Sunday, June 26, 2016

African Dance Aesthetics

Four years ago, after I presented my findings at UNESCO CID's 32nd World Congress on Dance Research, I embarked on a next step of the study asking, "could a non-native exponent of Latin dance, who learned in a non-indigenous environment, be developed to an extent where he or she would (willingly) be mistaken for a native dancer?" Today I would ask the question differently:
"Is is possible to restore or reconstruct the African aesthetic, erased through the (un)conscious processes of whitening during internationalisation, to Caribbean dance?"
According McMains (2015), referencing Robert Farris Thompson's "Aesthetic of the Cool" (2001), African aesthetic features have been down-played or lost in the whitening of international Latin dance. Foremost of these are:

(from the Greek 'ephebos' εφηβος referring to the adolescent male)
A youthful energy (not commonly found in European ballet). "Old people dancing with youthful vitality are valued examples of ephebism in Africanist cultures." (Gottschild, 2001)

"Polyrhythm and polycentrism are also central to African dance. Polyrhythm is the layering of different rhythms over one another and polycentrism is the idea that movement can initiate from any part of the body. These two qualities play together because different parts of the body dance to different instruments that are playing at different rhythms. Farris Thompson describes learning polyrhythm and polycentrism, “my hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.”(Farris Thompson, 1974) All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out. This method of dancing is another way of incorporating and valuing the entire body and bringing together the music and dancing." (Willette, 2012)

Ephebism and Polycentricity combine to give rise to an aesthetic of polyrhythmic embodiment. "The concept of vital aliveness leads to the interpretation of the parts of the body as independent instruments of percussive force." (Farris Thompson, 1974)

Welsh-Asante lends further structure by articulating seven "senses" and seven characteristics of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985) which she believes to be requisite.

The Seven "Senses" of African Dance

1. Polyrhythm
(see above)

2. Polycentrism
(see above)

3. Curvilinearity
"refers to the curved shape, figuring or structuring of artistic products as well as within the positioning of bodies. It’s directly related to two core concepts in African societies: continuity and fertility." (Afreaka, 2013)

4. Dimensionality
Extrasensory feelings and emotions. "Asante's (sic) (1994) dimensionality refers not to "measured dimension" but to "perceived dimension," a "something extra that is present in harmony with the music, dance, or sculpture" (Caponi, 1999).

5. Epic Memory
The dancer draws upon folkloric knowledge and cultural histories to imbue the dance with spiritual and emotional meaning, thereby making a universal connection with the audience.

6. Wholism / Holistic Unity
arises out of the circle-solo dance format where there is a communal circle and a soloist leader or couple. Members of the circle: drummers, singers/choristers, dancers-in-waiting, audience members; all participate. Says Welsh-Asante (2010) "Participation is anticipatory and responsive. In order for an event to be successful, everyone must be fully involved. Silence and stillness are not valued in the African performance arena. In fact, to be silent is to be critical in a negative way and shows disdain and contempt for the performance"

7. Repetition
"Most African composition is based on the repetition of a musical unit. It is that repetition that holds together the other musical units of the composition. These other unit are structured with great freedom relative to the first unit, producing their own rhythmic pattern that coincides only occasionally with that of the other units and with the basic pulse. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of various parts, and the musician develops an improvisation out of this core pattern." ('Music in Africa' 2015)

The Seven Basic Characteristics of African Dance

1. Low to the earth
2. Undulating from the centre outward
3. Polyrhythmic
4. Emphasis on the pelvic girdle
5. Body part isolations

6. Whole foot touching the ground
"Nous sommes les hommes de la danse, dont les pieds reprennent vigueur en frappant le sol dur. ["We are the men of dance, whose feet take on new strength from stamping the hard ground."] From “Prière aux Masques” ["Prayer to the Masks"] by Léopold Sédar Senghor.

7. Bent knees

Good and informative as they are, they should not be taken as dogma. Jane Desmond (1997) cautions:
"I could show you several Senegalese steps that don't adhere to any of those characteristics and utilize only a few of Welsh-Asante's senses. But to many students of African and African-derived dance, these are nothing short of regulations of appropriate dance behavior and conduct."
Further Elements
1. Texture
How dance functions as performative conversation.
"Tell me how you dance and I'll tell you who you are." - Alphonse Teirou
"When a body moves, it's the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I'll tell you who you are." - Mikhail Baryshnikov

Research Objective
To assess the desirability and feasibility of these senses and characteristics as the elemental blocks for the restoration or reconstruction of the African aesthetic in internationalised Latin dance.

Afreaka (2013). "Africanist Dance Aesthetics: Societies in Movement". [Retrieved 19/06/16]

Caponi, Gena Dagel (1999). "Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin' & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture" Editor. Amherst : Univeristy of Massachusetts Press.

Desmond, Jane (1997). "Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance" Editor. USA : Duke University Press.

Farris Thompson, Robert (1974). "African Art in Motion". Los Angeles : University of California Press.

fl00oxhmyv9w (2013). The Lineage of the African Dance Diaspora. [Retrieved 19/06/16}

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon (2001). Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance. In "African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas" Edited by Sheila S.Walker. pp.89-103.

'Music of Africa'. In "New World Encyclopedia" (2015) [Retrieved 16/6/16]

Sauter, Jen (2013). Copy of Symbolism in African Dance. [Retrieved 26/06/16]

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1994). Ed. "The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions". Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (2010). World of Dance: African Dance, Second Edition. NY : Infobase Publishing

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. [Retrieved 18/06/2016]

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