African dance, a mix of culture and self-expression

African dance, a mix of culture and self-expression

African dance and culture

Mainly used in reference to dances predominantly performed by communities and people living south of the Sahara, African dance is accentuated by a rich culture and vigor. It is almost impossible to speak about African dance without a mention of the total use of body mass to create rhythm. African dance styles comprise of moves borrowed between regions, tribes and language groups, and that explains the elaborate nature when performed. In the African traditional setting, dance was used as a tool for impacting knowledge, praise achievements, condemn evil and express joy in social integration. The outstanding feature of African dance is its participatory nature meaning that even those deemed to be just spectators can join in and dance.


Photo credit: Kurayba via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Evolution of African dance

Like most other types, African dance emerged as a way of storytelling. While sometimes they dance collectively, the underlying message is communication of community to individuals present. Since the focus in African dance has always been about self-expression, emphasize was on dance as an individual as opposed to a group. There are clear roles for men and women in dance an aspect that had been highlighted by early commentators. Looking at the dance in relation to tradition, it is easy to identify how such conservative dance came to be. The focus of African communities was to uphold discipline in all age groups and pass on the virtues of kinship along generations. Close contact of members of opposite gender during dance was not allowed apart in special circumstances but this would happen under supervision.

Dance in the African setting was done with a specific agenda in mind and since it took planning to organize one, the individual talent was emphasized. Apart from appreciation among gender, dancers also got recognition for drumming or playing an instrument well. To totally master a dance or drumming routine, children were encouraged to learn and copy exactly as they are taught. Today, much of the dedication and commitment that existed years ago where children are oriented into dance early is lost. An indication that African dance is deeply set in the DNA of the African child is singing games that take place over break at school and competitive music and drama cultural festivals that happen all across sub-Saharan Africa.


The greatest instrument of African dance is the voice which is used by all groups in traditional African performances. Apart from nomadic tribes such as the Maasai that do not use drums in their dances, most communities of Bantu background create defined beats to accompany the music and body movements.

P.S.: If you are interested in African dance and music, check out each summer the international festival Nuits d’Afrique in Montreal. Go to their website and find out more about dates and workshops.

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