The Beat Within: Exploring the Rhythmic Dance of Africa

Ogundeko Toluwanimi Alexis
May 5, 2024
“If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” -Zimbabwean proverb

Dance is a series of movements performed in patterns and set to an accompaniment. Every human society practices dance, which may be performed solo, in couples or in groups. People around the world use dance to express themselves, pass on their histories and exercise their bodies. In this way, dance can be a celebration of the emotional, mental and physical human self. It can also be a preparation for a battle or an unspoken protest. Dance is often used to mark major life changes or commemorate an important event in a nation’s history. In the earliest human societies, dance helped humans survive- it is a way for communities to learn cooperation in working and hunting together and like today, dance was probably used to communicate sand express feelings that are difficult to convey n any other way.

People have danced their way through history. In every ancient culture that has left records in words or picture there is evidence that dance mattered. Throughout the ages, dance has been used to express national identity and it still is today. Certain dances are created by and belong to particular groups of people and are passed down through generations. In many parts of Africa, these dances can reinforce a people’s sense of identity, or can be used to celebrate rituals or rites of passage.

African Dancers

Because Africa is a large continent with 54 countries, there is an immense variety of dance music, ranging from unaccompanied traditional singing to the “talking” drums of West Africa, which imitate sounds of speech. Drum music is also especially popular in Burundi and other parts of East Africa. The drums used in Large Ensembles have to be tuned carefully because the melody is as important as the rhythm they provide.

Dance and Marriage

The Woodabe people of Niger, West Africa, hold dancing competitions so the woman can decide which man is the most attractive. A contestant uses makeup to emphasize his eyes, his long, thin nose and his white teeth and he uses facial expressions to show off his inner beauty.

In EastAfrican societies like Kenya, young couples traditionally perform courtship dances using adapted traditional movements.    

A Male Woodabe Dancer

Dance, Festivals and Religion

Masquerade costumes hide the identity of the performer. Often padding is sewn in to exaggerate or create additional body parts. Traditionally, a mask completes the masquerade outfit. In the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, as a part of the annual harvest celebrations, a traditional masquerade costume is worn by the men to imitate the young girls.

West African countries are famous for their mask dances. Masks are usually worn to conceal the identity of the performer. The Ivory Coast has a festival of masks each year called Fete de masques.

African dances are usually based on tradition or rituals. In many cases, the dance are religious, a way to communicate with gods, or spirits to honour them, thank them or ask for their help. These dances are regarded as sacred. To those dancers, dancing is a form of prayer. The Yoruba of Nigeria use iron dance staffs to mark the distinctive rhythms for dances associated with individual gods. Each staff is connected to a particular god.

A ritual dance of Morocco’s Tuareg people, the Guedra is performed to create positive energy. Dancers drop to their needs and sway while making graceful arm movements and flicking hand gestures. The hypnotic drumbeat puts them into a kind of trance.

In areas of Southern and Western Africa, dancers perform on stilts up to six feet high. The dancers on stilts represent gods or spirits. Leg crossing, jumps and twirls are precarious, but that is the point of the stilt dance. Finding the right balance symbolizes the wisdom of humankind.

Guedra Dancers

Dance and Royalty

The royal Tutsi dancers of Rwanda reenact past heroic deeds. This dance commemorates the courageous defense of the kingdom from the cattle raiders. The dancers try to represent the vigor and nobility of an ideal warrior. The dancers are accompanied by the royal drums, and signify the king’s authority.

For centuries gold has been the Ashanti people’s emblem. Even today the king may dance while weighed down with masses of gold, jewelry, and ornaments. In the past, the golden heads of heroic Ashanti kings decorated the royal throne.

Incwal is a five-day harvest festival held in Swaziland, Southern Africa. On the third day, the king performs a sacred dance to please his Swazi ancestors; then he eats the first pumpkin of the harvest. After the king tosses away the rind, his people sing and dance before feasting on the first fruits of the year.

Dance and War

Africans who depended on hunting for survival developed complex hunting rituals. The Zulus of South Africa have separate hunting dances for men and women, the men dance before the hunt imitating the tracking and killing of prey. Zulu women dance in celebration once the hunters return with their kill.

Today, many dances are performed symbolically, rather than to celebrate battle. In the Zulu war dance called Umghubha, spears, and shields are held high. In Ghana, the Ewe people’s Agbekor dance imitates fighting tactics such as stabbing and surprise attacks. Performers also wave around horse tail switches.

Traditiona lZulu Dancers

Dance, Community and Coming-Of-Age

In many African societies, there are special flat clearings where people drum and dance. The drumming may be accompanied by singing, clapping or body slapping. Drums stir emotions and inspire feelings of belonging, while chanting crowds show their support. Dance is a group activity and traditionally dances are done by both men and women. An intriguing feature of these dances are the fantastically high leaps and somersaults. The steps of these difficult folk dances take time to master.

Some communal African dances teach the young values of the society by showing the path they are to follow. Some dances are also rites of passage. Among the Venda People of South Africa, young women prepare for marriage and integration into adult life by learning the Milayos- The laws set out in poems and riddles and dancing the Domba. It requires extremely good timing and cooperation.

Women dancing the Domba

Dance as a Tool for Communication and Unity

The gumboot dance grew up in the 20th century, in the gold mines of SA. The mines often flooded, so owners provided the miners with rubber footwear called gumboots. Forbidden to talk, the miners communicated by stamping their feet and slapping their boots. Soon, they refined this new language into a dance, which became a form of entertainment.

Formed during the 1950s in Guinea, the dance troupe Les Ballets Africains tours the world with its dramatic dances, which feature leaping and shouting accompanied by Djembe drums. In 1958, Guinea became an independent country and Les Ballets Africains is its national dance company. It takes African dance to people who have never seen it, encouraging friendship with the rest of the world.

Gumboot Dance


  1. Eyewitness Dance
  2. Dance

Photo Credits

  2. Pulse Nigeria
  3. Ethnic Jewels Magazine.Org
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