Saturday, September 13, 2014

South African Gumboot Dancing & The "Gumboots" Stage Show

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents general informaton about South African gumboot dancing (Isicathulo) and a 2001 review of a stage show entitled Gumboots. The international tour of that show debuted in in 1999 and was directed by Zenzi Mbuli and starred the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto. Two videos of Gumboots are also included in this post.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all of the early gumboot dancers. Thanks to all those associated with the Gumboot show that is showcased in this post. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

"The gumboot dance (or Isicathulo[1]) is an African dance that is performed by dancers wearing wellington boots. In South Africa these are more commonly called gumboots....

Gumboot dancers are commonly sighted on the streets and plazas of tourist areas in South Africa, such as the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town... The dance likely originated among South African gold miners,[4] and especially in their tough working conditions—including poor lighting and dampness. Many of the steps and routines are parodies of the officers and guards who controlled the mines and workers' barracks. Like other forms of African dance, Gumboot utilizes the concepts of polyrhythm and total body articulation, drawing from the cultural dances of the African workers that manned the mines.[5] It is a percussive dance made by idiophones or autophones (objects of the everyday life vibrating by themselves), and is similar in execution and style to forms of "Stepping" done by African-American fraternities and sororities"...

From "...Gumboot Dancing?..." By John Scharges
"A Humble beginning
Gumboot (also known as Wellington boot) dancing originates in the gold mines of South Africa, at the height of the oppressive apartheid pass laws. Due to the extremely poor conditions, mine managers saw the easiest solution to be the outfitting of workers with a uniform consisting of no shirt; a bandana to keep the sweat off the brow, and in order to combat the damp – Gumboots.

Workers were often not allowed to communicate with one another, which led to them developing their own sort of Morse code through slapping their gumboot covered feet with their hands. With little or no other freedoms allowed to them, it was not long before the workers developed this into the full fledged expressive art of Gumboot Dancing.

The Humble Dance
Like many African dances, the Gumboot dancer articulates his whole body in performing the moves, often in syncopation with the other members of one’s group. A rhythmical, percussive, almost... ‘stomp’ is the end result – nowadays bells are often attached to the boots for added impact. ..

The songs that accompanied the flurried frenetic adaption’s of traditional dances (traditional dances, as with traditional dress, were outlawed) were sung in the workers’ native languages and spoke of the trials present in their work life. Some of the moves were even developed in mock imitation of the way the mine operators themselves moved. Contemporary gumboot dancing has more varied themes, but follow similar paths, if only due to origin."...

an SFX Back Row Presentation, Pantages Theatre, Toronto, March 6-18, 2001.
A Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

...The show, created by director Zenzi Mbuli and the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto, highlights South African songs and the unusual dance form that developed among black miners in that country. Rather than pumping out the standing water in the gold mines miles below the surface, the mine owners found it cheaper simply to issue the miners with gumboots. Working in the darkness, the miners, sent to the Johannesburg area from their native villages, developed a way of communicating with each other by a system of slaps on their boots. In their "free" time, they entertained each other with dances in these boots where this slapping and the jingling of the chain rings added to the rhythm. To these rhythms are added the beautiful harmonies of South African song.

The general structure Mbuli has given the show is a progress from the simple to the complex. It starts with nothing visible on stage but two Wellies in a pool of light. Then six men enter in the back of the auditorium and begin an a capella song. By the end of the show the rhythm of gumboot stomping and slapping is augmented by two drummers and a keyboardist--first unseen, then visible--and by four more singer/dancers. The music is organized so as to show a typical day in the lives of mine workers in Johannesburg. It begins with a comic scene of the principal performer, Vincent Ncabashe, teaching the other miners to sing. They then move into songs about work and the "City of Gold" they are slaving for to a long central section about life after a day's work--thoughts of the women left behind, love songs, an hilarious courting song "I'm Too Sexy," party songs and drinking songs. Just when the tone seems to have lightened perhaps too much, there's a brilliantly evocative onomatopoetic song about the trains that bring the miners to Johannesburg, which in many ways encapsulates the whole show, moving, as it does, from a series of isolated rhythmic sounds to the integration of song and dance in the physical imitation of a train. This is succeeded by the most moving and equivocal scene of the show. Ncabashe tells us that "for every drop of water a man has lived and died in the mines." A water-filled square is opened in the floor and Ncabashe sings while dancing in it as water splashes with every step high in the air all over the stage. It amazingly transforms the joyful image from "Singin' in the Rain" into one of pain and tragedy.

The 90-minute show covers not just a typical day, but also the history of the mines themselves. The show includes the irony of a song lamenting the closing of the deadly mines because they have now become the displaced miners only source of income for their families. The conclusion is a prayer: "Keep me strong, give me long life, let me see the sunshine." We finally come to realize the truth of what Ncabashe had said near the beginning of the show, "The man who takes the gold took away the sun." The miners have been exiled not just from their villages but, in working two to three miles underground, also from the light. "Rishile" in the group's name means "sunrise."...

©2001 Christopher Hoile

Video #1: gumboots dance story

Crepusculeindien, Uploaded on Jul 11, 2007

artist : gumboots dancers, south africa

place : the playhouse theatre, london, uk

Video #2: GUM BOOTS - Northampton -South African - Dance-Singers

Gary Mabee Uploaded on Dec 3, 2009

Gum Boots South African - Dance - Singers 15-11-99 Filmed at The Derngate Northampton.This dance group were on tour from South Africa for the first time. Camera Gary Mabee

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