The origins of the dance

Posted on Monday, April 18, 2011

The inspiration behind my clarinet quintet Gumboots was the story of the South African miners whose ebullient gumboot dancing emerged from the bleak conditions of mining under apartheid. I suspect there may be many other similar stories of something good and life-affirming emerging out of something much darker.

At a recent performance of Gumboots by the great musical asset of the North East of England, Ensemble 360 I got talking to a lady who had come specially to hear the piece, (having youtube'd it beforehand!) and she told me that the story of gumboot dancing sounded similar to one she had been told about in her salsa classes. From what I can see online, she may have been talking about the Merengue, whose shuffling steps are not hard to imagine originating in chained feet.

It is hard to be sure though, perhaps in this case it's just a modern myth - another popular story of the origin of the dance claims that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot.

Either way, it's nice to sense these dances stretching back over the decades and centuries, to feel the continuity, and to sense the passion, resilience and spirit of people who dance away their troubles.



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