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African music and dance is a very unique style of art in comparison to most Western dance forms. It often goes beyond the music and even beyond the body – into the realms of soul and spirit. Recently, Professor Dyane Harvey summarized African dance as “the soul trying to escape the body and the body trying to escape the soul.” This, to me is an accurate depiction of a style that is so multi-faceted and seemingly impossible to condense.
Despite the stark differences between many forms of African dance, such as the Mendiani (a dance for young girls played during festivals); the Lamban (a dance for a Djeli, or a storyteller); and the Sofa (a rhythm played to honor warriors in wartime), there are still principles that are generally used to reconcile their differences and unite these styles under the bucket of African dance. Of the various principles, polyrhythm is considered the most recognizable. Polyrhythm refers to the ability to maintain two different beats – two different rhythms – simultaneously. Dr. Kariamu Welsh Asante states that in order to perform this characteristic, one is required “to stand back from the rhythms of the scene and find an additional rhythm which complements and mediates those other rhythms,” (Asante 146). Asante likens polyrhythm to an out-of-body experience, where part of a dancer’s being is fully adhering to one beat while another part dances to a complementary sound. This concept is not the most unusual idea to understand, but it explains why it’s often incredibly difficult to transition from much more linear dance forms to the style of African dance.
When I consider my experience with polyrhythm thus far, I immediately think about the moments in our dance sessions when Professor Harvey stops us, and asks us to pat our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time. These two completely separate movements give a metaphorical glance into the difficulties of polyrhythm in African dance. I remember back in grade school when I could not do the ‘patting head, rubbing stomach, motion. It’s difficult to brute force your way into polyrhythmic motion. Rather, the complex nature of the movement often comes from within; as Asante says, “the deeper you travel, the more you feel, hear,” (146). From my experience with African dance, polyrhythm requires you to let go of thought, and to allow your mind to forget what you are doing. Eventually, your spirit and body find themselves in a dimension of memory but also one of instinct – as the motions begin to form naturally and become more understandable as one lets go of understanding. To give an example of such a mystifying scenario, I have found that anytime I focus on ‘what I am doing’ while performing African dance, I feel cautious, hesitant to let the music takeover. But when I feel comfortable enough to just react to the sound, even if my motions are not all accurate, they embody the spirit of African dance to a much higher degree. And what’s most important about African dance is not the particular choreography that will be judged and critiqued; what’s most important is the message for which the dancer and his/her dance is just a conduit. This abstract principle just so happens to be the most integral component of African dance, “regardless of theme, ethnic group, or geography,” (146).
Another integral principle of African dance is polycentricism, which Asante describes as “motion spending time,” (146). This, to me, is very similar to polyrhythm both in rhetoric and practice. Rather than a specifically-learned choreographic style, polycentricism is a motion sense that must be discovered during dance. To give a clearer definition, polycentricism involves the body being aware of the various instruments in an African orchestra and various muscles responding to those instruments. In this sense, there is no center or staple of the dance or the music. Each instrument plays a particular rhythm that part of the body will respond to.
I see polycentricism most obviously in the Lamban infinities movements that we perform in some of our class dances: while our feet move in a very clear one-two-three movement to the rhythm of the Mother drum, our arms sway in circles in response to another drum. Both movements are equally important in that neither is the center of the dance. While many Western and even Latin dances have a foundational motion that is given layers of detail, polycentricism involves multiple motions assimilating into the core of a dance. Similar to polyrhythm, this principle requires dancers to step outside of their traditional understanding to slip into a higher plane – one in which they can feel “the cosmos in the body,” (146).
The third principle of African dance is the curvilinear, which embodies the circular form and structure of most African dance, as opposed to the symmetrical forms of Western dance. In many African cultures, “there is ‘power’ in the circle, the curve, the round, supernatural power,” (146). That is, a circular forms hold a much greater significance in African culture compared to Western. Though it is likely impossible to fully understand this significance from an outside perspective, dance is one avenue in which we come close to understanding and appreciating this principle, if only for a moment. Looking back, each and every one of our movements in this class has been round, not rigid or jagged. And reflecting upon that, it’s clear why this is a principle unique to African dance.
The next principle of African dance is one that is difficult to measure or even record: dimensionality. Dimensionality is described by Asante as the “texture” of music and dance that “accounts for the fuzziness that one sees, hears, or feels,” (147). It is less obvious than the curvilinear which can be seen in a wide variety of dances and movements; rather, dimensionality is more of a nuance but still ever-present in African dance. It is often just a vibration or reverberation in the body that adds an extra dimension to the music and dance. In my opinion, dimensionality is definitely less obvious to a newcomer to African dance, and it takes time for that principle to internalize into a dancer’s movements.
The epic memory is another principle that is very difficult to measure; however, unlike dimensionality, epic memory is not an added-on motion in a dance. The epic memory is closer to what I referred to as a conduit when discussing polyrhythm. It is the notion of a dancer communicating a message and an untold experience through his/her movement. An example of this is shown well in some of the Lamban dances that we’ve done in class thus far, where we ‘greet’ one another through our dance. By performing a passionate and spiritual dance, we actually convey a spiritual experience to our audience. That experience can be as simple as a greeting or as complex as a ritual.
The next sense which is also a bit abstract is the holistic. The holistic is the equal nature of African music and dance. Similar to my description for polycentricism, no part of the music or dance is “emphasized or accentuated beyond the whole,” (150). Likewise, the individual does not receive spotlight like they often do is Western music. The individual remains humble, acknowledging that he/she is just a vessel for higher communication.
Repetition is the last of the seven aesthetic senses of African dance. Unlike the last few, repetition is quite easy to understand. It is simply the repeating of a motion; however, the significance is in “the intensifying of [that] movement, [that] sequence, or the entire dance,” (150). With each iteration, a higher level of passion and spiritual excitement is achieved until the dancer and audience are both satiated. “A dance that is performed only once is cold, impotent, unable to elicit praise or criticism because of the incompleteness of the dance.” (150) That is, repetition is a necessity in order for the evocative effects of dance to be felt.
Improvisation is also often incorporated into African dance by soloists. Although choreography is a staple that communicates a broad message, a bit of added in improvisation can significantly add to the performance – as one can perhaps only truly step outside of their body when they are not even considering a routine – when they are simply responding to he music.
The final principle that Asante discusses is the relationship between music and dance. He considers the two to be one and the same. When I first read about this, I was not very convinced – thinking from a Western perspective. But after seeing how our drummers have improvised and responded to our dance just as we respond to their music, I see that the relationship is a balance. Neither side is more significant than the other. Music would be nothing without dance and dance nothing without music. The symmetry between music and dance in African culture can be seen quite significantly in the Diaspora. Generally, African-Americans are much more likely to dance when music is present than other groups. I think it’s safe to assume that the absolute association between music and dance was carried over from Africa to the US on slave ships. And even after hundreds of years, we can see the heavy influence of African music and dance culture in our diaspora culture.
But it would be far too simplistic to look at these African principles only in the context of music and dance. The holistic for example is not only present in dance: African culture is generally much less individually-based than Western culture. This holds especially true in the values I was raised with – treating everyone as equals and simply observing their actions – their dance – and what it signifies – the story it communicates.
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