Saturday, July 16, 2011

The History and Power of African Dance

I can hardly believe it's been more than two weeks since I've blogged. I think that's a record for me...but one I won't be trying to break any time soon. Because Picture Books & Pirouettes has been so quiet lately, I thought I'd start this post off with a bang. Or maybe I should say a boom--the boom of an African drum!

In 1990, Angola dancer and choreographer Julio T. Leitao founded Batoto Yetu--the children's African dance troupe featured in the above video. The troupe is based in New York City, but the 4- to 17-year-olds who make up the company travel throughout the world sharing the incredible energy and rhythm of their art form.  

With the publication of Drumbeat in Our Feet by mulicultural publisher Lee & Low a few years back, dancer and choreographer Leitao also became a children's author. Leitao and author/illustrator Patricia A. Keeler teamed up to create this beautifully poetic picture book that captures the rich history and traditions of African dance.

Thinking about the ancestors once young like us--
Dancing in African soil
Dancing under African clouds
Dancing in African rain
Breathing in African air

Drumbeat in Our Feet contains plenty of nonfiction material, including information on the origins of African dance, the different types of African dances, the role of spirits and ancestors, costumes, and of course African drums.

Just as African dance styles vary between regions of the continent, so do drum styles. For instance, the drums in central Africa are conical shaped, held between the knees of the drummer. In western Africa, some drums are shaped like hourglasses with cords attached to each end. The drummer can then squeeze the cord and change the pitch of the drumbeat by tightening the goat skin that covers the top of the drum. Drumbeats carry the rhythm of the entire dance, but a special patterns of beats called a "break" also helps the dancers know when to start dancing, stop dancing, or change to a new dance step. 

Listen up! The drums are talking!
Listen for the drum break.
Hear the beat: Doom, doom, da!
Tet da-da-dum, Tet da-da dum, Doom, doom, da!
Hear the drum break? Dance, dance, dance!

What I really like about this book is that the left-hand side of each full-page spread includes the nonfiction information, while the right-hand side contains a more lyrical interpretation of the material. I also love Keeler's illustrations, which are full of both rich earthy colors and more vibrant colors, especially on the costumes of the dancers, who are all children. 

It turns out that Batoto Yetu founder Leitao and his family fled Angola during the civil war in the 1970s, and Leitao had a tough childhood living as a refugee after that. According to the back matter of the book, music and dance are part of what kept him going during those difficult years. 

I recently had the great fortune of being able to spend a week in Rwanda--another African country that has been deeply changed by civil war. Despite its history of war and genocide, Rwanda has made astounding progress over the years and seems to have such a wonderfully peaceful aura. In some small way, I like to think that dance has played a part in this.

In 2009, Ballet Rwanda was formed to encourage creativity among young children and help develop the arts in Rwanda through dance. And years earlier, the nonprofit Association Mwana Ukundwa was created to help Rwandan orphans navigate their journey to adulthood. The following video shows children from the association performing an African song and dance. I found it so beautiful and mesmerizing, so was compelled to share it with you....

We are the children of the ancestors, singing the songs, dancing the steps to a story that never ends. African rhythm in our steps. African drumbeat in our feet!


  1. This is an awesome post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi, Kristi. I really had such an amazing experience visiting Rwanda, and it just seemed like the right time to write about African dance. Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. Love this post Kerry! Love African Dance! Remember when I attempted to take it at Duke? I just recently took another class in it. Awesome!

  4. Oh, wow. I DO remember you trying to take a class at Duke! Can you believe that was so many years ago? I think I'm still in denial. That's awesome you took another class recently. I want to hear all about it! We need to figure out some way to get together soon :)

  5. What a great post, thank you! This will be a wonderful gift for nieces who love dance lessons..on the holiday and birthday list now!

  6. Thanks for your nice message, Carol. The back of the book includes a nice map of Africa, a pronunciation guide, and some background information on Batotu Yetu, too. So lots of educational material presented in a really accessible way...

  7. HI,

    Thanks so much for the kind review. Working with Julio to create DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET was one of the most magical times in my life. The music, dance, faith and folks that make up Batoto Yetu gave me a insight into the joy of being African that more people should have.

    I'm currently working on a new book, STARRING ZELDA (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins). It is written by the editor of DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET, Jennifer Fox. Hopefully it will be out in a year!

    Thanks again!

  8. Hi, Patricia. I'm so honored you stopped by, and so intrigued now with your experience making the book. It sounds like it was wonderful. And I think that magical quality you talked about really showed up in the book, which was so engaging in both words and illustrations. Thanks for letting us know about your upcoming book, too. I will be looking for it next year!

  9. Hi Kerry! This is a beautiful beautiful post. I particularly enjoyed the video clips you included. It continually amazes me how you are able to wonderfully fuse dancing, movement, and picture books together. I am also intrigued by the cover page of the book - I have a feeling I would love the illustrations. =) Would definitely check this out.

  10. Hi, Myra! Thanks so much for your kind words. Glad you liked the videos. I struggled a bit on how to fit the one from Rwanda in, but I was so amazed by the quality of the dancers, by the lovely expressions on their faces, and by the history of the country that I had to find a way to weave it in. Thanks again!

  11. Wonderful post, Kerry! In Rwanda, I was so pleased to see that traditional dance was part of every celebration and assembly. Every conceivable reason to celebrate included dance. I loved it! I only wish I had thought of asking someone to teach me.

  12. Thanks, Brooke. I wasn't lucky enough to see any dance when I was in Rwanda, but you just gave me yet another reason for wanting to go back!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...