Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Changing Functions of Traditional Dance in Zulu Society: 1830-Present

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Changing Functions of Traditional Dance in Zulu Society: 1830-Present

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Historical Relevance of African Dance, and the Changing Functions of Zulu Dance through Time

Since the study of African history formally began over four decades ago, African dance has been largely overlooked as a means of better understanding the African past. Abundant evidence clearly indicates the ubiquity and centrality of dance in African societies, as well as the complex social and political functions it has historically performed. Furthermore, dance practices can be a wonderful source for investigating community- wide, shared cultural experiences, and analyzing these public and symbolically rich practices has great potential to add depth to our understanding of African social, political and religious structures.

However, even though dance has been a central feature of most African societies, few historical studies address the forms and functions of dance practices. Terence Ranger is the only major historian of Africa to have published a book exclusively on the interplay between dance practices and history, and his book was published over thirty years ago.1 As Ranger demonstrated long ago, and as will be further argued here, investigating this relationship has the potential to open new avenues of historical scholarship. As an outside observer moves beyond simply viewing the steps, patterns, and rhythms of a dance and begins instead to look at the contexts in which dances are performed, created, and altered, the importance of dance in creating and maintaining political structures, social structures, and religions quickly becomes visible.

A wealth of sources demonstrates that dance practices have long helped to shape the shared cultural identity of various African ethnic groups.2 These practices have also served to distinguish one social group from another within indigenous African communities, as one's role in a dance is often based on one's place in the social hierarchy. For instance, in the context of initiation ceremonies among the Tswana, anthropologist Jean Comaroff has written that dance often metaphorically represents social roles, especially with respect to gender.3 Distinctions based upon gender, age, and/or social status characterize most of the dances which this paper will examine, underscoring the utility of these dance practices in helping historians to understand African social systems.

Dance practices can also lend valuable insight to the interactions between African and non- African societies. For instance, the permutations in Zulu dance traditions during the last century and a half can be used to analyze the experience and effects of colonial rule, from its earliest inklings to the decrease in direct European influence by the end of the twentieth century. In fact, one of the more useful analytical approaches to investigating dance practices in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial contexts is to look at the role of tradition in different dances, and how this connection to the past has or has not played a role in the manipulation of these dance practices for political or social purposes.

Before continuing further with this analytical thread, it is necessary to briefly investigate what is meant by "tradition." In the context of this paper, the concept of tradition is used refer to cultural practices that carry with them a historical weight; or, the sense that a traditional practice- in contemporary contexts- is connected to the past. Another way of thinking about tradition in this same vein, as Jan Vansina has noted, is that it can be seen to constitute "a moving continuity," capable of expressing both past and present realities.4 Historians Jonathon Glassman and Jamie Monson have also asserted that a continuous interplay can certainly exist between traditions that may have legitimate roots in the past, and traditions that claim to have a connection to the past but have been developed much more recently.5 This latter category was once famously termed "invented tradition" by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition,6 though the intervening years since the publication of that work have witnessed the development of a much more nuanced sense of the interplay between past and present conceptions of tradition, as articulated by historians such as Glassman, Monson, Thomas Spear, Carolyn Hamilton, and even Terence Ranger himself. …

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