The History of African Dance


The month of February is also known as Black History Month. During your school years you learn about iconic figures such as, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and many more. You learn about how these people affected American history. Yes, these events and these people are extremely important (I even choreographed a piece about Martin Luther King Jr.) However, what you don’t learn in school is the history of their culture. The history of their dance styles, the history of African Dance. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m here to tell you about it. Ready for your history lesson? Okay, let’s begin!
African dance has been around for many, many years. It can even be considered the oldest form of dance in the world. The traditional African dances were social dances. Most social dances today are danced with a partner. However, that isn’t the case with African Dance. Even though they are danced in groups, you wouldn’t pick a partner and dance with them. Actually, men and women wouldn’t even dance together. Men would dance separately from the women, and the women would dance separately from the men. The children would also dance separately from the adults. Children would learn through their own family members instead of going to a studio to learn. Their dances would take place in everyday locations. They would dance about special occasions such as marriages and births; but also about nature such as the sun and the moon. They would even dance to help them with their everyday tasks. I dance around my room as I clean it, but these women had specific dances they would do as they did their chores.
Drums are one of the most important things about African Dance. Different types of drums were used for music as well as people singing. When the drums were heard, people were able to tell what was happening based on the beats and rhythms they would hear. There would never be drumming without their being people dancing to it. The beat of the drum reflects the mood of the dance. The drummers are considered so important to the dances that at the end of every dance there is a specific bow that is done. The dancers stick their left leg out and keep their left arm down at their side while raising their right arm in the air, then placing their right hand on their forehead, then their heart, then touching the floor, then slowly raising it up and around. This means from the heavens above, from us, from the bottom of our hearts, to the Earth which we danced on, we thank you. Dance was apart of their everyday life. It was rare when there would be a day that they didn’t dance.
Then, the slave trade occurred and many Africans were brought over to the US to become slaves. Here they were forbidden to dance. However, that did not stop them. Slaves were prohibited from lifting their feet off of the ground. Therefore, they adjusted their movement to make it so that they used their torso and head as much as possible. They also bent their knees most of the time so that they wouldn’t be seen dancing in the field while they work. In many of the African dances you see today, they keep their feet low to the ground and their head is constantly moving. Dancing was such an important part of their lives back home, they didn’t want to stop that tradition when they came over to the US.
African Dance is very different than the classical Ballet Dance. While dancing African you need to make sure your feet are always flexed, (something that took awhile for me to get used to considering I grew up doing Ballet), you must always stay in a plie, and move your body as much as possible. In African Dance you want to stay as low to the ground as possible.
As the years went one, African dance had a lot of influence in other styles as well. These include; Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, Jazz, Hip Hop, and Crunking. If it wasn’t for the earlier styles of African then we wouldn’t be able to have wonderful dance companies like Alvin Ailey today.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing their most famous piece “Revelations- Wade in the Water”

Check out the video to see some African Dancing!