Despite all the things the Africans have been through and are still going through, Africans reflect a happy people. This is portrayed by their manner of socializing. One of the many ways Africans celebrate during their special occasions is singing and dancing. Song and dance has been around in Africa since the beginning of time. Some of these dances have stood the test of time while others have been forgotten. Some of the dances are traditional and some are modern like Vosho common in South Africa formulated as part of the new dance culture. Dancing is an integral part of the lives of Africans. A real African can dance to anything, as long as it has a rhythm.
Many African communities organize annual dance festivals where they showcase their traditional dances and songs and other aspects of their rich cultures. These festivals enable economic growth as people from other parts of Africa and the world visit these communities to witness these dances. An example is the kuru dance festival. The most interesting aspect of African dances is that fact they are highly participatory, so feel fry to dance along if you find yourself in Africa during any of this dance festivals (except those reserved for the royals or initiation dances). It is worth noting that African dances require a lot of energy and dancers have to eat well before performing. Others are performed only by professionals because of the technicity of the dance steps.
Ritual dance: Ritual dance represents the broadest and most ancient of African dance. An example is the Mbira dance, the quintessential ritual dance of Zimbabwe. Ritual dance enforces and affirms the belief system of the society. As such, they are usually religious in nature and are designated for specific occasions that expedite and facilitate the most powerful expression of the African people that is ancestral reverence. Ritual dances are initiated by the informed and the elders. Throughout Africa, dance is also an integral part of the marking of birth and death. At burial ceremonies the Owo Yoruba perform the igogo, in which young men dance over the grave and pack the earth with stomping movements.
African religion: African ritual dance cannot be adequately discussed without an understanding of African religion and religious practice, because virtually every aspect of life in Africa is imbued with spirituality. Religion in Africa is not something reserved for a certain time or place, or a last resort to engage only in times of crisis. To a great extent there is no formal distinction drawn between sacred and secular, religious and non-religious, spiritual or material. In many African languages there is no word for religion, because a person’s life is a total embodiment of his or her philosophy. By extension, sacred rituals are integral part of daily African life. They are interwoven with every aspect of human endeavor, from the profound to the mundane. From birth to death, every transition in an individual’s life is marked by some form of ritual observance. In a practical sense, these ubiquitous rituals are at the heart of religious practice in Africa.
Traditional African Religions are not exclusive. Individuals frequently participate in several distinctive forms of worship, and they are not perceived as conflicting in any way-rather they are considered cumulative means of achieving the same result, which is improved quality of life. When people grow old and die in most cultures of the world, it is a process of gradual detachment and finally leaving forever. The dead are believed to move on to a distant place where we no longer reach them; they cease to interact with the physical world and in time we forget them. In Africa, as people age, they are accorded more and more deference and respect. The deceased continue to play an active role in family and community life, and if anything become more respected and influential because of their deceased status. This extends to ancestral worship which is instrumental in traditional African religious practice.
Ancestral worship: Ancestor worship is common in Africa and is an important part of religious practice. The dead are believed to live on in the world of the spirit (Spirit World). In this form they posses supernatural powers of various sort. They watch over their living descendants with kindly interest, but have the ability to cause trouble if they are neglected or dishonored. Proper attention to the ancestors, especially at funerals and memorial services result in helpful intervention on behalf of the living. It also ensures that a pious individual will be favorably received when he or she inevitably joins the spirit world.
This kind of beliefs explains why the elderly are treated with much respect in African Societies. Among people who worship ancestors hundreds of years after their death, reverence for ages takes a mystical quality as though the living were slowly become gods. Each old man and woman is regarded as a priceless, irreplaceable treasure, the key to success in life. Because they have witnessed and participated in what has gone by, each one is appreciated as bearer of wisdom and experience in a society where custom and tradition are cherished. Guidance is often solicited from the elderly to solve questions of tradition or settle personal or family dispute.
Ritual dances to connect to the divine: Many African dances are the means by which individuals relate to ancestors and other divinities. Whatever the motivation of the dance, it combines the expression of human feeling with the higher aspirations of man to communicate with the cosmos. Dance is an integral part of a larger system. Dance expresses dynamic forces which constantly influence each other. Humans (both living and the dead), animals, vegetables, and minerals all posses this vital force in varying amounts. The supernatural entities which can benefit or hinder the endeavors of humankind are also composed of these same natural forces; to enlist their aid the human component is considered especially vital. In a sense, each divinity is created and empowered by the concentration and devotion of the worshipers, whose life force combines with that of, say an animal, or a river to bring the deity into power. If there is no human effort, there is no god and thus no chance to enhance the quality of life.
In African mythology there is a Supreme God, the Great and Almighty God, who is too far away to be of practical importance in daily life and so is not worshiped directly. There are numerous other spirits, deities and agents which act as intermediaries on behalf of humankind, and which are worshiped directly because they have direct influence over the affairs of man. Sometimes these agents are worshiped in the form of natural objects, such as stone, or rivers. Portrayals of this by non-Africans has shown their misconceptions about how Africans experience the world. To an African, everything in this world and beyond is explained in spiritual terms; consequently, nothing happens that is not interpreted as some form of divine intervention.
Gods and deceased ancestors must be treated with respect so that they will lend a helping hand when called to do so. It is important to learn about the proper use of natural forces and how to manifest the supernatural agents which can prevent sickness, improve harvest, ward off danger or untimely death, build happy marriage and families, bless children, and so forth. This ancient way of life motivates respectful attitudes towards traditional values and fellow human beings in a way that no legal or educational system can hope to match.
Ceremonial dance: Although ceremonial or cultural functions are more commemorative and transient than rituals, they are still important. Although the basic rhythms and movements remain, the number of dancers, formations and other elements change to fit the situation. Dances appear as parts of broader cultural activities. Dances of Love are performed on special accessions, such as weddings and anniversaries. One example is the Nmane dance performed in Ghana. It is done solely by women during weddings in honor of the bride. Rites of Passage and Coming of Age Dances are performed to mark the coming of age of young men and women. They give confidence to the dancers who have to perform in front of everyone. It is then formally acknowledged they are adults. This builds pride, as well as a stronger sense of community.
Dances of Welcome are a show of respect and pleasure to visitors, and at the same time provide a show of how talented and attractive the host villagers are. Yabara is a West African Dance of Welcome marked by The Beaded Net Covered Gourd Rattle (sekere-pronounced Shake-er-ay). It is thrown into the air to different heights by the female dancers to mark tempo and rhythm changes. This is an impressive spectacle, as all the dancers will throw and catch them at the same time. Royal dances provide opportunities for chiefs and other dignitaries to create auras of majestic splendor and dignity to impress their office over the community at festivals and in the case of royal funerals, a deep sense of loss. In processions, the chief is preceded by various court officials, pages, guards, and others each with distinctive ceremonial dances or movements.
Dances of possession and summoning are common themes, and very important in many Traditional African Religions. They all share one common link: A call to a Spirit. These spirits can be the spirits of Plants or Forests, Ancestors, or Deities. The Orishas are the Deities found in many forms of African religion, such as Candomble, Santeria, Yoruba mythology, Voodoo, and others. Each orisha has their favorite colors, days, times, foods, drinks, music, and dances. The dances will be used on special occasions to honor the orisha, or to seek help and guidance. The orisha may be angry and need appeasing. Kakilambe is a great spirit of the forest who is summoned using dance. He comes in the form of a giant statue carried from the forest out to the waiting village. There is much dancing and singing. During this time the statue is raised up, growing to a height of around 15 inches. Then the priest communes and asks Kakilambe if they will have good luck over the coming years, and if there are any major events to be aware of, such as drought, war, or other things.
Griotic dance: In African culture, the Griot (GREEoh) or djialy (jali) is the village historian who teaches everyone about their past and keeper of cultural traditions and history of the people.These traditions and stories are kept in the form of music and dance, containing elements of history or metaphorical statements that carry and pass on the culture of the people through the generations. Griotic dance not only represent historical documents, but they are ritual dramas and dances. The Dances often tell stories that are part of the oral history of a community. In Senegal, the Malinke people dance Lamba, the dance of the Griot (historian).
It is said that when a Griot dies, a library has burned to the ground. The music will usually follow a dance form, beginning slow with praise singing and lyrical movements accompanied by melodic instruments such as the kora, a 21-stringed harp/lute, and the balafon, a xylophone with gourd resonators.
Communal dances: Traditionally, dance in Africa occurs collectively in a community setting. It expresses the life of the community more than the mood of an individual or a couple. In villages throughout the continent, the sound and the rhythm of the drum express the mood of the people. The drum is the sign of life; its beat is the heartbeat of the community. Such is the power of the drum to evoke emotions, to touch the souls of those who hear its rhythms. In an African community, coming together in response to the beating of the drum is an opportunity to give one another a sense of belonging and of solidarity. It is a time to connect with each other, to be part of that collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society. Dances mark key elements of communal life. For example, dances at agricultural festivals mark the passage of seasons, the successful completion of projects, and the hope for prosperity. In an annual festival of the Irigwe in Nigeria, men perform leaps symbolizing the growth of the crops.
Dance does not merely form a part of community life; it represents and reinforces the community itself. Its structures reproduce the organization and the values of the community. For example, dances are often segregated by sex, reinforcing gender identities to children from a young age. Dance often expresses the categories that structure the community, including not only gender but also kinship, age, status, and, especially in modern cities, ethnicity. For example, in the igbin dance of the Yoruba of Nigeria the order of the performers in the dance reflects their social standing and age, from the king down to the youngest at the gathering. Among the Asante of Ghana the king reinforces his authority through a special royal dance, and traditionally he might be judged by his dancing skill. Dance can provide a forum for popular opinion and even satire within political structures. Spiritual leaders also use dance to symbolize their connection with the world beyond.
Dances provide community recognition for the major events in people’s lives. The dances of initiation, or rites of passage, are pervasive throughout Africa and function as moments of definition in an individual’s life or sometimes key opportunities to observe potential marriage partners. In Mali, Mandingo girls dance Lengin upon reaching their teenage years.
Highly energetic dances show off boys’ stamina and are considered a means of judging physical health. The learning of the dance often plays an important part in the ritual of the occasion. For example, the girls among the Lunda of Zambia stay in seclusion practicing their steps before the coming-of-age ritual. Dance traditionally prepared people for the roles they played in the community. For example, some war dances prepared young men physically and psychologically for war by teaching them discipline and control while getting them into the spirit of battle. Some dances are a form of martial art themselves, such as Nigerian korokoro dances or the Angolan dances from which Brazilian capoeira is derived. I will highlight a few dances but note that the list may not be exhaustive due to the fact that there are about 3,000 tribes, speaking more than 2,000 different languages. All these tribes have their own dances celebrating different festivals and ceremonies.