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Dancing Through History

With The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence‘s Boston run approaching quickly, dance is on the forefront of everyone’s mind here at ArtsEmerson, especially all the different styles of the art form that appear in Step Afrika’s! thrilling production. Because The Migration incorporates a variety of these disciplines, we’ve created a crash course to get you up to speed on three of the most prevalent dance-styles you’ll marvel at when you attend this show.

  1. The South African Gumboot Dance

Perhaps the most recognizable dance in the show, the gumboot dance originated during apartheid-era South Africa. The dance gets its name from the thick rubber rain boots (think modern day Hunter Boots) known as “gumboots” or “wellingtons” worn by migrant laborers who were employed in diamond and coal mines. The apartheid government enacted laws that restricted these workers from speaking to one another, so they developed their own means of communication: using the sounds and stomps of their gumboots as a form of morse-code. The movement eventually transformed into a dance, which became particularly popular during the fight against apartheid and even became a protest symbol. Those involved in the Struggle would participate in the gumboot dance as a way to express their unification in the fight against the oppressive government. Even after the official end of apartheid in 1994, the gumboot dance remained a symbol of hope and solidarity. This dance made its way into popular culture as well, with Paul Simon writing a song titled “Gumboots” featured on his touchstone album Graceland. The formation of the gumboot dance marks a pivotal point in both the history of South Africa, as it symbolized the fight against a powerful regime, as well as in the history of dance, as it became the foundation for the development of step-dancing.

  1. Indlamu: Traditional Zulu Dance

The Migration also incorporates a dance known as Indlamu, which is a dance most closely associated with Zulu culture. Also originating from South Africa, indlamu is regarded as one of the most significant pieces of the Zulu identity, as this war dance remains untouched by Western influence. This dance is more meticulous than other Zulu dances as it mimics the movement of an imaginary battle. The dancer lifts one foot over their head and brings it down hard, landing squarely on the downbeat, typically accompanied by whistles and drums. Traditionally, those participating in the dance wear Zulu warrior apparel, like amabheshu (skins) and ceremonial belts while carrying swords and shields. Indlamu demonstrates the strength and physical ability of the Zulu people.

  1. Stepping

Stepping is the most significant and prevalent dance style used in The Migrationno surprise since the troupe’s name has the word “step” in it! Stepping developed primarily in historically black fraternities and sororities in the United States but the style derived much of its inspiration from traditional African foot dances (like gumboot and Indlamu). In the early 1900s during Greek life initiations, groups would rally around and sing songs about their fraternity or sorority, often times including claps and stomps. This tradition gradually turned into the dance style of stepping, which gained national popularity through different competitions, many of which are sponsored by the Pan Hellenic Council. Stepping has been portrayed in a number of different films like Stomp the Yard and Drumline. In addition, stepping has been performed at major events like President Bill Clinton’s inauguration (performed by Howard University’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity) and during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Although stepping originated in Greek life in the United States, the dance style has become popular around the world, with many countries and organizations participating in competitions.

While gumboot, Indlamu, and stepping are dances that are appear in The Migration, they are far from being the only dance styles incorporated in the show. In fact, the show utilizes dozens of different dances, originating from West Africa to Chicago, Illinois and everywhere in between. Interested in seeing what other dances are performed by Step Afrika!? Come see the company’s exciting return to Boston with The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence from MAY 3 – 6 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater. Tickets on sale now!


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