Circle in African dance

Here at The Circle Way website, we’re working to create a new page describing how circle as form and function have shown up over time and across cultures and traditions. As a flavour of what’s to come, Diane “Thembi” Jordan describes the influence of circle on African dance tradition.

“Let the Circle Be Unbroken” - Circle in African Dance

Across the 54 African countries and the diversity of societies, cultures and communities, there are similarities in the role dance plays: in religious rituals; marking rites of passage, including initiations to adulthood and weddings; as part of communal ceremonies, including harvest celebrations, funerals, rituals and ceremonies.

Categories of African Dance:

Most traditional African dance can be divided into three major categories: ritual, griotic (story dances and oral history), and communal.

1.     Ritual Dance

Ritual represents the broadest and most ancient of African dance. It reinforces and affirms the belief system of the society it represents. These dances are usually religious in nature and are designated for specific occasions that advance and facilitate the most powerful expression of African people, the reverence of ancestors. Throughout Africa, dance is also an integral part of the marking of birth and death in which young men dance over the grave and pack the earth with stomping movements.

African ritual dance cannot be separated from African religion and religious practice because spirituality permeates virtually every aspect of African life. Religion in Africa is not something reserved for a certain time or place, or a last resort to engage in times of crisis. There is no formal distinction between sacred and secular, religious and nonreligious, spiritual or material. From the profound to the mundane, from birth to death every transition in an individual’s life is marked by some form of ritual observance.

Although the basic rhythms and movements remain, the number of dancers, the confluence of linear and circular formations, and other elements change to fit the situation. Dances of Welcome are a show of respect and pleasure to visitors, and at the same time provide a show of how talented and attractive the host villagers are. The Yabara, a West African Dance of Welcome marked by the Beaded Net Covered Gourd Rattle (shake-er-ay), is thrown into the air to different heights by female dancers to mark tempo and rhythm changes. This is an impressive display of dance and athleticism as the dancers rhythmically throw and catch the gourd rattles.


2.     Griotic Dance

In African culture, the Griot (GREE-oh) is the village historian who teaches everyone about their past and who keeps the cultural traditions, history and story of the people.

Griotic dances not only represent historical documents, they are also ritual dramas. The dances communicate stories that are part of the oral history of a community.

It is said that when a Griot dies, a library has burned to the ground. The music usually follows a dance form and begins slowly with praise singing and lyrical movements that are accompanied by melodic instruments.


3.     Communal Dances

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In villages across the African continent, the sound and the rhythm of the drum express the mood of the people. The drum is the sign of life; its beat is the heartbeat of the community. It is often said that the power of the drum evokes emotions to touch the souls of those who hear its rhythms.

People gather together in response to the beating of the drum and in anticipation of sharing with one another a sense of belonging and solidarity. It is a time to connect and to be part of that collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the community.

Dance does not merely form a part of community life; it represents and reinforces the community itself. Its structures reproduce the organization and the values of the community. Dance often expresses the structure of the community, including priority of the society over the individual, values, gender, kinship, age, and status.


Essence of African Dance:

1.     Formation

The basic formation of African dance is in lines (as in marching movements that tell a story) and circles of dancers. There is supernatural power in the circle, the curved, and the round. “Let the circle be unbroken” is a popular creed throughout African. More complex shapes are formed through the combination of these two basic forms to then create more sophisticated dance forms and style.

The African dancer often bends slightly toward the earth and flattens the feet against it in a wide, solid stance. Observers describe many African dances as "earth centered," in contrast to the ethereal floating effects or soaring leaps found in European dance forms, such as ballet. In African dance, gravity provides an earthward orientation even in those forms in which dancers leap into the air, such as the dances of the Kikuyu of Kenya and the Tutsi of Rwanda.

Unlike many Western forms of dance, in which the musicians providing the accompanying music and the audience both maintain a distance from the dance performance. In the traditional dance of many African societies, the dance incorporates a reciprocal, call-and-response or give-and-take relationship that creates an energized interaction between those dancing and those surrounding them. With the exceptions of spiritual, religious, or initiation dances, there are traditionally no barriers between dancers and spectators.


2.     Movement

One of the most characteristic aspects of African dance is its use of movements from daily life. By raising ordinary gestures to the level of art, these dances show the grace and rhythm of daily activities, from walking to pounding grain to chewing. African dance moves all parts of the body. Angular bending of arms, legs, and torso; shoulder and hip movement; scuffing, stamping, and hopping steps; asymmetrical use of the body; and fluid movement are all part of African dance.


3.     Body Language

Traditionalists describe the African dancing body as a worshiping and worshiper body. It is a medium that embodies the experiences of life, pleasure, enjoyment, and sensuality. The body of the African dancer overflows with joy and vitality, it trembles, vibrates, radiates, and it is charged with emotions. No matter the shape of a dancer—thick or thin, round or svelte, weak or muscled, large or small—expressions are not repressed or stifled. This directs the true language of the body to assert itself, to be joyous, attractive, vigorous, and magnetic.

 Adapted from New World Encyclopedia.

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Diane “Thembi” Jordan, USA

While living in Liberia, Diane, affectionately known as Thembi, witnessed the military coup d’état, served as a midwife, owned a business, and volunteered with the World Health Organization’s Breast is Best Campaign. She embraced the African proverb: “It is not where you are but what you do there that matters,” and she has a passion to encourage anyone with a dream to believe their dream can come true.

These experiences inspired Diane to launch Thembi Speaks LLC to provide executive coaching, organization development and systems change, and to design and facilitate learning experiences that help individuals, small, and large groups to unlock their purpose, passion, and power to achieve desired results. Diane has a master’s degree in education and holds multiple certifications. She is a member of The Circle Way Board and uses the tools to facilitate conversations that matter.