The gumboot dance was historically invented in the goldmines of South Africa during the era of the apartheid laws and at a point when the migrant labor system was at its highest point of development. As time passed by, the dance spread to other South Africans and today it has become inalienable element of their heritage. During that time, mineworkers faced very harsh working conditions and could not meet their families for a very long period. The mine owners used to chain all workers, and they were not allowed to speak to each other while working, which lasted for several months. Many workers died in accidents while others endured harsh beatings and abuse. The mines, where the workers worked, had poor working conditions due to the poor drainage and sometimes total darkness. Consequently, miners spent many hours standing in water up to the knee level, which could cause problems with feet, skin ulcers and consequent loss of working time.
The majority of the workers fell ill due to serious flooding and drainage problems. The miners’ management decided to take a shorter and cheaper way to deal with the problem. They opted to provide rubber gumboots to the workers to prevent health problems rather than drain the flooded mines. In addition, the bosses provided hard hats, bandannas and overalls as parts of the uniforms for the workers. With this type of uniform, the workers were not able to display their traditions through their dressing or show their ethnic identity; therefore, they turned to another form of expression.
The workers began expressing themselves through making beats and rhythms with their chains, bodies and gumboots. They made the rhythms and beats through stomping their feet, hitting their boots and shackles. It was not only perceived as a way of expressing their identity through traditional music, but also assisted them in communication at the workplace. The mines were usually very dark and it was forbidden for them to speak to each other. This was, therefore, the only way of communicating with each other. The workers had special system of sending messages while rattling the chains and slapping the gumboots. Moreover, it was a sort of entertainment as the workers made specific movements to produce sounds, which transformed into a dance. Workers used to do it to entertain each other even during their free time.
As the dance became more and more popular, the employers became aware of it and even took the best dancers to form troupes to represent their companies. The employers also had the troupes to entertain visitors and assist in making rousing speeches about their companies. Most of these dances and songs were in workers’ native languages, which enabled them to express their feelings by mocking their employers when they did not even know about it. These performances led to the popularization of the dance and it is performed worldwide today. This dance is crucial while showing the history of South Africa and like many other forms of dance, this one is incorporated in dancing styles.
With time, the gumboot dance started spreading outside the mines over the surrounding communities as a means of entertainment. Slowly, the dance transformed into a South African art form and is famous for its appeal to the whole world. The dancers even add contemporary music and various songs to traditional steps. Exceedingly physical, the gumboot dance is perceived even as a cathartic release, which praises the body, complexities and richness of the South African culture.
The popularity of this dance spread through the modern South Africa with local musicians and dance troupes utilizing them in their shows. Gumboots dancers are now very common at tourist hotspots and used by some people as a source of their livelihood. The end of apartheid also enabled the dance to flourish even more than during any other time in its history. Moreover, other countries have started adopting the dance and improving it by incorporating contemporary dance styles like the stepping in America.
The South Africans have a very rich culture, usually expressed through their attires, traditional events and even dances. The gumboot dance arose from the need of miners to express their cultural identities because they were not able to do it in the uniforms given by their employers. The miners used the dance to express their feelings towards their employers and to communicate with each other, which clearly demonstrated their creativity. They expressed the pain and anger they felt because of the torture their employers subjected them to. The invention of the dance as a form of communication was a very brave act. The stomping of the feet and slapping of the boots was also a form of releasing the steam and anger initially suppressed in their bodies. These were the signs of uniqueness and bravery, and the dance, therefore, is regarded as a cultural course as it is a reminder of the suffering and pain the South Africans went through during the apartheid era. In general, the gumboot dance originated from a very difficult time in the history of South Africa. However, it has grown to the position where it is considered as an entertaining dance, which brings together communities from all across the world. It has also laid a foundation for other dances like stepping to develop.
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