African Dance, Heritage on Display in Brooklyn

An interesting cultural heritage article, “So, You Think It’s African Dance?” by Alastair Macaulay, appeared in the Arts section of the New York Times last week (18 May 2010). Macaulay takes as his starting point the upcoming DanceAfrica festival, held annually by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2010 marks the festival’s 33rd year). He explains why “African dance” is a stereotypic label that has often been misapplied to talk about ALL dance forms originating on the African continent; the cliche, he writes, is one of intense pelvic movement and jumping, bright costumes, polyrhythmic drumming, and the audience’s conception of the dances being “perfectly marvelous” (his emphasis). Macaulay’s main contention, then, is that African dance “should no longer be lumped together as a single category but parsed as pure artistry. The area is as diverse as it is fecund.”

The article hints at several important points when discussing the (intangible) cultural heritage of mankind.

First, African dance performed in America is not “authentic.” Authenticity, to be sure, is a convoluted word in the field of cultural heritage studies and will not be variously interpreted at this time. However, in regards to this particular story “authenticity” refers to the geographic/spatial/cultural context of the heritage in practice. African dance loses its authenticity when performed on a stage as a theatrical presentation. According to Chuck Davis, the founder of DanceAfrica, “‘Authenticity happens in the space and on the soil.'”

Second, “dance” is a word that simply cannot be translated into many African languages. In traditional cultures across Africa, “what we call dance is an automatic part of ceremony and social function,” writes Macaulay. Dances are intended as efficacious cultural rituals marking a significant occasion or event. For example, there are certain dances to: improve the results of work; to build or mend kinship relations; to recognize the coming and going of season; and (perhaps most central and ubiquitous) to honor age and development. In this way, performances of African dance lose their meaning and function when set on a stage for an audience to freely interpret itself.

(Photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

Lastly, African dance is intimately connected to–and in some ways reliant upon–the music that accompanies it. We typically think of drumming as the predominant music-making form in traditional African dance, but some tribes are known to create music in other ways as well. (I was fortunate to attend a Daasanach warrior and maiden dance on the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya, in the summer of 2007. All of the females wore metal bands on their arms and legs, designed to rattle during the dance. In this East African culture’s dance style the louder the rattling the more attractive the female to a potential mate.) Dancing and music-making are thus interrelated ways of reflecting cultural norms, lessons, traditions, and goals to the whole group.

I think it is important for cultural events such as DanceAfrica to be held on a regular basis for a wide audience. Despite the notion that African dance is inauthentic when performed outside its original context, a notion which I do not deny, I strongly believe that a general awareness and understanding of African dance is needed for outsiders’ stereotypes to be sufficiently debunked. Without the opportunity to actually see African dance in practice, people are likely to maintain inaccurate generalizations and false assumptions of the culture as a whole. As global members of a shared cultural heritage, we are all enriched by the accessibility to different cultures. (Note: this is NOT a defense of universal museums, private collecting, or the trade in art and antiquities.) Likewise, the survival of these traditional dance forms requires repeated performance by new generations of dancers, whether African or not. Festivals like DanceAfrica help to raise awareness as well as educate and motivate people to continue studying and practicing art forms of all kinds. The patrons of the upcoming festival will no doubt be refreshed to see a vibrant, diverse exhibition of many kinds of African dance.

This entry was posted in authenticity, culture, dance, intangible cultural heritage, New York Times. Bookmark the permalink.

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