Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Watch, Read & Dance with Traditional West African Dance

Dancing has a long history in West Africa, and has been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Music and dance are such an important part of West African culture, and are as diverse as the many ethnic groups in the region. Each group has its own traditional dances, reflecting its particular customs. Most children learn the dance steps by watching and imitating dancers at celebrations. 

These women are an Igbo bride and her bridesmaids in Nigeria, dancing their entrance
Photo Credit: Jeremy Weate (CC)

Generally, traditional dancing is about expressing the life of the community. Each community has ceremonial dances to mark important events. These can be for good harvest, births, baptisms, marriage and death. There are traditional dances for coming of age ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood, like the Krobo Dipo ceremony

Sometimes dances are a means of communicating with gods, spirits and ancestors. Ancestral spirits can be appealed to - and thanked - for things like healing and harvest.

Traditional dance during the voodoo festival in Benin
Photo Credit: Willem Heerbaart (CC)

For ceremonial dances, dancers often wear colorful costumes, which vary widely. For example, some wear costumes covered in cowrie shells, others with grass skirts, others with colorful cloth wraps. Body and face painting can also be used with colorful designs like dots, spirals and diagonal lines; and colors with different symbolic meanings. 

Masked dancers are the most sacred dancers. They are covered from head to toe and wear a mask that represents the spirit of animals or people (like in the Eyo Festival in Nigeria). Those in costume are considered to have become the living form of the spirits represented by the masks. 

This dance is being performed during a closing ceremony, in Ghana
Photo Credit: Adam (CC)
Drums are an important aspect of traditional dancing - in fact, drummers and dancers are interconnected. Drum patterns indicate what moves a dancer should make by following the rhythm and the change in beat. The drummers should also note the rhythm and tempo of the dancing and adjust to match. 

Read a book

Drumbeat in Our Feet by Patricia Keeler (affiliate link).
This is such a great book to introduce kids with a general overview of African dancing. The author makes note that traditional dance in Africa is as diverse as the people and land itself, and shares general overviews of the different aspects. Each set of pages begin with easy to read information about a cultural aspect of African dance with sepia illustrations juxtaposed with colorful illustrations of modern, African-American kids that are part of a dance troupe to learn about their culture and traditions.  Who knew reading about dancing could be so well done? You and your kids will come away from this book wanting to watch a live performance. Or maybe that's just us!

Watch a performance

We've watched a few difference African dance performances in the past year, either as part of multicultural festivals or our African heritage month. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to watch a show - live dance and music are a great cultural experience.

Dance, dance, dance!

The best way to learn about dance is to get on the floor and do it yourself. If there are local African dance classes in your area, I recommend checking them out - even if just the once. Many offer lessons to the beat of live drumming, and live instruction is always helpful :) It's a lot of fun, and great exercise (I tried this with a group of friends). If you have teens who aren't keen (adamantly refuse) to do something "different" in a public space, here are a few videos you can watch, follow and dance with in your living room (and use up any pent up energy):

  • Here are three videos that teach a few dances from Zimbabwe (not West Africa, but great instructional videos)

Have fun!

Title Image: Dance at a baptism in Mali. Photo Credit: Emilia Tjernstrom (CC)


  1. Just popped by to read all your lovely posts and found there is too much goodness to do it justice right now (it's almost 11pm), so I'm going to bed and I shall return tomorrow when I can check out all your links. I adore African dance so I don't want to miss the videos you've chosen! Night, night!!

    1. All of these catch up posts I've been flooding the blog with is a lot for everyone, I know! (Glad you're off to get some sleep :)

  2. What fun! They really do dance differently and for different reasons than we do. I watched the masquerade dance and it was quite scary!
    Thanks for the book recommendation. And my children thank you for the instruction videos. They are attempting it right now in the living room!

    1. The masquerade frightens me too!
      Love that the kids have tried out the dancing! Must be quite the sight :)

  3. That second picture there is so much character in it. I'm so far behind in commenting. I've barely been at my computer this week, I've been so busy.

    1. I thought I had already responded to this! Only in my head I guess - most importantly, don't ever worry or feel pressure in commenting - we all have a lot on our plates without including blogging :) Might be why I respond to comments in my head...
      Takes more time, but finding the right photos for these posts really helps bring cultures to life (at least I think so!)


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