Capoeira or the Dance of War – Johann Moritz Rugendas. Brazil, 1825.
It is impossible to speak of one identity of Africans oppressed by colonial rule. Both within Africa, and among African slaves shipped to distant lands, there were uncountable cultures, tribes, and traditions forcibly mixed, molded and pushed together by their masters. From within these cultural mélanges, people found common grounds and means of empowerment, finding and keeping their identities. These methods of expression took all forms, but here I would like to describe just two of the styles of dance that were born out of slavery and oppression, traditions that continue to thrive to this day: Gumboot and Capoeira.
Untitled (Gumboot Dance) – Capetown Gumboot dancers. Capetown, South Africa, 2007.Video courtesy of “simonleher”
Here is a demonstration of a very traditional Gumboot dance, done offstage and amongst people in a simplistic line of dancers dressed in mining attire. Solos and improvisation were important for communication in the mines.
Gumboot dancing was originally used in the gold mines of South Africa during colonialism and Apartheid. The Black South African workers were forced to work in appalling conditions – often chained to their stations and digging in flooded tunnels. Death was common. Unwilling to drain the flood water, yet needing to address the loss of labor to festering skin conditions, the mine bosses issued rubber wellington boots (“gumboots”) to the workers.
Gumboot Dance – Waterford Kamhlaba Gumboot Dancers. Mbabane, Swaziland, 2013.Video courtesy of Iwani Zoe Mawocha.
This performance was in honor of the arrival of King Mswati III of Swaziland to Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa. Gumboot has become a proud tradition to many cultures of Southern Africa, including those in Swaziland.
Being separated for their families, kept in the dark, and forbidden to speak to one-another, the miners devised a system of communication through dance. Stomping, shaking chains, and slapping their legs and bodies, they created rhythms and retained essential ties to their cultures that were restricted in all other forms.
Here is a more contemporary adaptation of Gumboot dancing, incorporating a more modern feel with dynamic stage lighting, costume coloration, and theatrics.
The dancing did not escape the notice of many mine bosses, and some employers even formed Gumboot dance troupes to promote their companies outside of the mines. At these performances, unlike within the mines, singing was often allowed, giving the dancers opportunities to openly denounce their working conditions in their native languages while in the presence of their bosses. (1)
Untitled (Capoeira) – Grupo Arte Brazil Capoeira. Location not specified, 2013.Video courtesy of Jordan Sharma
Though laden with tradition, Capoeira remains accessible to many who wish to dance a “jogo,” or “game.” These dances have become a strong part of modern Brazilian cultural identity. Note the improvisation and dynamism of the dances’ paces.
Capoeira is a form of ritualized martial dance that was used to hone fighting skills of African slaves in the Brazilian colonies of Portugal. The exact origins of Capoeira are disputed; whether it began in Africa and brought with slaves to Brazil, or if slaves themselves created the style is not known. Regardless, it is certain that slavery shaped Capoeira in its style and usage to the way it is today. (2)
Capoeira (from the film Slave to the Rhythm) – Grupo Engenho da Bahia. Salvador Bahia, Brazil, 2008.Video courtesy of Richard Hunt.
Capoeira is still performed in the streets of Brazil, as shown here, with traditional ritualized movements, call and response chanting, and instrumentation.
An important aspect to remember about the use of the term “African” is that one is describing people from a continent that comprises over 20% of the world’s land area, and is approximately 25% larger than North America (3). Map scaling that is popular in the US oftentimes makes Africa look smaller than it is. Africans are far from being a homogenous people.
Capoeira was formed by slaves from all over Africa, forced into coming to work together in Brazil from vastly different places and lifestyles. This art form is accordingly dynamic and served many purposes. It settled disputes between slaves, was a form of sport, and allowed cultural expression. Moreover, and perhaps as a primary purpose, Capoeira functioned as a method of learning self-defense, particularly from violent slave masters. Disguising violence and martial strategy in dance allowed slaves to practice fighting even under the watchful eyes of their masters. (4)