circa 1981

By Ian Enriquez

The struggle over the role of gender in dance can be tied to two key concepts: spectacle and sport. For as long as dance retains some level of athleticism, it is acceptable for men to engage in the activity. However, when dance enters the realm of artisitic display, the place of men in dance is called into question. Ritual dances are performed for a higher being with the hopes of success in community endeavors such as harvest and war. So it should come as no surprise that one area of dance where men are not questioned is the war dance. Such rituals have been performed to energize troops as well as diffuse aggression.

Originally, ritual war dances were performed by tribes preparing to go into battle. The dances energized the actual combatants for their task ahead and rallied support from the onlookers by generating or strengthening the belief that the enemy was an evil that needed to be defeated. Although the notion may seem archaic, the war dance is still extremely popular today in the United States. It is called professional wrestling. In a carefully choreographed performance, the wrestlers adopt images of the national hero and the social evil du jour, whether it be Russian communists or corporate America. Seeing these conflicts enacted in the ring reinforces the social values of the audience, a function that war dances have served throughout history.

An interesting place to examine the evolution of war dances are the islands of the Philippines. Prior to Muslim and Christian occupation the dances of the Philippines emulated the movements of animals and the rituals of war were aggressive. Men danced with weapons clashing against one another before heading out to battle. However, this all changed when the natives were tamed by their colonizers to avoid an overthrow of power. The Muslim dances still allowed for weaponry, but the dances were calm and elegant displays of controlled movement and majesty. The Christians disarmed their dancers as exemplified by a dance know as the maglalatik.

The maglalatik is a four part war dance telling a story between a battle between the Muslims and the Christians (completely removing the native people from their own story). Instead of being armed with sticks, the dancers wear a harness of coconut shells on their hands, chest, back, hips, and thighs. The dancers are split into opposing tribes that battle each other by slapping the coconuts on themselves and other dancers. The first half of the dance depicts the preparation and the battle itself. The second half depicts the reconciliation and baptism of the Muslims who technically won the battle.


Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1835

Capoeira is a martial art that allegedly originated in Angola, but gained notoriety in Brazil. This combat style is said to have become a ritual dance when the enslaved people practiced it with musical accompaniment to disguise its true purpose. A swing step (ginga) was added to make it look more like a dance than fight training. As a very unpredictable combat style, this became the weapon of liberation and a symbol of freedom to the enslaved people of Brazil.

Despite the abolition of slavery in 1888, the use of capoeira as combat continued. Persecution and rage does not disappear over night. A criminal element was born out of the revolution and capoeiristas armed themselves with blades and terrorized the population. Civil unrest persisted and capoeira was against the law until it was decriminalized in 1920. The first academy was formed in 1932 to promote capoeira as a sport and it achieved official recognition 5 years later. Today the art/sport continues on as a dance/game and remains predominantly male. Despite its grace, the dance is a symbol of strength and power.

In the late-1960s, a Latin street gang known as the "Devil's Rebels" developed a style of battle dance called "uprocking" (based mostly on salsa). As capoeira gained popularity in New York City in the 70's, these street dancers incorporated impressive floor moves during breaks in the music, which has come to be known as breaking. This coincided with the birth of the hip hop movement which was founded by former gang member Afrika Bambaataa as a way to redirect youth street life away from destruction and into creation. The movement was founded on four elements, one of which was dance. Breaking was the first dance form incorporated into the hip hop movement. However, these competitive social dances were nothing new to the Atlantic Coast.

The step dances of Ireland and England were born as social competition as dancers tried to outperform each other with fast footwork. This did not change as these dances crossed the Atlantic and set foot on American soil. What changed in America was that dancers from other cultures were exposed to this style and began to emulate the dance while contributing some new steps from their own cultures. The mixing of various step dances from around the world became what we now know as clogging.

In the 1840s, African dancer Master Juba often competed against Jack Diamond (known as the best jig dancer of all time). After defeating him continuously for a year, Master Juba found himself with top billing in a previously all-white minstrel company called the Ethiopian Minstrels. They referred to him as the "Greatest Dancer in the World"! In a little under a century, these minstrel cloggers came to be known as tap dancers.

Man has been defined in ritual dances as having an adversarial role to the world around him. Many of these dances depict war against one another, animals in the hunt, or even nature. Man must face and overcome challenges. On the other hand, social dances are about celebration, community, and even love. The next question is where will man fit in dance when the themes move away from the athletic and adversarial towards that of unity, joy, and tenderness.

Chapter 2: Social Dance


Last Updated: March 25, 2007