History of the South African Pata-Pata Folk Dance

Written by linda harris
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History of the South African Pata-Pata Folk Dance
The simple steps of the Pata Pata are popular all over the world. (Dance silhouette image by Avesun from Fotolia.com)

The "Pata Pata" folk dance was invented to accompany the song of the same name, which was written in the 1950s. Both the song and the dance, which were intended to celebrate life, became a hit all over the world in the decades that followed. Today many groups have adopted its steps as a form of exercise.


South African singer Miriam Makeba wrote the song "Pata Pata" in 1957. Ten years later, it was released in the United States, where it reached number 12 in the charts and was a hit in New York and Hollywood nightclubs. It soon became a worldwide success, thanks to its catchy beat and simple dance, which was invented back in Johannesburg. Despite its success, Makeba did not receive any money for it because her manager made a mistake with her royalties.

Miriam Makeba

Makeba and her band, The Manhattans, were the first black group allowed to perform in Johannesburg's City Hall. As they were not permitted to eat in restaurants, they would eat cans of beans backstage. Because of her vocal stance against South Africa's Apartheid regime, Makeba was forced to live in exile in the U.S. for more than 30 years. She was later banned from the U.S. after marrying black civil rights activist Stokeley Carmichael.


"Pata Pata" is the only dance song Makeba wrote. It became known as "The Click Song" in Western countries. Its popularity made her a star and she became known as "Mama Africa." The song is written in both the Xhosa language and English. In Xhosa "pata pata" means "touch touch." The lyrics are very simple, and are about singing, dancing and having a good time.

The Dance

The dance is easy. Dancers pat the ground to each side of their bodies and the corresponding thigh with each hand for four counts. Next they make a V-shape with their arms and clap their hands together for another four counts. For the next four counts, they lift their arms across the body and pat the ground on each side again. Finally, for the last four counts, they punch their arms in front of them before patting the ground once again.


Pata Pata has become a popular exercise for the elderly or those with mobility difficulties, as the movements are gentle and it can be performed easily while seated. It is also taught in schools as part of physical education classes, where teachers speed up the movements or add new steps to increase difficulty.

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