By Nancy Monnya
From time immemorial Africans have been known as dancers, drummers and singers. In fact, it has become common that when Africans gather, there is bound to be dance, and drums. Some even joke that Africans we dance in celebration, in mourning and even in protests.
To understand why dance is such an integral part of our lives, we must first remember what dance and drums where to African communities in the past.
Dance, or music in general is of great significance. Music can be used to harmonize, and if the music is not properly harmonized, it can cause imbalances in the listener and the creator of the music, physically and spiritually. Music is essentially vibration and different vibrations have different effects, on human beings and life in general. To full understand this, you can observe how water reacts when exposed to different frequencies. The human body is made up of more 70% water.
Music is also a form of communication, more so dance and drum, particularly within African cultures. Dances from different African communities consists of gestures laden with meaning. From the sensual maiden dances to ancient shamanic ritual dances, the rhythmic movements relay messages. The dancer communicates with the divine spirit within, and channels out this energy to the spectators. The drummer too does the same. The energy flows from within and connects to the drum, and then moves between the drummer and the spectators. This often is the reason why many people will start dancing at the sound of the drum. While a properly strung drum has a spirit of its own, it intertwines with the energy of the drummer and speaks to the place within the spectator who then responds in the form of dance. These are often subtle exchanges and many responds without giving it much thought. They assume it is expected for one to dance because there is music. But some are aware of this scared connection and responds to it intentionally; and that is the beginning of beautiful music! The drummer with his drum speaking, and the dancer joining in the conversation.
Dance is laden with symbolism which in African cultures is understood to have great significance.The divine in the African sense is not limited to an individual creator, but is rather seen to be present in all living things as the expression of the creative supreme energy. Therefore oftentimes dance gestures will acknowledge the sacredness of all things by mimicking the movements of nature, from the gentle flows of streams to turbulent rages of rivers; from the royal glide of birds of prey to the sinuous movements of the python. These can be translated into messages by the spectators, some of who will join in the dance to supplement or balance the gestures of the initial dancer. Sometimes the spectators are happy to just observe and enjoy the beautiful communication between the dancer and the divine. Depending on the occasion and the kinds of musical instruments played, the gestures of the dancer might have significant effects on both the spectators, and the dancer. A dance accompanied by drums can invoke the spirit within the dancer and all others around; which can manifest in dancing, clapping, drumming or just pure joy. The beautiful nature of African dance lies in its spontaneity. It is not choreographed movements but rather the dancer moves at will and let their spirit guide them; and this can be a powerful way for the dancer to release inner conflicts and unburden.
Animal and nature symbolism is not only a tribute and an acknowledgement of the divine nature within them, but also a reference to the characteristics of the object mimicked. It could be desired attributes that we are encouraged to adopt or emulate, like the wisdom of the elephant, or the healing knowledge of the crone. It can also be attributes we are cautioned against, such as the underhandedness of of the hyena. In African cultures, dance is a teacher.
It has also always been known that dance is the master healer, and this can still be seen in many native communities around the world that still keep traditional practices; such as the Native American communities and many African communities like the Xhosa and baPedi of South Africa. These healing dance rituals can be seen during traditional ceremonies such as initiation of healers ceremonies. The shamans or healers of these communities are able to use dance and drums to not only heal themselves but also create healing spaces for others.
Initiates of these traditional healing methods are taught through many methods, dance and drum are some of them. The healers are called Sangoma in IsiZulu which can literally mean the one of the drum, or song. A signifier of the crucial role drums and song play in ancestral work. It is through the stomping of the feet on the ground that one gets connected to the mother earth, through the sound of the drum that one’s heartbeat is harmonized with the rhythm and vibration of the earth and the universe itself.
A powerful bond is created between the dancer, the instrument used, the spectators and the divine supreme energy. This is why synchronized group drumming and dancing is very effective in creating a heightened spiritual experience. Oftentimes the reactions that come from this are missed by those not familiar or tuned in enough to understand the synchronicity caused by musical vibrations.
Dance is also powerful meditation. The dancer connects to themselves and can hear the silent voice of the universe within them. The voice that tells them how to move the body without them consciously doing so. This is one of the most powerful prayers - creating a connection between the divine self and the physical, and then creating pleasantness from that and sharing it with others and there spectators, therefore creating a heart to heart bond. Through this form of meditation, the dancer allows themselves to be in the present, without worry or contemplation about the past or the future. It is the moment that counts. In a meditative state, the dancer can uninhibitedly release internal burdens by shedding the energy, through movements such as spinning, dancing at dizzying speed, laughing or crying. This is also true for the spectators. They are enthralled by the beautiful gestures and movements of the dancer, and therefore void of worry or contemplation.
The African drum is one of the most sacred objects in many African communities, and it is the perfect accompaniment to African dances; from the dances of the youth initiated into adulthood, to the dances of the warriors, the sacred moon dances by women to strengthen the bond between the universe and the feminine, harvest and rain dances, shamanic and ritual/ teaching ceremonies, to mourning and courting dances. The drum is also a powerful healer - often used for spiritual trances, for ancestral communication and healing purposes. This involves intricate work and relies on the ability of the drummer to harmonize and hit the correct frequencies in order to assist the person in trace to undertake the journey.
Many African communities regarded the drum as an integral part of life so mush so that young men were taught how to properly string a drum and were expected to carry their personal drum with them all the time, and they usually felt incomplete without it.
Overall music is a beautiful instrument, when harmonized, to dispel inner turmoils and release dis-eases from the spirit and consequently from the body. The feeling of pleasantness allows negative energy to disperse because dis-ease cannot dwell in a joyful spirit.
Healing dance does not require that you be conscious of it, it is the mere fact that you move your body rhythmically that does the healing.
More on African dances by Africa Umoja