Poetry Expressed: Dance Diversity in the African Subcontinent-Perceptions, Misperceptions, and Preservation (with a Focus on the Ivory Coast and Mali)

By Doumbia, Kadidia | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Poetry Expressed: Dance Diversity in the African Subcontinent-Perceptions, Misperceptions, and Preservation (with a Focus on the Ivory Coast and Mali)


Doumbia, Kadidia, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


A. M. Opoku, a choreographer from Ghana, describes dance as

Poetry expressed with movements of the body; there must be long and short movements to provide definite rhythmic patterns and models just as one feels on reciting a great poem. The African dancer, as a creator and interpreter, seeks to inform the heart or to appeal to emotion through the eyes. (Opoku, 1970, p. 2)

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The beauty in this poetry demonstrates how a community defines itself based on its customs and rituals that are collectively embraced. In Africa, dances are a cultural niche. In reality, the term African dance does not exist when speaking about such an expansive continent. The global trend is to generalize without considering the unique values of each region. There are some similarities, but it is important to break through the myths in the quest for international understanding and the pursuit of a creative, healthy lifestyle.

As a professional dancer and choreographer from the Ivory Coast, with training in ballet, modern dance, and jazz--as well as several African styles--my exposure to what may be misinterpreted as "African dance" began when I was in college in the United States. It was an exciting experience, and I learned movements inspired by various African countries, but not necessarily specific dances from specific countries. Mixing steps into one conglomeration, then labeling it "African dance," is a serious problem. In most African regions, there are more than 15 ethnic groups and an equal number of subgroups, with each community having its own aesthetic traditions. Thus, the dance forms are as diverse as the ethnic groups, and we should be able to identify the origin of a dance within its social context.

Africa is the second largest continent and accounts for 15 percent of the world's population. It is considered to be the origin of humans, with the Hominidae clade dated as far back as seven million years ago. It is surrounded by the Indian Ocean to the southeast, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and both the Suez Canal and the Red Sea along Sinai Peninsula to the northeast. In most regions, the people dance, sing, and beat the drum in their own unique style. African dances may dramatize a story to the community, follow a ritual specific to their environment, or move to popular songs as recreation.

Societies throughout Africa possess their own unique languages with some regional variations. One dialect can be used in a same region with variations in tones or pronunciations, as many languages or subgroups of a same ethnic group. Language, including dance language, is a barometer of each society as it evolves with the changes in the society. It is part of the community's history.

Many African cultures have an oral tradition, which means that nothing is written; the knowledge must be passed from one generation to the other by demonstration. There are many dance categories throughout the subcontinent. Some are performed by women, others by men; some by specific ages, others by everyone. Of important note, close couple dancing is generally not an acceptable practice. Traditionally, Africans do not touch each other in public, especially in Muslim countries. One may find couple dances in Christianized areas where traditional dances have been adapted to Western styles.

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This article explores perceptions and misperceptions of dance outside and within the African subcontinent with the ultimate goal of developing respect for each culture while viewing dance as a universal language. Because most traditional dances are not documented, the mission to accomplish this so that they will not be forgotten will also be discussed. One's heritage must be preserved as national pride and as a form of international understanding.

The Purpose of African Dances

The purpose of dance is to use body movements as narrative to convey a message to the audience. …

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