Tribal Dance

Iím using the term "tribal dance" to refer to dance taking place in tribes or small communities from the earliest times of dancing all the way up to the present. There are tribes all around the world, from Native Americans in North America to Siberian tribes in Russia, from Africa and South America to Australia and New Zealand. Each tribe has its own form of dance, its own reasons for dancing, its own ideas about what is both beautiful and appropriate in dance. It would be impossible to discuss every tribe within the space of this class, and so my comments will be necessarily general.

As with space, tribal dance tends to mirror the animals and environment of the people. A tribe that identifies itself with birds - ravens, eagles, etc. - will have dance that mimics flying, with leaping, flapping, and light movements. A tribe that reveres larger, heavier animals - bears, for instance - might produce dance that is low to the ground, weighted, and heavy.

A more modern example of this (though it is not tribal dance) is country and western dance, with its leaping and slapping, which imitates horses and riding. This imitation does not have to be explicit... it is not that people are necessarily pretending to be horses, or are even aware that the actions are reminiscent of horses. It simply shows the impact of a personís environment and daily actions on their forms of dance.

On the other hand, sometimes the intention is to imitate a certain animal. In a dance designed to improve the peopleís chances in a hunt, one tribe member might imitate the prey, while others might pretend to slaughter him.

As I said before, tribal dance is integrated into the society. It is part of the ritual of everyday life, part of the religion, a mode of expression of emotion, a way of bringing the world into order and carrying out necessary parts of life. For instance, dance is used for courting, for mourning, for preparing for war, for fertility for both crops and women. It is celebration and worship and a method of telling and remembering the stories of the people. It might be used to act out a hunt or battle, to re-enact a myth (as a necessary part of the oral tradition of many of these non-literate tribes) or to connect with/pray/petition/pacify the divine. Dance is a convenient way to symbolically sacrifice to the gods, or in some cases, not so symbolically. The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians in North America involves attaching themselves to ropes by hooks embedded into their skin. For hours, they bleed under the hot sun, and they dance.

These dances are about community; everyone participates. There is no separation between dance and "audience" - there is no audience, except perhaps the few people who are unable to dance that night, or those who are making music. There is no idea of art or artist as a separate entity or pursuit. Because everyone participates in art, it is not a special thing; there is no concept of "an artist" or "a dancer".

I am reminded of the Drum Jam that happens at my local Renaissance Festival each night. People gather at the appointed time, and join together in a huge circle. Once everyone is there, holding hands, the Drum Leader welcomes them, then always says, "If you donít dance, you drum. If you donít drum, you dance." Then the drums begin, and the dancing begins, and there is no audience, except the few tourists on the edges who have no clue. It is no secret that these circles are neo-pagan events, and no surprise that they hearken to a different type of dance, one solely participatory.

Technically speaking, tribal dances are usually group dances. They might be circle dances, line dances, or spiral dances (which twist and spiral like a snake might). It was only relatively recently in Western culture that couple dancing began. Dancers are side to side, or front to back, as in a line. The group dances might be ďcanonĒ or not. Canon is a dance term meaning that everyone is in sync, doing the same steps at the same time.

Tribal dance tends to be big, or focused on the major muscle groups, with less emphasis on the details of hand positions or eye positions. Dance is more about expressing emotion than about achieving technically perfect moves. Going along with the split between integrated dance and dance-as-art, tribal dance is about the dancerís experience, while dance-as-art is about the audienceís experience.

Dances can include any variety of moves: stomping, leaping, shuffling, stepping, sliding... slashing, arm sweeping, bending, flailing... turning, kicking, slapping, rocking... and many more.

Many tribal cultures and their valuable knowledge are being lost every year. There persists a lack of respect from "civilized" cultures, and the lure of "the city" for young tribe members is strong. Most of these tribal cultures are nonliterate. Not illiterate; they have a well-defined oral tradition which helps them to pass down knowledge, history, and myths. But when there is no one to learn the old ways, everything - dance, as well as herbal remedies, planting techniques, and much, much more - is lost.

Pictures & Articles

Some of these have interesting articles, and others I included only for the pictures - those might be for event listings, etc., but the pictures are nice.

Other Resources

Sapphire Swan Dance Directory - "More Styles" has cultural dance
Cross-Cultural Dance Resources

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