A History of Gumboot Dancing

Updated April 17, 2017

Forbidden to talk to each other, poor workers in South Africa's 19th-century mines invented a lively means of communicating using their heavy boots, known as gumboots, and other makeshift instruments. Gumboot dancing has evolved since the 19th century but remains true to its roots among the hard-working miners of the 1800s.

Nineteenth-Century Mines

Fetid water filled South Africa's 19th-century mines, so mining companies outfitted the enslaved miners with heavy black Wellington boots, also known as gumboots, to help keep them disease-free and working productively.

Miner Communication

Communication among the miners was forbidden by mining company bosses, so the miners developed a system to communicate with each other in the darkness of the mines. They stomped their boots, slapped their bare chests and shook their chains, producing a kind of Morse code.

Development of the Form

Mining company bosses initially disliked the gumboot dancing, but eventually they began to encourage it, allowing dance troupes to be formed and dance competitions to take place.

Persistence in the Culture

Gumboot dancing remains a part of South African working-class culture outside of the mines. Today's dancers go beyond the traditional steps, adding contemporary music and movement.

Performances Today

Visitors to South Africa can see gumboot dancing performances and come to appreciate this historic dance form. At the Victory Theatre in Johannesburg, for instance, they can see "Umoja," a permanently staged exhibit of gumboot dancing.

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About the Author

Elisabeth Dahl is a freelance writer and copyeditor who has worked in publishing since 1991. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University, where she was a Writing Center Associate Fellow.