Thursday, January 2, 2014

What Dance Means to a Child in Africa

In African ethnic cultures, dance and music are primarily meant to prepare an individual for life, not for a job or career. A mother produces three babies: the actual baby, music and dance. Before and after a child is born, music and dance act as an umbilical cord that links the child to the environment and people around him/her. Whereas dance practices have considerably changed in urban areas, majority of communities especially in sub-urban and rural areas have preserved and retained authentic aspects of dance practices. In this article, I explore how dance is an integral part of child growth and development, and the implications of this artistic, creative and performative experience to children and the wider community in sub-urban and rural areas.

To begin with, dance is part and partial of each and every stage of human growth and development. a person interacts with dance before they are born until after they pass on (fertility dances, birth dances, children dances, rites of passage dances, wedding dances, ritual dances, religious dances, funeral dances). Dance is the link that connects the emotional, spiritual, mental, social, political, physical, intellectual, affective and philosophical beings that reside in each person. But for dance to play this role in a person’s life, how s/he interfaces with, assimilates, and gets oriented into it plays a key role. For that matter, pre-birth and toddlerhood encounter with dance forms the foundation in which subsequent artistic experiences are anchored.

African mothers are not into the stroller culture.  A child picks the pulse, rhythm, and movement while at the back of the mother or any caretaker.
Before giving birth, expectant mothers are encouraged to participate in music and dance performances. By participating in  performances, an expectant mother invites the unborn child to be a passive participant in the performance. This child gets both music and physical mobility by extension. The baby virtually experiences every moment that its mother produces. This means that at the earliest stages of life, through a child development, a baby is apart of all dancing and drumming that its mother experiences (Nzewi, 1996). The pre-birth artistic encounter gives the baby a glimpse into the world that they later join. Most importantly, artistic and physical activities enable the unborn child to develop physical strength that they later use to participate in their birth. 

This interaction with music and movement continues after the child is born. There is hardly any birth in a typical African setting that is not accompanied by dance. Once a child arrives (is born), they are surrounded by an ocean of music, dance, and rhythm.  Any given day in a baby’s life is spent, for the most part, tied to its mother’s [or any person’s] back by a piece of cloth (Nzewi, 1996). Through lullabies and other songs, the child is encouraged "to learn standing, balancing, and walking" (Nzewi). Among the Baganda people of central Uganda, the song Ttengerere, sirikawo baby, …(name of the child) alitambula ddi, etc. are very common. In all the songs mentioned above, the caretaker sings and the child moves (translates music into movement). The same practice is common in other tribes.

In Africa, children will always create opportunities to play, socialize and develop their artistry.
What is important to note about this practice is that it teaches the child how to interact with the environment inside and around them, how to negotiate rhythm and space, how to interact with other human beings, and how to participate in not only consumption but also production of music and dance. It is at this stage that the child starts on their journey to explore the environment around them. Some songs and dances that children are exposed to relate to work, family history, ethics and morality, compassion, spirituality, endurance, among others.

From this point on, a child is challenged to explore more artistically, socially, physically, and culturally enriching experiences. Because typical African families are extended, the child ventures out through children games, songs and dance to interact with family relatives, and, later, community peers. This encounter demands creative input from a child. The simplicity of this experience depends on how, together, children negotiate their diverse artistic interests, competences, complexities, and orientations.  The creative processes are based on active participation that is required of every member. Creative performances punctuate the activities such as fetching water and firewood, tending to gardens, harvesting, etc., which children are expected to do. Children always enjoy the freedom to create together without interference from adults. The African understanding is that "Freedom is not about being isolated and alone. It is about knowing who you are and understanding the way that you fit in with those around you. It is about trusting those near to you to be a part of you" (Nzewi, 1996).

Children performing dance in South Africa. Patterns like this are common in sub-urban and rural areas in Africa
Through music and dance, a child discovers and forms his/her identity in relation to the communal identity of other people, for “identity is a "negotiated experience" in the sense that it is largely defined by the ways in which the self is experienced while participating in a community of practice and by the ways the self is presented in those communities (Wenger, 1998). Therefore, for an African child “identity is grounded in "community membership. It is relational, and children define themselves relative to others in the community of practice as well as relative to those who do not belong” (Danielewicz, 2001). Dance and music integrate the child into the family, community, clan and tribal culture and practices. It prepares the child for and facilitates their understanding of the earthly, divine and ancestral worlds and universes.


The potency of dance and music in nurturing an African child lies in its ability to invite, encourage, and allow a child to actively participate in production, appreciation, sharing and consumption of artistic experiences. A child’s body acts as a candle from which the flames of music and dance artistry immortally glow. In return, dance and music act as a pillar that prevents a child mind, soul and body from stumbling.

Alfdaniels Mabingo is a Fulbright Fellow at New York University

2 comments:

Branco Sekalegga said...

The subject matter is quite a suitable revelation on how 'we' become artistic celebrants. In fact, the same philosophy should be used as an acceptable yardstick, (among others) on what one needs to encounter first before declaring themselves as 'disciples' of the gospel of art.

Thanks Mr. Mabingo for leading us in these great biological, yet psychological inspirations.

Branco Sekalegga said...
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