Copyright Jabu Nadia Newman
Copyright Jabu Nadia Newman

The Troubled Identity of the Dancer: Object or Subject?

In Jabu Newman’s film, Inside Out, the line between contemporary and traditional African dance is necessarily blurred. This is in part down to the legacies of traditional African dance, and its role as a tool for community healing, remain pertinent to modern day South Africa. And it is out of these legacies that the Indoni Academy (from where the dancers in the short are sourced) was born.

The history of traditional dance, like many other facets of history on the continent, is deeply intertwined with colonialism. In pre-colonial Africa, dance was often inextricably linked to ancient spirituality and religious ritual. Once the missionaries moved in, and the existing native religions moved out, this relationship was severed. For the most part people kept on dancing, but now it was thought of as something more akin to performance, at least to Western eyes. For the invader-spectator, traditional African dances were thought of as charming relic of a bygone era. The cultural remnants of an antiquated, or perhaps “primitive” way of life. But in actuality dance remained, and remains, for so many African dancers, a spiritual experience.

Inside Out, Jabu Nadia Newman

According to Judith Lynne Hanna a scholar of international folk dances, traditional pre-colonial African dances, in many cases, were also functional. As well as the psychological function of being an emotional experience in which individuals could understand themselves and their position as a part of group life, dances also often had political and communicative functions. Dances could be a way of articulating political values, with certain movements indicating sentiments more effectively than verbal language. The depth and breadth of the meaning of these dances has, like so many aspects of pre-colonial culture, been obscured by time and by the bulldozering tendencies of the imperial historian. But there’s enough recorded genealogy to know that dance was historically much more than just entertainment.

Whether the dance summons the rains, resolves group conflict, or cultivates space for young minds to escape the constraints of the material world, it is ultimately redemptive and restorative.

Inside Out, Jabu Nadia Newman

Far from a spectator sport, the power of traditional dance lies in its internality. We, the viewer, might see the body move, and think “it’s a body dancing”, but it is what we cannot see that is the most affective and transformative part of the exercise. The true power of dance is to render the dancer a subject, a conscious mind which comes to exist in a state of heightened connectivity with the body. ‘Dance like nobody’s watching’. And here we come to the ultimate tension that arises when traditional African dance meets Contemporary African dance, as it does in the Indoni Academy. The academy teaches contemporary dance which “honours the heritage of South Africa”, and it also shares many of the intentions of traditional dance. Traditional dance empowers the individual to connect with their environment, and the group to heal collective trauma. In a similar vein, the Indoni school champions the transformative power of dance as a way for young people from South Africa’s deprived townships, to resist the oppressive forces of material poverty and excel. Whether the dance summons the rains, resolves group conflict, or cultivates space for young minds to escape the constraints of the material world, it is ultimately redemptive and restorative.

And yet, to an extent, the point of contemporary dance is also for people to watch it, it’s certainly the main source of revenue. So how do we reconcile the sanctity of African dance, as a spiritual and redemptive process with the desire so many of us have to watch it? How can we watch a dancer whilst remaining aware that they are not dancing in order to be watched? And then how do you film it?

Inside Out, Jabu Nadia Newman

Well, you can take a leaf out of Jabu Newman’s book for a start. Inside Out tackles these tensions head on. Over the course of only four minutes the viewer gets an insight into not only the body, but the mind of the dancer. Thanks to the overlay of the dancer’s testimonies, we can observe the dance as both an aesthetic performance and an internal, at times spiritual, exercise. The dancers share with us who they are and what dance means to them – it’s an intimate experience. At the same time, we see the diversity and universality of dance as transformative, the dancers are tapping into “their different zone” all over the place. Beneath the flashes of a strobing dance floor, in the river, in the forests and on the beaches. “When I dance, I feel like I am speaking at that moment”, so when the dancers are in a group, we come to understand that they are communicating with each other, but when they are alone, they must be communicating with the earth round them. It’s this connectivity with the natural world that is really bought home by Jabu’s short. The dancers appear sometimes as themselves and sometimes as quasi-mythical creatures of their own creation, but always ineffably comfortable in their surroundings. The dancer speaks to the world around them, and the world around them welcomes them in.

How can we watch a dancer whilst remaining aware that they are not dancing in order to be watched?

This clarity, the revelation of dancers as subject, rather than entertaining object isn’t often so successfully achieved. ‘African dance, often contemporary but heavily influenced by traditional styles has long fascinated both viewers and creators all around the world. Its influences can be seen in modern pop culture both in the Global South and the Global North. And in part thanks to its deep rootedness in spirituality and connection to the earth, it’s been particularly popular among the African diaspora in North America. Beyoncé’s latest visual album, for example, filmed to accompany the release of the Lion King soundtrack, plays on these themes of belonging, collective consciousness and innate connection to the African motherland. Shots of dancers on beaches at sunset, their limbs intertwined and their fluid movements mimicking the motion of the ocean are almost identical to those in Newman’s short. The scene speaks to these seemingly timeless themes, but unlike Newman, the creative team behind Beyonce’s visual album haven’t mitigated the tendency for objectification of the dancer. The Black bodies dancing behind the pop behemoth, appear as merely spectacle. They provide a sense of authenticity to the narrative of Black belonging, but they are not agents of introspection. Unlike the Indoni dancers, we have no sense of these ‘backing dancers’ as subjects taking part in a timeless ritual of connection, both to each other and to the world around them. And maybe that’s fine, it is a music video after all, but it’s a searing example of how contemporary African dance can easily be misunderstood and become detached from its roots in ancient spirituality.

Inside Out, Jabu Nadia Newman

Jabu Newman’s short then, is an antidote to this common misconception. It recentres the most important aspect of the artform: the dancer. But it also doesn’t leave the viewer behind, and instead takes them along for the ride, holding them by the hand as we explore together the inner sanctities of the African dancer’s mind.

Ada Barume

Good Wickedry Event

This piece is part of a co-commission between Make It in Brixton and T A P E Collective. Read more about T A P E Collective in our interview with the founders here.

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