Celebrating heritage with dance

Traditional dancers perform at a festival
in Joubert Park, Johannesburg.
(Image: Chris Kirchhoff,
MediaClubSouthAfrica.com. For more
free photos, visit the image library.)

Janine Erasmus

September is Heritage Month, when South Africans celebrate the country’s rich diversity in art, performance, history, customs and traditions, language, food, and the spoken and written word.

Each year the celebrations, coordinated by the national Department of Arts and Culture, focus on a particular theme. The theme for the 2008 Heritage Month is dance.

The festivities will run for the entire month in all nine provinces, building up to the main event on Heritage Day, 24 September. A public holiday, Heritage Day was one of the new holidays introduced by South Africa’s first democratically elected government, and was first celebrated in 1995.

Dance, both contemporary and indigenous, has long been an important means of personal and artistic expression in South Africa. Dance plays a central role in story-telling, ceremonial practices, recreation and socialisation, improvisation, and community sharing.

During the month, communities all over South Africa will showcase their dance talents, as well as their traditional costumes and dresses. The celebrations aim to promote artistic excellence, preserve indigenous dance, and encourage new dancers, particularly youngsters. Other arts will be included, with the programme featuring poetry and storytelling, theatre, and educational and environmental activities.

International dance troupes

Two accomplished international dance troupes, from China and Belarus, will visit South Africa during the month. The Chongqing Artistic Troupe from China will tour the country as part of celebrations marking 10 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The troupe comprises acrobatic, folk traditional and opera performers.

The famous Bolshoi Ballet Theatre from Belarus will also be on tour at the invitation of arts and culture minister, Dr Pallo Jordan. The company previously visited South Africa in 2000.

The month will also see the 12th annual Earthdance celebration, held in South Africa for the 11th time and attended by representatives from 340 locations in more than 50 nations. With massive celebrations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, the event is aligned with the United Nations International Peace Week and aims to support non-profit humanitarian and environmental causes around the world through music and dance.

Indigenous dance

The advent of democracy in South Africa has inspired a wealth of creative expression, with a surge of new dance, several productions of which, such as Umoja, have gone on to take the world by storm, and a resurgence of traditional dance.

The four-day Zulu Royal Reed Dance festival, or Umkhosi woMhlanga, held each year in early September, sees thousands of young Zulu maidens coming together to celebrate their preparation for womanhood. Because only virgins are allowed to participate, and it is a huge honour to be selected, the event promotes purity among young girls and respect for women in the region. The event attracts tourists from all over the world. The Swazi people have a similar tradition.

During the years of oppression by the apartheid government people in townships kept their spirits up with the energetic township jive. In those days, and still today, the toyi-toyi – the militant yet mostly non-violent dance of protest that features high-stepping movements – was often accompanied by the chanting of slogans and fists waved enthusiastically in the air.

Gumboot dancing, or isicathulo, was born out of the hardships of working in the mines. It is said that miners, forced into silence by their oppressive bosses, used to communicate with each other through stamping their feet, rattling their ankle chains and slapping their boots, in essence creating their own Morse code.

Afrikaans South Africans enjoy a social dance known as the sokkie, a word that hints at the fact that dancers sometimes do not wear shoes. Sokkie music is one of the best-selling genres in the local industry.

Even former president Nelson Mandela has made his mark on South Africa’s dance scene, with the familiar Madiba shuffle or Madiba jive which involves a gentle marching action of the arms.

Other styles such as Indian dancing, both classical and contemporary, the Venda Tshigombela which is usually performed by married women, and the trance dance, performed as a healing exercise by the San people of the Kalahari desert, are testament to the colourful and diverse history of dance in South Africa and the important role it has played in our heritage.

National pride and reconciliation

Heritage has been recognised by the South African government as an important tool for democracy, national building, reconciliation, moral regeneration, and instilling a sense of national pride. Since South Africa is a cosmopolitan society where many cultures come together and overlap, heritage is also used to foster interest in traditions and practices outside of one’s own cultural comfort zone.

According to the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, “heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others. It facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution and it promotes new and previously neglected research into our rich oral traditions and customs.”

In 1996 then-president Mandela said, “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.”

  • Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Janine Erasmus on janinee@mediaclubsouthafrica.com.his e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view 

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