the magnificence of african dance -- 12/7/15

Today's selection -- from What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert. From their earliest interactions with sub-Saharan Africans, Europeans noted the precision, complexity and extraordinary achievement of African dance:

"What can we know of the dance that Africans might have brought with them [to America]? If the West and Central African tribes from which the slaves were taken described their dancing in written form, then Western scholars haven't discovered it; it seems that the danc­ing, along with music and stories, was the record. Just about the sole written voice is that of Olaudah Equiano, a slave who purchased his freedom and who, in his 1789 autobiography, claimed that in his Igbo childhood, dancing was part of every occasion, translating stories and events into varied movement. That's about all he wrote on the subject, and so we have to rely upon accounts by European travelers and traders, filtered through their prejudices and likely miscomprehension, or we must extrapolate backward from scholarship on twentieth-century Afri­can dance, always keeping in mind how much could have changed in the interim.

"Nevertheless, it's possible to venture generalizations across the slave-­trading region. All accounts stress how very much the Africans danced. As the British trader Richard Jobson put it in 1623, 'There is, without doubt, no other people on earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke.' (This generalization was already long in the tooth. In his eleventh-century guide to buying slaves, lbn Butlan said of African slaves that 'dancing and beating time are engrained in their nature.') Africans danced to celebrate victories and to mark seasonal cycles. They danced at weddings and at funerals. In some tribes, dance was part of the instruction given to youth during initiations, part of the education considered essential for adulthood. European observers marveled at the dancing of children so young they could barely stand: 'One would be apt to say that they are born dancing, to see the exactness of their move­ments,' a visitor to Senegal wrote in 1753. Later scholars would add that the aged danced, too, and that when they danced, they appeared young. ...

African dance: rock painting, c. 6,000-4000 bce

"'With crooked knees and bended body they foot it nimbly,' Jobson wrote about Senegambian dancers in 1620, catching what could be called the default position of West African dance. ... The crooked knees help the body to bend, freeing the pelvis and making it easier for upper and lower halves to operate independently. Supple knees absorb shocks, steadying the gait of someone carrying a load on her head. The crouch emphasizes a connection with the earth that deepens with rising intensity: when the music heats up, the dancer gets down. A great dancer was said to have no bones. ...

" '[These Africans] do not dance a step, but every member of their body, every joint, and even the head itself expresseth a different motion, al­ways keeping time, let it never be so quick.' So wrote a French botanist about a Senegambian funeral dance in 1749, identifying a core feature of West African dance, 'keeping time.' What struck the botanist as dis­tinctive would continue to amaze Europeans -- a rhythmic exactness, which, to have attracted such consistent attention, must have been very pronounced. Africans danced percussively. They beat their feet on the ground, but they also tied bells to their ankles and loaded their arms with bracelets, adornments that were noisemakers, rendering a dancer's precision audible. Even body parts without ornaments -- shoulder blades, necks -- behaved as if they could be making sounds. This exactness, noted the botanist, was synchronized with drums. Europeans who wrote about African dance rarely failed to mention drums. ...

" 'Every member of their body expresseth a different motion' -- this might have registered a distinguishing trait of music in the region, what musicologists call polyrhythm. From a European perspective, the music of West and Central Africa uses at least two different rhythmic systems at once. (To take the most basic example, one drum plays three beats in the time it takes another to play two.) Though the individual parts are often simple, they interlock into a complex pattern that to many Euro­pean ears throughout history -- perceiving no pattern or only the repeti­tion of one -- has sounded chaotic or monotonous. Perhaps polyrhythm is what the botanist was seeing: the feet following one drum, the hips another. Such segmentation would pervade twentieth-century West Af­rican dance: polyrhythm encouraged isolation of body parts, and skilled dancers could follow three or four rhythms simultaneously. The best dancers could add more."


Brian Seibert


What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2015 by Brain Seibert


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