Good for: 10-18 year olds.
Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! You'll probably want to take these one by one, so you have the time to practice!
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What is African Dance?
African dance refers to a wide variety of dances and movement styles performed in those countries located south of the Sahara Desert.
Lesson One: The Dinhe
Dancer Rujeko Dumbutshena (pronounced ROO-jay-koh dum-BOOT-shay-nah) and drummer Farai Malianga (fahr-AH mah-LEE-ahn-gah) introduce the Dinhe (nee-NAY), a dance from their native country Zimbabwe. Unlike ballet, African dance is rooted to the floor and has a sense of weight. Remember to bend your knees and relax like Rujeko recommends. This will make the movements easier to perform.
Lesson Two: Isolations
In this lesson you’ll practice moving your hips, chest, and limbs in isolation. Don’t worry about perfect placement when doing isolations—think of moving to the beat. African dance puts more importance on the rhythm of what you are doing rather than the specific shapes you are creating.
Lesson Three: On the Clock
It’s time to put it all together. Add your hips, arms, and shoulders to the dance steps as you move in different directions. Just because African dance is often stationary, (meaning that the dancer doesn’t travel through space), that doesn’t make it easy. There’s a lot going on in all of those different body parts.
Lesson Four and Five: The Drum
You can’t have African dance without music. The two are inseparable; the dancers are drumming and the drummers are dancing. Learn about two drums—the cajon (cah-HONE) and djembe (JIM-bay) —and how to play a rhythm called Funga (FUN-gah).
Before you get started, think about what you already know about different types of dance. Keep this in mind as you explore the videos.
Rhythm of the Drum
Rhythm is the driving force behind African dance and many styles can immediately be identified by their characteristic rhythmic beats. Dancers respond to percussive patterns created by drummers, who in turn respond to the dancers. It is a dialogue assisted by spectators who participate in the performance by clapping or stamping their feet. Dancers are judged by how well they are able to follow the rhythm.
African dance is polyrhythmic, meaning that different rhythms are expressed using various parts of the body. The chest, pelvis, arms, and legs may all have their own rhythm, but be moving at the same time. The complexity and challenge of African dance stems from this use of the whole body.
Your Own Interpretation
Some African villages have dance masters who train young students in their region’s dance styles. Students are expected to learn the steps exactly as they are taught. Once the dance is mastered, however, it is possible to improvise and add new patterns within a particular dance style. Dancers may even engage in friendly competitions with each other or with a lead drummer, pushing them to even more creative interpretations and quick responses.
A Sense of Community
There’s no doubt about it—dance brings people together. This is especially true of African dance, which is an expression of communal life. Dance helps individuals know their roles in the community and helps pass on cultural values and a sense of identity.
Special events: Dances are performed for a variety of life events, including births, funerals, and coming of age. These dances bring community members together to support individuals who are undergoing a critical life change.
Social values: A dancer must learn how to lead, follow, and be part of a group. Dances for girls are often separate from those for boys, reinforcing cultural gender roles.
Expressing skills: Warrior dances train young men in strength, agility, balance, and timing. Work dances demonstrate skills needed for different occupations. For example, “fishermen” from Nigeria have net-throwing gestures in their dances, while “hunters” may mime animal movements and their capture. Everyday work actions are also included, like hanging out the wash or shaking a basket.
Social recreation or ritual celebration: Dances can be done simply for fun, or to give thanks to the gods for a good harvest or a successful hunting expedition.
In addition, dance gatherings are deemed successful if they create cohesiveness in the community. Attitude is important: A dancer’s social skills are just as valued as his or her technical skills.
For the Educator
Pearl Primus performing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1944. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.
Drummer Farai Malianga mentions that American dancer Pearl Primus brought the drum rhythm he teaches on the video to our shores from Africa. Students may be interested to find out more about this remarkable African American woman who studied African dance traditions as a trained anthropologist and changed perceptions of African dance in this country.
The Dances of Africa
The climate and conditions where people live is reflected in the dances they perform. For example, the Ijo people of the Niger Delta fish in rivers, creeks, and wet mangrove forests. When they dance, they bend forward with their torso almost parallel to the earth, and step lightly with quick precision, as if picking their way through a swamp.
In contrast, those Africans living on open savannahs reflect the expansive space they live in and farm. When they dance, they use a wide stance by placing their feet firmly on the solid soil.
You may want to research other groups from Africa and find out more about how their dance traditions reflect their traditional way of life.
- Maasai people
- The Yoruba people
- The Jukun people
Resources to Explore
Resources on African dance, and dance-drumming
Look up The History of African Dance
Look up African Dance
Find information on drumming and dancing
Find information on the use of polyrhythm in dancing