Hips sway. Bodies leap towards the skies. Hearts pound in time to the reverberating drums. Dance reflects the life of communities, whether it’s ritualistic, entertainment or just a way to express a moment. Here’s a small sample of dance in Africa that you can expect to see – and perhaps join – when you travel to these regions:
You hear the phrase “belly dancing” and immediately think Shakira. Thanks to this singer and her accelerated hip movement, the dance has rapidly gained popularity in the US. The dance stems from Arabic influence and can be seen in its pure form in North Africa. Isolate different parts of your body and take on the shimmy, hip hits and undulations – try to be Shakira.
Another fast-paced dance is performed for religious reasons – the Sufi whirling of Dervishes. This is part of a formal Muslim ceremony known as the Sema and represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to perfection. This perfection is sought by listening to music, focusing on God and spinning one’s body in repetitive circle. While whirling, arms are open, directed to the sky. The Western world witnesses Sufi whirling through tourism. (A great reason to travel!)
Not only is there a dervish theater in Cairo, Egypt (Wikala Al-Ghouri) where a free Sufi dancing show is held three days a week, there are also many belly dancing shows in nightclubs and dinner boats (opt for a Nile cruise).
In this region, many tribes hold tradition fast. This is evident in the Maasai dance, Adumu – what many travelers hope to see before they leave Kenya. Adumu is usually performed during a coming of age ceremony of warriors. This is a jumping dance (the strength in their legs must be remarkable because the Maasai jump higher than you could ever hope to achieve). A circle is formed by the warriors as one or two at a time will enter and competitively jump with narrow posture – never letting their heels touch the ground. The group may raise or lower the pitch of their voices based on how high a warrior may get.
Many lodges in Kenya may bring warriors in to showcase this dance; or, excursions to local villages can be arranged (see Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp and Elephant Pepper Camp). To see what an adumu dance can look like, watch this video.
Drums, played with hands and sticks, are a vital component of West African dance. The drum is the language the dancer interprets. You know it’s a Mandinka dance as soon as you see the djembe drum. This dance is drama. The styles reflect the history and connection to the Mali Empire as dancers bend their torso and mark the rhythm with fast, stomping footwork and outstretched arms – all in time to the rhythms played on drums.
Typically, it is the men who play the drums while the women dance, which makes this a community affair with the participation of everyone.
A community or cultural center, like Dagara Music and Arts Center in Ghana, will provide opportunities to explore the local culture.
The South African street dance phenomenon (whether it’s “pantsula” or “sbujwa” style) is easy to get caught up in – dancers on a street, finding purpose with their bodies in fluid movements, swagger and a lot of passion. It’s part circus and part soul; it’s freestyle and imagination. To learn more about sbjuwa, watch this video. Maybe you’ll come across the dance as you explore the neighborhoods of Johannesburg.
Or, have a more definite plan when it comes to dancing. Travel to Cape Town for an annual festival that celebrates freedom and the new year. Every year on January 2, the Mother City comes alive with the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival a.k.a the “Kaapse Klopse”. The carnival’s history dates back to a time of slavery, though the freedom of expression is ever more prominent today through the singers, musicians, dancers and supporters that join together. Expect street parades with vibrant colors, outlandish costumes and feet-tapping to banjo tunes.
Join in or observe. Nothing more represents a destination than the way the locals choose to express themselves in dance. Innovative or holding to tradition, a dance is going to open your eyes – so travel.