Music and dance are often cited as some of the most fundamental aspects of African cultures. It’s no surprise that when the World Cup took place in South Africa (the first time on the African continent) it was the dance to the song “Time for Africa” famously referred to as “Waka Waka” that captivated the world and made the tournament truly memorable. Diverse African communities, bestow considerable social, spiritual and cultural value to their indigenous traditions of music and dance. Some African dances enable people to honor sacred deities and ancestors while others heighten feelings of warmth and community between family and friends. Specific performances may tell elaborate cultural histories while others express joy and the hope that communities have for the future. Regardless of the reason, it’s safe to say that Africans love to dance and the diversity of the continent’s rhythms will continue to resound beautifully throughout the world.
West Africa in particular, has some of the richest traditions of dance in Africa. The region is famous for communities that have predominantly used symbols and storytelling to safeguard their cultural heritage. And indeed, music and dance have been great tools in this regard. In Ghana, traditional performance serves as a glue that connects other important cultural institutions such as proverbs, festivals and chieftaincy. While there are many different ethnicities in Ghana, a number of the major ethnic groups have distinct styles of dance that are easily identifiable throughout the country. Each type of performance has a captivating history, fashion and philosophy that make them a truly wonderful sight for all those who witness it.
Adowa is a dance performed by the Akan people of Ghana. It’s one of the most popular traditional dances and is performed at cultural ceremonies like festivals, funerals and engagements. The Adowa dance is highly expressive and allows performers to communicate specific emotions and messages through their hands and feet. Consequently, Adowa can be beautifully complex, as the style of the dance depends on the occasion, the status and gender of the performer as well as the audience. Indeed some of the richest displays of Adowa take place during Akan durbars where chiefs and their vassals perform the Adowa dance in regal kente to elaborately express the pride and symbolism of their royal heritage.
The Takai Dance of the Dagomba is another traditional dance that shines with cultural pride. The Takai dance, is performed during the annual Damba festival held in commemoration of the birth of the Holy Prophet, Mohammed and it is renowned as the most thrilling dance from the Northern region of Ghana. Because the Damba dance is strongly tied with this larger Islamic festival, it is also often performed by sister ethnic groups in the region including the Nanumba, Mamprusi, Gonja and Wala. During the dance the performer moves to the beat of donno (small drums that fit under the armpit) and uses fast circular turns to spread out their large traditional smocks like a fan. Undoubtedly this is the most eye catching part of the dance as it highlights the rhythm, cultural fashion and skill that make African traditional performance exciting.
Agbadza is among the oldest traditional dances performed by the Ewe of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and parts of Southwestern Nigeria. According to its Ghanaian origin story, Agbadza is a dance that celebrates victory over adversity as it was developed after a famous escape. The ancient ancestors of the Anlo in Ghana lived in a town called Notsie in the central region of present day Togo. These people were ruled by a ruthless King called Togbe Agorkoli, who made them suffer inhumane treatment and hard labor. As they made their escape to a new settlement further south, the people carried only their most prized possessions on their heads and walked backwards so as to confuse and loose the trail of their pursuers, much like the agbadza dance of today. During agbadza, performers often walk backwards while energetically moving the shoulders and arms like wings. Additionally performers sometimes carry a pot on their heads filled with select items to commemorate the efforts of their ancestors.
The use of extravagant masks and colorful garments is another common thread shared by a number of the francophone communities in West Africa. In these cases, the masks and garments take center stage while the performer is allowed to express themselves using motifs inspired by deities or ancestors. Two communities that follow this culture of dance are the Dogon people of Mali and the Bwa people of Burkina Faso. Perhaps the most outstanding of this type of traditional masquerade is the Zaouli dance of the Guro, an ethnic group from the Ivory Coast. Said to be inspired by the beauty of femininity, the Zaouli dance is widely performed and seen as a symbol of unity and hope for the future. Each Gouro village has its own local Zaouli dancer, who performs during funerals or parties. Usually, a group of drummers and singers call out the Zaouli dancer with his signature tune. The dancer who wears a unique mask and colorfully frilled garments performs brilliantly for the audience, highlighting the history and symbolism of the mask he wears. The dance involves extremely quick and rhythmical skipping according to the music of the orchestra. This choreography that is shared by all Zaouli dancers is mixed with improvisation from the dancer and makes this traditional performance refreshingly dynamic.
Indeed, the traditions of dance in these West African communities have been passed down for many generations. But even today, traditional dance remains vital to the tourism industry of these countries. On grand occasions of national importance or during visits from foreign dignitaries, performances by local dance troupes are often seen as the most captivating way to highlight the cultural heritage of the country. Furthermore, the teaching of traditional dance during primary education in schools across the region has helped to keep the passion for performance alive. Undoubtedly, as long as rhythm, music and movement remain part of the fabric of the culture, African traditional dance will continue to flourish and bring joy to diverse people.