While reading African Dance: An Artistic Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, one essay caught my attention called, “Bridges to Humanity.” In it, author Tracy D. Snipe discusses the physical, psychological, and spiritual context of African dance. “There is no art for art’s sake in Africa, because all of life is art in African, including the dance.”
Snipe discusses the aesthetics of dance, the symbolism and mode of communication it wields. In the section about conservation of dance, Snipe pointed out something I found intriguing:
“African dance teaches us priceless lessons about cross-cultural comparisons. For example, the issue of men dancing in Africa has significant cross-cultural overtones. The entire concept of men dancing in traditional African society is seen in a totally different context in comparison with the view of men dancing in the West. The war dances in particular are viewed as virility, strength, and sexual prowess. By contrast, in Western societies men who dance are labeled effeminate or homosexuals merely because they dance.”
I asked my husband, “Why don’t men like to dance?” after reading this.
“I don’t know,” he said, “it just seems gay.”
(Please keep in mind, that my husband is one of the least homophobic straight males I have EVER met in my life and that this was not meant in any derogatory sense. Just that dancing seems stereotypically effeminate.)
So then I read him this passage and asked him what he thought. He said there is probably a lot of truth to that. Men feel inhibited to dance not just out of shyness or awkwardness but because other men will view them as effeminate. This is something I find incredibly sad. Dance is such a powerful way of connecting with our bodies, it’s terrible that men can’t or won’t go there because of social stigmas.
Snipe thinks Christianity and Islam are major culprits to the stamping out of traditional African dance. He also points out that Europeans once had these rich and vibrant traditions we find so fascinating in Africa, but that Christianity killed it. Anything remotely connected to the body was labeled sinful during the Dark Ages/Inquisition period and was punishable by death. It’s a wonder that we were able to preserve any of our old cultures at all.
Perhaps the social stigma of dance as a female art merely stems from the fact that women were the ones who were able to retain some of the pagan traditions of dance.
My husband also pointed out that as much as Western Europe gets blamed for colonizing and destroying ethnic cultures in the world, it’s important to remember that Europe was also colonized and homogenized through the hammer of the Christian Church, especially the Northern European cultures. Christianity is inherently a Greek/Mediterranean culture, that would have seemed completely alien to the Teutonic and Celtic tribes. We may have had these forms of ritualized dance in our distant past, but they have been so thoroughly expunged from European culture as to be completely forgotten. I feel very cheated that I have no idea what my ancestors’ beliefs and rituals were. It becomes very important to me that the places where these things still exist are left alone. All that Christian/Islamic “love” can stop spreading thank you very much.
I asked my husband if we had dances like the African war dance or the Maori Haka, if he thought men might embrace dance more:
and he said yeah because, “that’s fuckin’ cool!”
In essence, what this essay brought to the forefront of my mind is the need for ritual. Western culture and in particular American culture is so devoid of meaning there’s no wonder people are constantly grappling with an existential crisis. And I don’t just mean paying lip service to some church. My biggest gripe with most religions is that they won’t evolve or that they believe all must be just like them in order to be “saved.” Hence, the destruction of millions of organic cultures the world over.
It’s important to create truly meaningful traditions that are relevant to our “tribe” right now. Perhaps then we might perform our daily tasks with purpose, women might take pleasure in their femininity again, and perhaps men might dance ;0)