Home AFRICAN STORY Significance Of Dance In Different Cultures In Africa

Significance Of Dance In Different Cultures In Africa

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In African communities, dance isn’t merely entertainment; it’s a dynamic medium for cultural expression, communication with the spiritual realm, and the embodiment of societal values. Each dance tells a unique story, revealing the richness of African traditions and the diverse functions they serve.

Dancing has a whole bunch of different social roles. When it comes to traditional dances, each show usually has a leading reason behind it, along with some other minor reasons. These reasons might show or mirror the shared beliefs and social connections of the community. So, to tell one dance style apart from another, you have to figure out why each dance is being done.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell apart dancing for rituals and just having fun together. These two reasons can kind of blend into each other sometimes.

Let’s take a look at the various functions and significance of African dance in different cultures.

Ritual and Recreation
A distinguishing feature of African dance is how seamlessly it blends ritual and recreation. Often, the boundary between these two purposes becomes blurred. An illuminating example is the Efe mask’s appearance during the Gelede ritual festival in Nigeria and Benin. At midnight, this mask emerges to the anticipation of the community, accompanied by powerful incantations to ward off witches. The dancer then transitions into a vigorous stomping dance honoring the Earth Mother and the community’s women elders. The performance progresses, weaving ritual and social messages together, before evolving into a celebration that lasts until sunrise. This unique amalgamation showcases how a ritual can transform into a statement of community values and eventually merge into joyful recreation.

A Gelede masquerader dancing in the courtyard of the Ibara palace in Abeokuta, Nigeria.

A Gelede masquerader dancing in the courtyard of the Ibara palace in Abeokuta, Nigeria.

Dance as a Religious Expression
African thought systems are deeply rooted in a worldview where spiritual forces and the community are in constant interaction. These forces might inhabit natural elements, animals, or even human mediums temporarily during rituals. For instance, the priest of the Yoruba god Shango expresses divine wrath through lightning-fast arm gestures and powerful shoulder rolls during trance-inducing dances. The Mhondora spirit mediums in Zimbabwe use the music of the mbira lamellaphone to enter a trance state, connecting with the guardian spirits of the deceased. Dance becomes a form of communication between the spiritual and human realms, confirming the authority and leadership of priests and mediums.

Yoruba in Nigeria performing a dance in honour of the god Shango.

Yoruba in Nigeria performing a dance in honour of the god Shango.

Healing and Therapy through Dance
Dance isn’t just a performance; it’s also therapeutic. Among the Hausa, dance, and spirit possession in the Bori cult bring about healing. Jukun elders address hysterical disorders in women through exorcism dances. The Kalabari’s female spirit mediums utilize dance and song to facilitate healing. This reflects the belief in dance’s power to mend both physical and spiritual ailments.

Jukun women in Nigeria dancing the Ajun-Kpa Dance, meant to exorcise evil spirits

Jukun women in Nigeria dancing the Ajun-Kpa, meant to exorcise evil spirits

Read Also: Some Countries In The World And Music Genres Peculiar To Them

Conveying Spiritual and Cultural Significance
Masquerade dancers are a striking feature of many African cultures, with distinct roles such as embodying deities, ancestral spirits, or entertainers. Animal masks, like those in Mali’s Tyiwara dance, symbolize nature spirits and promote fertility. The dances associated with these masks mirror the movements of the animals they represent. Masks also influence dance style; heavier masks lead to more dignified, stately dances, while lighter masks enable acrobatic displays. Masquerade dances serve as a vital link between the living and the spirits, reinforcing cultural and spiritual bonds.

Tutsi hunters performing the ceremonial lion dance. The headdress is symbolic of a lion's mane.

Tutsi hunters performing the ceremonial lion dance. The headdress is symbolic of a lion’s mane.

Dance as Education and Celebration
Dance in Africa isn’t just a performance but also an educational tool. Repetitive dances teach children to control societal norms. Age-grade dances express specific qualities, with young Zulu and Ndebele men commemorating past warriors’ victories. Dance marks significant life transitions, from naming ceremonies to adulthood initiation rites, guiding individuals through these critical changes.

Dance for Recreation and Connection
Dance thrives as a recreational activity across Africa. Urban dance clubs bring people together to enjoy the rhythms of famous musicians, while villages offer informal evening dances. Highlife, a style that originated in Ghana, once celebrated the spirit of independence with Western instruments. While dance forms evolve under external influences, they always retain their unique African essence.


Source: Britannica

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