Teacher’s Resource: African Music & Dance

The information on this page should help you guide your pupils through their tasks, but feel free to do some further research of your own. You may want to use Wikipedia or just a straightforward Google search, or perhaps a visit to your local library would be more informative.

The tasks in this section should allow for a lot of creativity in your research. If possible find a local dance group, particularly an African Dance group, and see how they approach the subject. If they present any performances, see if your research group can attend. You can also investigate whether there are any dance teachers available for school workshops in your area.

Your school may have some African instruments, or your local music service may be able to guide you to musicians who could demonstrate African instruments, sounds and rhythms. You will undoubtedly be able to find some African music online but try and find out where it’s from and how old it is.

You may like to source some materials for your pupils to build their own instruments. Its amazing what can be built using scrap materials, rubber bands, pipes, etc. You may find some guidance online.

Pupils could work together in groups or on their own projects. Again, you should be the judge of this, based on how much time you have for the subject.

Skip to: African Dance | Moorish Instruments | African Drumming

African Dance

Themes of African Dance:

Religious Rituals:

Rituals designed to honour and praise the highest creator in which deities are usually related to nature. The African continent is massive and to this day you will find people living in totally different environments, some places richer in plants, trees and animals. This affects the way in which a community or village give praises to deities or ancestors.

However diverse this may seem, when you look closer, they have the same system of praise and worship with many different names. For example, the god of thunder, Thor, in Viking myth can be traced back to Africa where he can be called Sohu in one region and Shango in another.

It is basically the same with other elements of our Earth’s nature. Water, Fire, Trees, etc all having different names throughout the continent. The name for the highest creator also has different names, just as we call him God or Allah depending on our background.

Social Dances:

Africans create musical vibrations to enhance happiness in the being. Most social dances are played on a 4 bar beat which can make us feel happy. These are the types of sounds that influence popular dance and music around the globe such as Calypso, Samba, Zumba, Salsa, Zouk, Hi-Life and hip Hop. Jazz is an exception as it is influenced more by 6-8 rhythms with polyrhythms and cross beats, but it serves as a social dance as it about enjoying the music and feeling happy when hearing it.

Ceremonial Dances:

Yearly events are vital to communities, as it is the place where they the residents can listen to the drums and learn of things that have happened, currently or in the past. When you see people dancing or sitting down while the drums are being played, they are often being told in coded messages (drum language) information they need to hear before acting upon it. So, drums can be used to:

  • Keep alive the memory of important events that occurred in their histories
  • Celebrate life achievements, for example coming of age dances
  • Honouring nature and its gifts
  • Giving respect to animals, especially those that are important for the community’s wellbeing.

Religious rituals, Social and Ceremonial dances are interlinked and can merge depending on the type of event being celebrated our honoured.

Techniques for African Dances

  • The correct stance
  • Transitions from one move to the next
  • Response or reaction to the master drum language
  • Expressions in accordance with the mode of the dance.

The techniques you need to be aware of when learning, teaching or performing dances from Africa are:

Stance/Sitting/Squat with Bent Knees:

Students should be taught these stance and postures as it strengthens the lower part of the body, from hip downwards. It represents a seat of power, a solid foundation using the pulling power of gravity from which you can launch and have control over your movement whether soft or strong.

Use of the Ball and Flat foot

The use of sudden hops, along with the ball of the foot and a flat foot technique is found in most dances. When a dancer is travelling or spinning around, they do this on the ball or flat, rarely on the toes.

The flat feet represent a common belief amongst Africans is that the Earth is a deity, like Mother Earth, as it is responsible for feeding and nourishing us. This is main reason why dance is performed barefooted and you find more use of the flatfoot.

Use of the Pelvic Girdle:

From the squatting position the hips and pelvis can easily move in all directions whether static or fluid. The hips can move in a side-to-side action allowing the bottom to move in a swinging motion, or in a swivelling motion around the centre of the lower spinal bones. This can be done in an upright stance or a sitting stance.

In men this represents strength and prowess, as this is the area responsible for creating life. In women it represents strength for sustaining, nurturing and giving life to a new creation. In most dances a lot of attention is paid to this part of the body in terms of movement or decoration.

Lower Stomach Chest and shoulder Moves:

Thrusting the chest forward and back is very popular throughout the continent, especially for mimicking movements of animals, mainly birds.

For men this can represents a show of strength and stamina and both men and women use this to show off individual styles. For women it is also the area that contains the liquid of life, so this is honoured in various ways across the continent, once again either through movement or a withholding of it.

In Nigeria the Bata is a very popular dance as it uses each part of the body to interpret the languages being played, even the eyes and mouth. It can be seen almost as an ancient form of body-popping.

The Hands and Arms

These can be used to assist a move or as a sign language within the dance, communicating to those attending. When an Ashanti Chief is dancing, he is using a form of sign language to communicate with his people. In some of the dances an item of significance is held by the performer to assist the movements and bring the correct sense of the celebration.

Twirls and Spins

Twirls and spins are executed in the swat position with both feet on the ground, or in a standing position, leaning forward with one foot flat in front and the other behind on the toes.

Spinning is one movement used to influence transition. It can create a change in the dancer, creating a trance-like state, where they seem to reach a level of non-consciousness, even to the point of not feeling any pain. This can lead to a dancer or recipient displaying great feats of agility and mind over matter.  When dancers are in this state they are controlled and protected by the players of the rhythms.

Relationship between Music and Dancer

The beauty of African dance is that you can execute the movements using these techniques in a controlled but free space. The dancer is not restricted to set counts and the musicians are not following a musical score. The lead drummer is free to control both musicians and dancers and play a command whenever they feel, leaving the dancer on an exciting edge, for in some dances they have no warning of when the order from the drum is coming.

In classical music the musicians can learn to follow a metronome, while African musicians use a bell or something similar that serves the same purpose, usually playing a melodic metronome. They are able to play with every scale you can find of poly- and cross-rhythms. This in turn is transferred to the dancers who can perform complex poly- and cross-rhythmic movement with their bodies.


Musical Instruments of the Moors – Oriental Africa and Arabia

Some of the instruments used by the Moors. Do you think they have influenced any instruments that you know?

For more about the Moors see: Topic: The Moors


African Drumming is not bongos!

African Drumming is not bongos! Bongos are from Latin America!

Here are some African Drums:


See also:

Click for National Curriculum

National Curriculum