The joyous art of gumboot dancing is traceable directly to the abject working conditions in the South African gold mines of Witwatersrand where black workers were forced to work shackled in oft-flooded mine shafts. They were prohibited from speaking with one another, were segregated by region or tribe and worked long shackled hours in relative silence. They were issued standard uniforms and gumshoe boots to protect their feet from the watery conditions in which they worked. Despite the prohibition on conversation, even though many spoke different tribal languages, the workers developed a form of communication by sloshing their gumshoe boots and slapping their bare chests and ringing their shackles. From those fetid beginnings, gumboot evolved beyond communication into an art form.
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There was little time during work and precious few breaks, but when the opportunity presented itself, workers "spoke" to one another with exuberance by shaking their ankle shackles, slapping their chests and arms and relied on mostly Zulu dance steps in their company-issued gum boots to convey what they were forbidden to say with words. It was very primitive yet surprisingly upbeat using the only instruments they had--their bodies and gumboots.
The deplorable working conditions killed hundreds of workers every year. They were beaten and abused by their bosses, and rather than properly drain the mine shafts of water, the workers were given a uniform of jeans or overalls, bandannas to soak the sweat from their brows, hard hats and rubber gumboots as a precaution against skin problems and disease. They worked for three months at a time in total darkness with rudimentary tools performing long, hard, repetitive work. Work could break a man physically but, as gumboot dance proved, not spiritually.
Gumboot Dance Emergence from the Mines
The primitive form of communication didn't go unnoticed. Over time, bosses and foremen came to understand that the workers were communicating through dance and body slaps and the rhythmic jingle of their chains. They just didn't know what the dances were conveying. They liked the performance. Some of the more tolerant bosses permitted the practice to continue and the more enlightened among them even began encouraging gumboot dancing. Mine owners went so far as to allow workers to form troupes, who they would parade in front of visitors for performances as a sign of good will. Little did they know that during many of the performances, the workers were mocking their bosses in their native language which the mine owners didn't understand.
Mine bosses came to enjoy the deeply rhythmic resonances of the troupes' performances and began to stage performances featuring the best of the gumboot dance troupes from the local mines. From there it spread tribally and became popular throughout South Africa, and eventually became a popular performance art worldwide.
Modern gumboot performance is now widely promoted throughout South Africa as a tourist attraction. But it grew from there. The gumboot dance evolved by adopting some western influences and adding various musical instruments as accompaniment. Gumboot troupes now tour the world, and the performance art has become surprisingly popular as a symbol of struggle and the emergence of spirituality over abject privation.
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