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.
Watch & learn about the gelede, a masked song and dance ceremony performed to mark major events, especially the annual harvest by the Yoruba
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.
Watch a dance of the Sande in Sierra Leone that tells the story of a jealous husband and his young wife
|This dance is being performed during a closing ceremony, in Ghana|
Photo Credit: Adam (CC)
Read a book
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's a series of videos that teach you various specific dance steps, generalized as West African dance
- Here are three videos that teach a few dances from Zimbabwe (not West Africa, but great instructional videos)
Title Image: Dance at a baptism in Mali. Photo Credit: Emilia Tjernstrom (CC)