Each year on April 28, the world observes International Dance Day. This day commemorates something few of us would ever deny: the pleasures of dance and the capacity of dance to cross borders. But do we realise that many of the dance forms that exhilarate us, either as observers or participants, are born out of the deepest traumas of modernity?
I am a literary and cultural historian at King’s College, London, and I head a large research project, Modern Moves, which investigates what the pleasures of music and dance can tell us about modernity. My early inspiration was videos of the Brazilian dance form lambada, which, via MTV, brought to sedate Indian living rooms in the 1990s, compelling images of swaying hips, whirling hair and swirling mini-skirts. If we look closely, however, we can also glimpse the inter-racial tensions that underwrite all expressive forms of Brazilian exuberance.
My research team and I study the gamut of social dance forms with roots in African traditions, their accompanying musical genres and the styles statements that they promote. Synonymous with the joy of “letting oneself go”, these music and dance forms developed out of the displacement of peoples across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans through colonialism, slavery and indentured labour. Some of my favourite music videos are actually mini history lessons that use lyrics, images and rhythmic memory to keep reminding us of this fact.
In his famous song, La Rebelión (the Rebellion, 1986), the Colombian musician Joe Arroyo pays homage to the complex history of the salsa song he sings and the dance that goes with this type of music. (Click here to watch his salsa classic.)
The song is set in colonial Colombia and describes how a Spanish overseer provoked a slave rebellion over his maltreatment of a slave woman. As the song’s refrain declares, “no te pegue la negra” (don’t you strike the African woman). But the memorable visuals tell a different (but related) story – of how slaves and colonisers came together, through their different dance heritages, to create a new way of moving together.
On sugarcane plantations in the Americas, this encounter between European dances such as the waltz and African body movements gave rise to hybrid dance forms: the precursors of modern day salsa, tango, samba and the Swing Era’s jazz dances. Despite the different languages and socio-historical circumstances of the cities in which they sprung up – Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Havana, New York – they share an interpenetration of European and African elements, and the celebration of physical dexterity as a language of communication. The brilliant choreography of the film Helzapoppin, especially its song, Jumping at the Woodside, shows Harlem’s Lindy Hoppers at their craziest, most athletic best.
These Afro-Latin and Afro-American dance forms are associated with the New World. But kindred dance forms also developed in African cities such as Luanda in Angola in colonial and postcolonial times. Indeed, the Portuguese Empire was a web of music and movement stretching across the Atlantic, including the archipelago Cabo Verde, the world’s first cultural crossroads between African and European populations. This video by Paulo Matomina, Desliza, illustrates through lyrics and dance movements how the Angolan genre kizomba was formed through transatlantic rhythm interactions. I also love the way it shows off African urban modernity – the dancing couples, the champagne, the shoes and the broadcasting studio.
But the Atlantic was not the only oceanic conduit for African-heritage rhythm cultures. Submerged rhythm histories connect the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and African and Indian diasporic populations in these transoceanic spaces. Look at this video of Molmole by Mauritian sega music star, Ino Nakeed. The lyrics in Mauritian Creole sing of belnas, tawas and parathas; the dancers move their arms to imitate ‘belo-ing’ and their hips and bottoms in African-derived fashion; the music enthrals through African syncopation and Indian melodic signatures.
Molmole is a fantastic illustration of how the labour of dance pays homage to other kinds of labour, and how the labouring, dancing body on the plantation must be read as more than a bearer of labels such as “African” or “Indian”. This body is a shared inheritance of modernity. Its capacity to convert pain and humiliation into happiness and exuberance, to scramble the codes by repeating and transcending modernity’s foundational master-slave encounter, never ceases to amaze me. It is the inspiration for the Modern Moves project. It is also something that is endlessly celebrated and reflected on in the music and dance we love to examine, listen to and move to.