The History of West African Dance

Written by otehlia cassidy
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The History of West African Dance
(Cassidy, P.)

West African dance is an essential component of West African culture. Over time, traditional dances incorporated new moves, rhythms and ideas. Through the slave trade, and through national production of traditional dance forms, West African dance has found it's way around the globe. West African Dance has influenced many popular American dance forms, such as hip-hop, salsa and jazz dance. Traditional dances are still practised by many people today.

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Traditional West African Dance

Dance has always played a very important role in the lives of West Africans. Throughout history, West Africans performed dances to celebrate a birth, harvest or death. Communities relied on dance to ward off evil spirits, to ask the gods for prosperity, or to resolve conflict. Dance continues to serve those functions. For example, villagers perform the Malinke rhythm Kassa during farming and harvesting work. The singing, dancing and clapping entertains and motivates the hard-working farmers.

Characteristics of West African Dance

African dance, according to R.F. Thomson, has four unique qualities. First, the body moves in a multi-unit fashion, where the head and arms may move to one rhythmic pattern while the feet follow a different time signature. Second, it is percussive; the dancer interprets the rhythmic nature of the music through movement. Third, though as a whole African dance is a community event, some dancers follow different parts of the rhythm, dancing "apart" from the crowd. Finally, West African dance phrases, or sets of movements, overlap, creating a "call-and-response" pattern.

Drum in West African Dance

Drums, played with hands and sticks, are a vital component of West African dance. The drum is the "language" that the dancer interprets. The drum patterns signify a dancer when to start or stop a certain move, and what moves to use. The dancer also challenges and directs the drummer through his or her moves. The drummer translates the dancers moves into rhythms. The drummer and dancer are interconnected.

The History of West African Dance
Drummers accompany dancers in Conakry, Guinea

History of African Dance in North America

West African dance reached the Americas during the slave trade. Slaves were often prohibited from dancing, but African-based movements found their way into European dance styles, quickly evolving into popular American dances. The influence of African dance can be seen in early American dances, such as the Ring Shout and the Cakewalk, and later dances such as the Jitterbug, and the Charleston. The influence is still visible in more contemporary styles of dance including hip-hop and jazz.

West African Dance Today

West Africa dance traditions are still very important to West Africans. Many West African nations promote their rich dance history through national dance companies. Certain traditional dances are still performed, while many other rhythms and dances are created or developed for certain modern contexts. West African dance is enjoyed worldwide for its expressive movements and aerobic benefits in classes and performances.

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