Behind the 'gumboot dance'

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Behind the 'gumboot dance'

Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto
Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto
Larrikin/Festival

Review by Norm Dixon

Within hours of touching down at Johannesburg airport, tourists on package tours to South Africa find themselves whisked by coach to a nearby tourist attraction — a re-creation of a working gold mine. What is presented is a very sanitised version of the working and living conditions that millions of black South Africans were forced to endure for more than 100 years.

Part of the program is the "gumboot" dancers — half a dozen or so black men in overalls, hard hats and gumboots creating incredibly intricate rhythms by stamping their feet and slapping their boots, hats and bodies. To see all the dancers performing these feats in unison is an experience that few forget.

Even though the tourists will return home with their happy snaps and video-8 tapes to remember the experience, they will know little of the cultural significance of what they saw.

Unfortunately, gumboot dancing, or isicathulo, has become something of a South African cliché. It is included in the repertoire of most South African dance groups that travel the world. Most people, in every part of the world, recognise isicathulo as quintessentially South African. Few know about its origins as a response by mineworkers to their racial oppression under apartheid.

The Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto, with their self-titled album, have decided to reveal the blood, sweat and tears that lie behind the happy cliché.

As they explain in the liner notes of their CD, isicathulo was born in the gold mines of South Africa, which opened in the 1880s. It was a way to survive the isolation workers felt under the weight of the migrant labour system and the oppressive pass laws.

Working in the mines was long, hard, repetitive toil. Talking was forbidden. White foremen beat and kicked black workers. Hundreds of workers were (and continue to be) killed every year in accidents.

The floors of the mines often flooded due to poor or non-existent drainage. Hours of standing in the fetid water caused skin problems and ulcers and resulted in lost time. The white bosses, rather than spend the money needed to properly drain the shafts, issued rubber gumboots to the workers.

"Thus the 'miners' uniform' was born", the Rishile Dancers explain. "Heavy black Wellington boots to protect the feet ... jeans [or overalls], bare chests [temperatures underground can reach above 40° C], and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat [and hard hats]."

In the dank, dark shafts, workers learned to send messages to each other by slapping on their boots.

Back on the surface and in their overcrowded living quarters, the bosses refused to allow the workers to wear their traditional dress while they were not working. The bosses made all workers of the same ethnic or tribal background live together, in order to perpetuate divisions between different groups of African workers.

Faced with this repressive regime, workers adapted traditional dances and rhythms to the only instruments available — their boots and bodies. The songs that were sung to go with the frenetic movements dealt with working-class life — drinking, love, family, low wages and mean bosses.

Some "enlightened" employers eventually allowed the best dancers to form troupes to represent the company, to entertain visitors and for PR. It was not unusual for these performers' songs to openly mock their bosses and criticise wages and conditions, while the bosses were blissfully ignorant of the content, sung in Xhosa, Sothu or Zulu.

Dance historian Jane Osborne has explained that isicathulo developed from traditional African roots to become part of urban South African working-class culture, and a southern African art form with universal popular appeal. It is not unlike tap dance, which sprang from the oppressed African-Americans to be embraced by the whole US population — even though few would be aware of its origins.

The Rishile Gumboot Dancers offer a mixture of township styles and instruments on their spirited and entertaining CD. It opens and closes with infectious isicathulo rhythms.

Because isicathulo is as much a visual experience as an aural one, it would get a bit dull to have a 40-minute CD of stamping, slapping and shouting. So the gang mix it up with a range of township jive styles. They sing about drinking, Soweto in the morning, work, the hopes working people held as they arrived in eGoli ("gold city" — Johannesburg), partying, relationships gone sour, against ethnic violence, for African unity and more drinking.

If you enjoy South African township music, the Rishile Gumboot Dancers' CD is worth tracking down. Unfortunately, as is the norm, the record company has made little effort to provide full translations of the lyrics.

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