The Jerusalema Dance Challenge showed how Pan-African styles can be forged

Staff and Members of Parliament led by Majority and Minority leaders Amos Kimunya and John Mbadi, respectively, train for the Jerusalema Challenge in front of the Parliament Buildings in October 2020. [David Njaaga, Standard]

A year has passed since an Angolan dance troupe called Fenómenos do Semba posted a video of herself dancing in a courtyard in Luanda to the South African hit song, Jerusalema by Master KG.

With over 16 million clicks on YouTube, the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge swept the planet as social media users posted their own versions of the dance.

Its success inspired me to offer further thoughts on the importance of the cultural significance of this dance and its contribution to the creation of a Pan-African aesthetic.

There are some deeply ingrained elements that the dance video’s success has to offer that might go unnoticed at first glance. But, taken together, they convey the joyful and proud expression of a collective identity.

Although it is not danced to Angolan music and uses steps from different kinetic codes, the video remains representative of the main elements of the Angolan way of celebrating: the food, the music, the dance … and the brincadeiras ( jokes).

The dance takes place in a common courtyard located between the buildings of Luandan. This open but protective space in itself represents a specific way of living in community.

In the recent past of the Civil War, these places of mutual exchange enabled people to preserve family units, overcome collective trauma, and protect local languages ​​and cultures from the threat of colonialism.

Writing on Facebook about their video challenge, Adilson Maiza, the leader of Fenómenos do Semba, said: “There is always a reason to be happy, always a reason to celebrate”.

This same spirit of gratitude has found more concrete expression in the promotion of social initiatives by the now famous troupe. They did things like distributing food in disadvantaged areas and promoting the founding of the Angolan Dance Association for the promotion of dance in the country.

In this sense, the presence of food is very relevant and it surely contributed to the success of the video. It reveals the authenticity of the reunion and the spirit of contentment through the symbolic act of eating.

In Angola, getting together with family and friends has social, political and spiritual value. This is what the Angolan writer Óscar Ribas underlined in his 1965 book Izomba, on the importance of leisure centers in Luanda.

Angolan dance troupe called Fenómenos do Semba. [Courtesy]

The value of gatherings became even more important during the long nighttime curfews that were sometimes common during the Civil War (1975-2002). During this time, dancing and music seemed the only remedy to allay a permanent fear. To people who lived the Angolan and South African reality of those years, Jerusalema’s video is surely a reminder of the joy of being able to celebrate togetherness in any conditions.

The dance featured in the video is commonly referred to as Dança da Familia (the family dance).

It is not a traditional Angolan dance with a semiotic code. Nevertheless, it is frequently danced at weddings and parties. It mainly consists of a short sequence of steps, repeated within the same structure. Anyone can introduce variations and personal touches (hats) into the sequence. In other words, it is not a choreography but rather the repetition of a pattern.

The idea of ​​a choreography does not belong to the Angolan conception of dance. On the contrary, the dance is improvised and repeated with simple variations responding to specific rhythmic calls. It’s never tied to a particular song.

Angolan dance is a performative act rather than a product.

The peculiarity of the Jerusalema dance lies in its sequence, proposed by one of the participants and repeated in the same way in four directions. It does this with the same steps and the same rotation at the end of any sequence, while being able to be embellished with any specific groove proposed by the lead dancers.

The troupe became well known in Angola, appearing on television and working on social and dance initiatives.

The character of the dance demonstrates the central point of the technique of dance transmission in many African contexts. It takes place in a fun context, without any formal education. It stems from a logic of movement developed over the centuries and transmitted through imitation and innovation.

Commonly danced in Angola and South Africa, but also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Zambia, the Dança da Família could be defined as a “neotraditional” cultural product, borrowing the definition of the philosopher, Anglo-Ghanaian cultural theorist. and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah.

The “dance structure” of Dança da Familia can be performed to different rhythms. During family celebrations this pattern is danced to more traditional rhythms such as soukous (or sakiss) and pantsula, but also to coupé decalé, azonto or afrobeat songs, by those who do not know the code. dance of each rhythm.

All of these musical styles are enjoyed by different generations in various countries. This dance structure integrates their specific vocabularies, reshaping them into a new cultural product. The Dança da Familia can adapt to all these rhythms, which is why it is often used at West African weddings in the south of the region, where the continuous exchanges between ethnicities have created mixed family units and multicultural traditions. .

Likewise, contemporary styles like Afrobeat or Kuduro travel the world via television and social networks, carrying symbols and offering modes of self-representation that stimulate cultural legitimacy and recognition. In this context, the creation of codes is often based on the recreation of traditions – reinforcing what the Cameroonian philosopher and author Achille Mbembe asserted in defining African identity as mobile and reversible.

Through these elements, Jerusalema’s dance spontaneously promoted a more conscious concept of Africanity and sowed feelings of tolerance and contentment.

It reminds me of the words of Kwame Nkrumah, former Ghanaian president: All the righteous and courageous words spoken about freedom that had been spread to the four corners of the earth sprouted and sprouted where they were not intended.

[Francesca Negro, associate research scientist, University of Lisbon –]