In my opinion, the ‘African dance’ phenomenon plays right into a long-enduring trend of not taking the continent seriously. Our stories, history and culture are often not treated with respect, if they are not altogether ignored or bastardized. This is just another case. The complexity and diversity of our dances are simplified into a bunch of jumping and arm and leg waving, and the history and stories behind them are not given any acknowledgement.”

    I agree with you completely. You ever heard of a thing called “European Dance”?

    Liked by 1 person

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