Thursday, August 23, 2018

Similarities & Differences Between South African Gumboot Dance Performances & Performances Of Black [African American] Fraternity & Sorority Step Teams

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision- August 31, 2018

This is Part II of a two part pancocojams series about South African gumboot dancing and historically Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority steppin(g).

Part II presents my comments about some similarities and differences between historically Black Greek letter organizations (BGLO) stepping and South African gumboot dancing.

Five videos of South African gumboot dancing and five ideos of historically Black Greek letter organizations step show performances are also showcased in this post.

Click for Part I of this series. Part I quotes four passages that I've found about the early influence of South African gumboot dancing isicathulo and historically Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority steppin(g) or the early influence of African American movement arts such as pattin Juba and tap dancing on South African gumboot dancing.

This post also includes my correction of a misinterpretation of a comment that I wrote about step shows and pattin Juba which is cited on the Wikipedia page for "Pattin Juba".

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to all those who are featured in the videos that are embedded in this post, and thanks to all the publishers of these YouTube videos.

*These comments can also be applied to performances that are done by non-African American step teams

Pancocojams Editor's Disclaimer: I'm a (long inactive) member of a historically] Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO) - Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc (Gamma Zeta chapter, 1967). However, the only sorority related performances that I participated in were two shows when I was pledging in late 1960s. Those performances were more like a dance routine* than what step shows were like in the 1990s when I began to attend those performances as an observer. And based on my direct observations, as well as descriptions in various books but particular Elizabeth C. Fine's book SoulStepping, and based on watching numerous YouTube videos, it's apparent that BGLO step shows have changed considerably since the 1990s.

I know nothing about South African gumboot dancing beyond what I've read and beyond a number of YouTube videos that I've watched of those performances.

I'm not a dancer, a choreographer, or a dance historian. Consequently, I'm asking for help in describing both of these dance forms and I need help in documenting their similarities and differences. Additions and corrections are very welcome. Please add your thoughts about this subject in the comment section below. Thanks!
*Read my description of those dance performances in the comment section below.

Both South African Gumboot dancing (isicathulo) and historically Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority steppin[g] [henceforth referred to as "stepping"] are percussive, syncopated, choreographed group dances that involve foot stomping.

Quoted in]
..."gumboot dance, ... is characterised by loud.. stepping in gumboots, the clapping of hands and slapping of the boots (Muller 1999:93)
"Gumboots" is a term for Wellington (rubber boots). In the United States, South African"gumboot dancing" is almost always referred to as "boot dancing".

Here's my general comments/observations about stepping:
[These comments are given in no particular order and aren't meant to be a comprehensive description of stepping then and now.]

Like gumboot dancing, stepping" is also percussive, syncopated, choreographed group performance art characterized by loud foot stomps alternating with individual hand claps which sometimes are done under a leg that is lifted up. Stepping originated among historically Black (African American) university based Greek lettered fraternities & sororities and usually occurs at competitive "step shows", fraternities against fraternities and sororities against sororities. Each fraternity & sorority has its own distinctive way of stepping. Some organizations usually step with props such as canes which are twirled, thrown between team members, and rhythmically hit on the ground. However, other fraternities or sororities never use canes. One of those organizations which never uses canes, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., has distinctive hopping movements, and actually prefers the reference "hops" rather than "steps" to describe their routines.

After at least 1990, an increasing number of step teams utilize props, other than canes or staffs ("props" meaning movable or carried objects used on stage), Also, after at least 1990, it has become standard for step teams to perform their step routines as part of skits which often have comedic elements. Often step team members wear costumes that reflect those themes, although after the beginning of the step routine, the costume may be discarded to reveal other clothing, often in the group's signature colors. It also has become common for some step teams to use a self-made video as a way of introducing their teams' theme for that particular show.

A stepping routine may be performed by the entire group at the same time, by one member of the step team followed by the rest of the team, or by a portion of the step team. In stepping, the performers rarely if ever touch another member of their step team- except in the performance of gymnastic/acrobat routines such as lifts.

Steppers almost always have an erect posture, except when they bend down to rhythmically tap canes or staffs. Their routines are usually done in horizontal or vertical lines and these performers utilize much of the stage in performing their routines. Prior to the 1990s, I recall seeing a step master standing to the side of vertical lines of steppers, like a military drill sergeant. I rarely see that nowadays. Instead, sometimes during portions of a step routine, a lead stepper stands in front of the step team or portions of the team.

Body patting (one's own chests and thighs) is an integral part of many step routines. However, body patting doesn't have to be included in a step routine. Traditionally, group [not call and respond] chants (and also singing for certain fraternity or sorority step teams) are still an integral part of step routines. However, it appears to me that there's much less chanting since the 1990s than their previously was (in the 1970ss and 1980s).

BGLO fraternities and sororities have certain distinctive routines. BGLO fraternities and sororities have distinct moves (such as the Kappa shimmy, the Q hop, and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., holding their hand up in imitation of a mirror, and flicking their hair back, in homage to their image as "pretty girls"). Members of step routines routinely include their hand gestures and signature calls in their routines. Members of most fraternities often include "hard" facial expressions such as "mean muggin'" while they perform their step routines. Step teams and their audiences also incorporate BGLO calls and organizational hand gestures [signs] in step performances.

Traditionally, stepping is a performed without any live musical instruments or any recorded music. That is still the case, but it has become standard to include brief clips of recorded music (usually from R&B/Hip Hop genres) and R&B/Hip Hop dancing during portions of a group's step show. Acrobatic/gymnastic movements have also become a standard part of BGLO step routines.

Fraternity step team embers may wear hard soled shoes or construction boots, sometimes spray painted in one of the fraternity's signature colors (such as Omega Psi Phi, Inc. members wearing gold sprayed boots. Sorority step teams often perform in high heels. The term "Wellingtons" or "wellies" is unknown in the United States, and rubber boots are never worn during performances. Furthermore, slapping the top of one's shoe or [construction] boots isn't done in stepping.

Audiences during step shows are very loud, and boisterous, shouting approval or criticism, and making hand gestures and signature calls for the organization that is performing or for their competitive organizations.

Here are some general comments/observations about gumboot dancing:
Traditionally gumboot routines were performed by males only. However, there are a number of YouTube South African videos of combined male and female gumboot groups.

From the videos that I've watched, it appears that gumboot performers traditionally perform their routines standing in one place in a horizontal line. However, some videos of gumboot dancing such as those cited earlier show dancers utilizing more of the "dance stage". Some videos show a lead dancer or alternating dancers standing in front of the rest of the group.

It appears to me that traditionally, gumboot dancers have a bent at the waist posture while performing their routines. That said, I've noticed some gumboot dancers who have a much more erect posture than most gumboot dancers whose videos I've seen (as in video #3). I don't know if this indicates a change in the traditional posture or not.

Apart from staged productions like the show Gumboots, gumboot dancing also appears to be performed without any live musical instruments or recorded music. I don't know if gumboot dance performances are competitive. I also don't know whether gumboot dance troupes have distinctive, signature moves, colors, gestures, songs, and calls that are incorporated into their gumboot routines like step teams do. From watching YouTube gumboot videos, it doesn't appear that gumboot dance groups utilize any props, including canes.

Based on the videos that I've watched of gumboot dancing and in the articles that I've read about that performance art, body patting doesn't appear to be as integral a part of gumboot dancing as it is in many BGLO stepping routines. Instead of doing any chest patting, gumboot dancers rhythmically slap the top or sides of their Wellington boots.

Bells may be added to the gumboots to enhance the rhythmic sound of the boot stomping and the boot slapping.

Video #1 and Video #3 given below shows the gumboot dance groups singing traditional [?] African songs prior to or while they do their gumboot routines. Many of the gumboot videos I've watched include some occasional vocalizations, but that the vocalization is usually done by one performer. It appears to me that that performer who may be giving directions to the rest of group. And what appears to me to be more traditional performances, that "lead dancer" is usually standing in the same line as the other dancers, and not standing in front of the other dancers.

For male performers only pants but no tops appears to be the most traditional attire. Based on the videos that I've seen, most male and female gumboot dancers now (2018) wear pants and tee shirt, or overalls (work uniforms). Miners hard hats appear to be worn by gumboot dancers, although some gumboot dance groups wear bandanas instead of hard hats.

Gumboot dance performances don't appear to be centered around any skits, but there may be some comedic elements incorporated into that routine to appeal to audiences.

Unlike stepping, facial expressions-hard (tough) or otherwise-don't appear to be an element of gumboot performances.

I've seen some videos of gumboot dancers incorporating popular dance moves into their performances and even including some brief snippets of American R&B/Hip Hop songs (video #5 below). However, I don't know how common this is.

I'm not sure if the performances are competitive or not.

It appears that audiences for gumboot dance performances are also loud and boisterous.

Example #1: Alpha Phi Alpha Steps

Willy R·Uploaded on Nov 2, 2006

DI Step Show

Example #2: Kappa Alpha Psi, Xi Chapter - Howard Homecoming Step Show 2012

Hu Reaction, Published on Oct 23, 2012

Kappa Alpha Psi Xi Chapter performing at the Howard University Homecoming Step Show 2012

Example #3: DST WINS 2013 Atlanta Greek Picnic $10,000 step show @Atlgreekpicnic [Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.)

Atlanta Greek Picnic, Published on Jun 10, 2013

Example #4: Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Chapter - Howard 2016 Step Show

Kaelan Laurence, Published on Oct 25, 2016

Example #5: Sigma Gamma Rho WINS 2017 Atlanta Greek Picnic $10,000 Step show (Official Video) #AGP2017 #DewXAGP

Atlanta Greek Picnic, Published on Jun 29, 2017

The Ladies of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc WIN the 2017 Atlanta Greek Picnic $10,000 Step show Friday June 23rd, Morehouse College. Sponsored by Mountain Dew.

Example #1: South Africa 32: Gold Mine Dance

Yaiyasmin, Published on Dec 26, 2009

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

Example #2: Gumboot Dancers in South Africa

Mycompasstv, Published 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.

Example #3: Hilton College Gumboot Dance troupe

paphiwe, Published on Apr 29, 2011

2008 Hilton College gumboot troupe in action

Example #4: 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.

A video by
Iwani Zoe Mawocha

Example #5: Togetherness Gumboots Dancers

simon moabi, Published on Nov 30, 2013

Togetherness was established in 2006 with the primary aim of organizing young people from different backgrounds in and around Ratanda Area. Currently has a membership of 15, and specialise mainly in Gumboots Dancing.

The group has won many hearts in the communities of Gauteng and its surroundings. We have performed for dignitaries and in many other special occasions and were happy with feedbacks

The group has won several awards in Gumboots Dancing, e.g. Gauteng Dance Showcases, TAXIDO's Mazibuye Emasisweni Festival, Masakhane Arts Festival and few others.

The Groups Mission is to expose young people's talents, and the Vision is to be well recognized around Southern Africa and abroad.

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1 comment:

  1. When I was pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in 1967, I recall that my line sisters and I had to learn a dance routine and perform it two times-one time in Newark, New Jersey (if I recall correctly for our graduate chapter) and one time for a larger audience in nearby New York City. I believe that this was at an AKA gathering, perhaps a convention, but I recall that there were other "dance groups" who also performed. I don't know if the other performers were pledgees (ivies) like we were, or official members of that sorority.

    I recall that we wore dresses slightly above the knee in a style that was standard for that time. Someone had sown the dresses for us and of course they were pink and green colors of that sorority.

    I vaguely recall my line sisters and I singing at least two songs that were re-makes of current R&B songs but with words that praised our sorority. I remember having to learn the routines, and strutting in a vertical line.

    Here's one of the songs/chants that I learned when I was pledging:

    AKA what ya do to me
    You make me feel so good
    AKA what you do to me
    Just like I knew you would.

    We cross the burning sands
    To find something new
    We cross the burning sands
    To find real womanhood.
    The only other pledge songs I remember are entitled "Hiro Hiro" and "Jem Boobs".

    These may have been the songs that we sang as we danced in those programs. Note that I said "dance" instead of "step". I don't recall anyone using the term "step" when I was pledging.

    That term may have been used in the late 1960s, and 1970s etc, but I went inactive shortly after I pledged, since I decided to devote my time to the Black power movement and college.

    Click for six more pages of lyrics for examples of historically Black Greek letter chants and songs.