Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Origins Of South African Gumboot Dancing

Edited by Azizi Powell

[latest revision August 22, 2018]

This post provides information about South African gumboot dancing ("boot dancing"; isicathulo), including that percussive dance form's early beginnings in the late nineteenth century*.

This post also includes five videos of South African gumboot dancing, including a contemporary gumboot dance group that is composed of males & females.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unnamed originators of what is now known as gumboot dancing (boot dancing, isicathulo). Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to all those featured in these videos. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
* Update: October 2, 2016
In the initial publication of this post I corrected the 19th century date given in the article presented below as Excerpt #1 to the 20th century. I did that because I thought that the gumboot "code" dancing that the miners did started with the apartheid laws of the 1952. I've since learned that gumboot dancing actually started in the late 19th century.

Click for a related post about gumboot dancing and African American originated fraternity and sorority stepping.

"Rooted back in the dark gold mine tunnels of South Africa more than a century ago, gumboot dancing has come full circle. Initially a codified tap used by black miners deprived of conversation, gumboot dancing today is one of the most expressive South African dance genres.

In South Africa gumboot dancing has a seductive magnetism synonymous with the country’s mining culture, but few people know of the hidden meaning and history of this infectious dance tradition.

The dance form came of age in the gold mines during the last decades of the 19thcentury. It stemmed from a code that mine workers devised among themselves because of the repressive ban on talking enforced by mine bosses.

Kitted out in Wellington boots to fight skin diseases caused by the foetid [sic; "fetid"] water flooding mine tunnels, the 'muzzled' miners discovered they could communicate with one another through coded slaps on their boots and bare chests.

Also prevented by bosses from wearing their traditional dress in the mining compounds, which further estranged the miners from their rural roots, the migrant workers from diverse, ethnic backgrounds found common ground in an extended gumboot patois.

Enter gumboot dancing. Initially, mine bosses banned it outright, but eventually its qualities as an uplifting social activity, unlike the potentially destructive effects of alcohol, were acknowledged and even encouraged.

Some mines fostered the formation of gumboot dance troupes and organised gumboot dancing competitions that they attended. Standing by, applauding the by-product artistry of their workers, for decades mine managers remained oblivious that the dancing they so appreciated was often coded criticism of poor conditions, bad pay, and the bigotry of white bosses.

Today South African gumboot dancing stands alone as one of the most singularly unique dance expressions.

During the mining strike of 1946, that led to the formation of the African Mine Workers’ Union, a precursor to South Africa’s powerful labour movement, miners communicated a secret code by tapping their gumboots.

EXCERPT #2 [Added October 2, 2016]
From South African Music: A Century of Traditions in Transformation, Volume 1 by Carol Ann Muller (Google book), p. 161, and 163 (162 isn't available in the Google Book version.
Carol Ann Muller writes that gumboot dancing (South African term isicathulo) first began in the Christian missions that were established for Black South Africans. The gumboot dancing in the mines is a significant development of that dance but not the only form of that dance.

Here are some quotes from that book:
"Isicathulo means shoe, boot, or sandal; it also refers to the boot dance performed by young boys since the first contact with Europeans. It is defined as “a modern rhythmic dance adopted by certain Christian natives, in which dancing is both individual and in groups. (Cockrell 1987, 422)....

p. 163
"The other cultural influence that shaped gumboot dancing was the minstrel shows, performed in Durban by American and English troupes beginning in the nineteenth century. Jonney Hadebe, one of the members of Blanket Mkhize's gumboot team explains the early history of gumboot dance in a program note written for the South African Railway's gumboot dancers:
In 1896, subsequent to watching white men tap dancing and clapping their hands, the amaBaca* decided to make a dance of their own. They called it the gumboot dance. The dance was a rhythmically performed act of dancing, clapping hands, and slapping the calve muscles-the calf muscles being protected by rubber gumboots.

In the year 1896, the group consisted of eight members, six dancers, and two playing musical instruments. In those days the soles of the gumboots were cut off and the dancers wore shoes....

I have been a gumboot dancer for the past twenty-three years. (Jonny Hadebe, ca. 1978)

.... (p. 165)
It is quite feasible that the amaBaca saw minstrel shows performed by white black-faced minstrels in 1896. It is not clear, however, if it is tap dancing or simply the complex footwork of minstrel performers that impacted upon those men in that year....

Tap dancing is also reported to have been extremely popular at the Bantu Men's Social Center in Johannesburg in the 1930s. (Phillips ca. 1938, 297). This would have been the more sophisticated gumboot dancing that Hadebe subsequently discusses."
*Here's some information about the AmaBaca from
The Bhaca people or amaBhaca are an ethnic group in South Africa, mainly found in the small towns of the former Transkei homeland, Mount Frere, Umzimkhulu and surrounding areas - a region that the amaBhaca call kwaBhaca, or "place of the Bhaca". (The Bhaca people or amaBhaca are an ethnic group in South Africa, mainly found in the small towns of the former Transkei homeland, Mount Frere, Umzimkhulu and surrounding areas - a region that the amaBhaca call kwaBhaca, or "place of the Bhaca". (Eastern Cape, South Africa)

While the amaBhaca are often considered to be part of the more populous Xhosa people, they maintain an independent kingdom and distinct culture."...
A pancocojams post that provides these and additional excerpts of Carol Ann Muller's book South African Music: A Century of Traditions in Transformation, Volume 1 will be published ASAP, with particular focus on the complex interplay between African American and other American dance forms and South African boot dancing and vice versa.

Excerpt #3 [Added October 3, 2016]
..."The gumboot style of dance draws on a variety of dance sources: Bhaca traditional dances such as ngoma; minstrel performance; popular social dances such as those that accompanied jazz music performance in the 1930s and 40s. The jitterbug, for example, and most obviously, the tap dance popularised through films of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Gumboot dancers may have been influenced by touring black tap dance groups (Muller 1999: 100). Erlmann (1991: 99-100) argues that isicathulo or gumboot dance was developed around mission stations in KwaZulu Natal with the introduction of footgear to African peoples by missionaries in the late 19th century (Mulller 1999: 92):

Isicathulo means shoe, boot or sandal; it also refers to a boot dance performed by young boys since the first contact with Europeans (Muller 1999: 94).

In their search for aesthetic models and expressions of self-conscious urban status, v first became interested in the dances and songs developed in and around the mission stations. Interestingly, it was on rural mission stations that isicathulo, one of the first urban working-class dance forms, developed. Tracey maintains that the original isicathulo dance was 'performed by Zulu pupils at a certain mission where the authorities had banned the local country dances.' The name isicathulo, shoe, boot or sandal, reflects the introduction of footgear at the missions, the sharp sound of boots and clicking of the heels contrasted with the muffled thud of bare feet in more rural dances such as indlamu-Zulu (Erlrnann 1991: 99).
Coplan (1985: 78) argues that schools picked up new urban influenced rural dances, even though missionaries forbade them. One such dance, is cathulo (shoe) was adopted students in Durban; from there it spread to dock workers who produced spectacular rhythmic effects by slapping and pounding their rubber Wellington boots in performance. All this rhythm made it popular with mine and municipal labourers elsewhere, especially Johannesburg. There it became the 'gumboot' dance, divided into a series of routines and accompanied by a rhythm guitar. By 1919, gumboot had filtered back into school concerts. It soon became a standard feature of urban African variety entertainment, and a setting for satirising characters and scenes drawn from African work life.

What clearly distinguishes all gumboot dance from earlier rural practices is its use of footgear for its performance. Pre-colonial dance forms are generally thought to have been performed barefoot. One Zulu name given to gumboot dance, isicathulo, provides the first indication of innovation. The root of the word cathama means to walk softly, quietly and stealthily. It has been incorporated into two kinds of black performance culture in South Africa: isicathamiya and isicathulo. The first is the style of music and dance performance recently made famous by Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In this context it means to walk softly and stealthily, like a cat. The second refers to the opposite, gumboot dance, which is characterised by louder stepping in gumboots, the clapping of hands and slapping of the boots (Muller 1999:93)

Perhaps the most revealing source, however, is the dance as practised by these older Bhaca dancers and transmitted to their sons in KwaZulu Natal. Unlike the autonomy of many dance forms in the Western world, gumboot dance engages and comments on the exigencies of everyday experience in mine culture (Muller 1999: 98)."...

From African Gumboot Dance: A Heritage of Ingenuity, By Jessica Johnson on March 19, 2014
..."The Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act No. 67 of 1952 stripped black Africans of their rights and enforced that they carry documentation proving their identity, work history and place of residence. They had little to no personal rights, much like what was being echoed in American culture during the Jim Crow era. It was due to this oppression, that the ingenious African Gumboot Dance was birthed."

Origins and political message [of gumboot dancing]
..."South Africa is a country with rich and diverse natural resources such as gold, coal, platinum and diamonds. The country has many mines which are a source of income for a large percentage of the country’s labour. The mines are also a good source of work for migrant workers from surrounding areas with many workers migrating from neighbouring countries Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as a source of sustainable income. During the Apartheid era government enforced oppressive apartheid pass laws which restricted the movement and communication of migrant workers, resulting in workers creating their own “Morse code” for communication through the stomping of their feet and slapping of their gumboots. After the rise of anti-apartheid protests during the Struggle, the gumboot dancing became a voice of protest amongst mine workers nationwide with the messages and vocals sung by locals taking on a political message to fight the oppression of the government.

Popular way of entertainment across the globe

As the mine supervisors and governments could not understand the messages and vocals that characterised the gumboot dances, dancing was encouraged as a means of entertainment and the dance grew in popularity and stature. After the country’s first Democratic Election in 1994 the gumboot dancing continued being a popular tourist attraction and many groups have toured the world to communicate their timeless message of equality, hope and passion to countries in Europe and the world."...

From Published by GUMBOOTS [stage show]
"Gumboots: A History

Gumboot dancing was born in the gold mines of South Africa at the height of the migrant labour system and during the oppressive Apartheid Pass Laws*. The mine workers were not free to move around at will and were separated from their families for long periods of time. At best, working in the mines was a long, hard, repetitive toil. At worst, the men would be taken chained into the mines and shackled at
their work stations in almost total darkness.

The floors of the mines were often flooded, with poor or non-existent drainage. For the miners, hours of standing up to their knees in infected waters brought on skin ulcers, foot problems and consequent lost work time. The bosses discovered that providing gumboots (Wellington boots) to the workers was cheaper than attempting to drain the mines. This created the miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots, jeans, bare chest and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat.

The workers were forbidden to speak, and as a result created a means of communication, essentially their own unique form of Morse Code. By slapping their gumboots and rattling their ankle chains, the enslaved workers sent messages to each other in the darkness. From this came an entertainment, as the miners evolved their
percussive sounds and movements into a unique dance form and used it to entertain each other during their free time.

Gumboot dancing has developed into a working class, South African art form with a universal appeal. The dancers expand upon traditional steps, with the addition of contemporary movement, music and song. Extremely physical, the dancing serves as a cathartic release, celebrating the body as an instrument, and the richness and complexities of South African culture."
*As indicated in Excerpt #2 above, gumboot dancing were performed before that dance form was used by workers as a method of communication in the mines.

Here's supplemental information about South Africa's apartheid system:
"After the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, its all-white government immediately began enforcing existing policies of racial segregation under a system of legislation that it called apartheid. Under apartheid, nonwhite South Africans (a majority of the population) would be forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities, and contact between the two groups would be limited. Despite strong and consistent opposition to apartheid within and outside of South Africa, its laws remained in effect for the better part of 50 years. In 1991, the government of President F.W. de Klerk began to repeal most of the legislation that provided the basis for apartheid."...

Example #1: Gumboot Dancers in South Africa

mycompasstv, Uploaded on Oct 28, 2009

Gumboot dancing is a century old tradition which originated during the mining era of Johannesburg, South Africa. Dancers wearing gumboots, create rhythms by slapping boots and bodies, using voices and stamping their feet.
In the phrase "a century old tradition", the 20th century is the century that is being referred to.

Example #2: South Africa 32: Gold Mine Dance

Yaiyasmin, Uploaded on Dec 26, 2009

In Gold Reef City the zulu dancers showed us a mine dance with helmets, boots and kaching kaching!


Notice that both men and women are part of this gumboot dance group.

Example #4: The Black Umfolosi 5 - Gumboot Dance

BlackUmfolosiMusic Uploaded on Nov 15, 2011

Example #5: Gumboot Dance

Waterford Kamhlaba, Published on Apr 16, 2013

On the 8th of March, His Majesty, King Mswati III of Swaziland visited Waterford Kamhlaba in celebration of the 50th Anniversary. Some Waterford students performed a gumboot dance for His Majesty.

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