The Impact of Colonisation on the Ability to Make a Meaning of 'Black' South African Contemporary Dance in the 21st Century.

Author:Rani, Maxwell Xolani


Most audience members find difficulty drawing meaning from the African contemporary interpretations of African Black dance. The beauty in dance can be found in the fluidity and ambiguity of the art form. It can be a form of self expression, a vessel to send a message, a way of retelling and reliving history, a ritual for worship, a form of celebration, and anything else that it wants to be or be interpreted as. Black dance[1] can take the shape of many meanings and intentions, but the social, cultural, economic, and political environment of its context cannot be ignored. The African traditional Black dance can also be broken up into subcategories such as sacred dances, which include traditional religious dances, cult and ritual dances, and ceremonial dances, which include sectarian and communal dances (Bengho, 2000). The political and historical environment surrounding Black[2] people's dance in South Africa has significantly impacted its expression and evolution throughout time. According to Anca Girchescu:

[...] even if dance can be artificially separated from its social context, and considered solely in its physical features as an independent artistic means of expression, the social components are implicit to the dancing person as an individual and as a member of a socio-cultural community (2001. p.1). Considering this, Sylvia Glasser, founder of Moving into Dance (MID) maintains that in dance there are two opposing beliefs. One belief is that dance is political; whereas the contrary opinion is that dance occupies a separated domain and is not connected to political matters (1991: 112). These same opposites apply to many other areas of life and expressions of creativity, with some arguing that there is no such thing as an apolitical action while others insist that politics have nothing to do with it.

This paper will argue that dance is always political. It suggests that socio-political components are forever evident in dance. Furthermore, it will define Black dance and use South Africa's apartheid years to identify specific case studies where dance was a political statement. After apartheid most people assumed that South African dance was no longer a medium for overall societal change yet this paper will argue that dance takes on a political aesthetic[3] no matter what the context. Taking matters a step further, most Black South Africans have been wrestling with the notion of African contemporary dance.

This paper will propose that many Black South Africans are not ready for African contemporary dance because of lasting implications of colonial educational structures that allow them to watch and internalise an art form that expresses their cultural heritage without a full grasp and clear understanding. Colonialism and Bantu defined education damaged the society by indoctrination and abuse of psychological behaviours. Craig Soudien suggests that because of colonial humiliation, violence, and domination of South Africans, many still suffer from a dependence that "persist[s] into the modern South Africa as masters find ways of keeping their subjects from reflection and self-reflection" (2012:100). The [in] ability to reflect and self-reflect makes it challenging for most Black South Africans to understand and accept modern interpretations of tradition. I am aware that this applies equally to white South Africans when it comes to ballet, as some do not have the capacity to engage with the choreographic and directorship of the work in a depth context. Fortunately both dance disciplines differ with respect to historical background in politics, theatre and from socio-traditional to theatre spectacle concerns and issues of commonalities. Finally, I will hypothesise when and how South Africa will become ready to critically engage with African contemporary dance. There are two sides to the challenge; the choreographic language that is complexed and minimal understanding of the audience.

Defining of "Black Dance" within the South African Context

The concept of Black dance continues to be debated in the scholarly, artistic, and societal arenas. This paper utilises the positive form of the term but first will display the various sides of this on-going debate.

As a young Black dance academic I experienced the negativity behind the term Black. The word was associated with discrimination and being viewed as unintelligent and underprivileged. For some reason this term has been used endlessly in times of apartheid by Black people for empowerment and politically rebellious reasons. Out of such stigma, Black people reappropriated the word and inserted value by attempting to use it in a positive voice, which reflected intelligence, pride, culture and ownership. In this paper I will expose the negative and positive construct, focusing more on the latter. The ideology of Black has roots of consciousness intact due to its history and legacy.

This ideology had a long history, which dates back to the 1880s, when it was borrowed by foreign writers such as Frantz Fanon. The very term Black came from the United States of America and referred to people previously known as Africans, Indians, or Coloureds. Hayes explains, "Black Americans offered the idea of non-white unity against their oppressors. However, the phrase non-white defined Blacks in negative terms" (2000: 179).

Ideas about Black unity and emancipation are deeply rooted in the struggle Steve Biko and others launched against apartheid since the 1960s. It should be emphasized that in South Africa, both the rhetoric and philosophy of Black Consciousness contradicted the fundamental principles of grand apartheid. My usage of the term Black correlates with Black Consciousness[4] or Afrocentricity[5] theories that were designed to "infuse the Black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life" (Biko, 1971: 68). In addition, Mazama explains the importance of Afrocentricity that "[...] rests on the assertion of the primacy of the African people. Its aim is to give us our African, victorious consciousness back" (2001:388). This explains the sensitivity behind the complex term "Black" that it is used from Africa to the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. The term Black dance came from the Americas as well; Zita Allen points out that "there was a tendency to romanticize Black dance as debonair, delightful, daring and erotic while also stereotyping it as cheap, political, angry, simplistic, loaded with literal gesture and trite narratives" (Allen, 2001: 3).

Changing the compass and directing such notion to South Africa, there are some parallels or commonalities to the American experiences with regard to Black dance. In South Africa, traditional Black dance is part of a form of communication that allows individuals or groups to express feelings and beliefs and to preserve history and cultural traditions (Rani, 2008:124). It is also a form of expression that is often passed down from generation to generation for religious, social or ceremonial purpose (Snipe, 1996:68).

Within the South African context "Black" dance refers to dance originating from indigenous African Black populations. However, the term "Black dance" has been used pejoratively as a label in the field of dance criticism and aesthetics (Craighead, 2006:19). For instance, is Black dance the advent of Black dancers performing on stage? Or is it dance work choreographed by Black individuals? Could it constitute work, which emerges from Black or African choreographers or producers? Must Black dance always have a theme relating to the experience of "Black" people? (Allen, 2001:2; Craighead, 2006:19). Can non-Black dancers perform "Black" dance? These questions are important to consider when attempting to understand the dance scene in South Africa and across the African continent. The definition of "Black" itself, as a race, is a politicised socio-political construction.

While Black dance as a category of identification promotes work produced and performed by artists of colour, it also "promotes a racist legacy which supports the dominant hegemonic discourse(s) operating within contemporary (global) society through the process of setting up an oppositional discourse of the "other" (Craighead, 2006: 20). The category of expression as "Black" automatically separates it from the dominant culture and politicises work made by Black people. This label implies that it exists within the racist superstructures of White Dance. Clare Craighead and Lliane Loots comment on the Black/ white dance dichotomy in South Africa, but this may be an academic...

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