Sunday, January 31, 2021

Lets Dance: From South Africa’s Toyi-Toyi to New Zealand’s Haka for Impacful Protest

Traditional Maori's performing the Haka 

Following in the footsteps of a previous blog post, this blog article will continue to examine and explore traditional modes of activism and resistance in this instance expressed through dance. Dance has served as a mode of popular resistance, protest and activism in various contexts. In this post the toyi-toyi dance well known in the South African context and the Haka dance, a traditional dance used by the Maori of New Zealand will be discussed highlighting this powerful form of protest and activism. Both forms of dance once served and continues to serve as effective conduits of protest and political resistance in South Africa and also New Zealand. This blog article will examine the cultural relevance and effectiveness of this mode of resistance in both highlighted contexts and will demonstrate the impactfulness of powerful forms of art such as dance in these specific two instances.

Description of the Toyi-Toyi and Haka

First it is important to visualize or depict how both dances are performed. Toyi-toyi is a rhythmic dance that can be best characterized by stomping and by jumping up and down in shifts of one leg at a time. It closely resembles a type of slow jogging on the spot with high-kneed foot stomping. The dance is usually accompanied with chants and confrontational songs. The Haka similarly is dance where a dancers pound their chests in unison with one another, while stomping their feet and jumping up high. It features a number of gestures that include threatening eyes and the poking out of tongues by the dancers performing the dance. 

Historical and Cultural Value of Both Dances

The historical value of the toyi-toyi to South African society find its roots ironically enough in Northern Africa with Algerian roots. Toyi-toyi is thought to be an Arabic phrase and has been associated with a military drill and training during the liberation of Algeria. The dance moved down to Tanzania and Zambia and then to Zimbabwe all the while changing its character and taking on a more nationalist and loyalist character. It eventually made its way to South Africa through South Africa’s main liberation army Umkhonto weSizwe  (Spear of the Nation), whose soldiers shared military camps with Zimbabweans and Zambians and where it was eventually adopted and learned. Its final destination led to its spread in the townships of South Africa when the soldiers of MK returned to their homes in South Africa. Its popularity was found mostly with young marginalized South Africans who could link their struggles and protests against apartheid to the liberation struggles of others. 

Toyi-Toyi being performed during anti-apartheid protests

The Toyi-toyi brought with it a new type of militarization as protests in South Africa became more hostile and confrontational. Its intimidating character resembled a war dance and it was used as an effective weapon against the then South African racist regime. Its aim was to instill fear in the heart of the enemy and even though most protesters were often unarmed. Much of the time protesters performing the dance succeeded in creating an intimidating environment as evidenced by the apartheid government escalating the use of violence based on the growing unrest in the country that the dance facilitated. The toyi toyi must therefore be seen as playing a pivotal part through protest in the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa.  In current day South Africa the toyi toyi continues to be used in protests and is still used to indicate discontent but it is also seen as a celebratory ritual and joyous dance. 

If the toyi-toyi is synonymous with South Africa, then the Haka is synonymous with New Zealand. Its roots stem from the Maori an indigenous people of New Zealand. The Haka was performed by different Maori tribes as a war dance and was used to intimidate and scare opponents. It was a cry to the Gods to gain victory over the enemy and to receive courage and strength during battle. The dance while often viewed as intimidating must also be seen as preparation for battle and the challenges ahead. Over time the Haka has also taken on a celebratory nature and it has been used to celebrate weddings, births and other important occasions.  Most recently the Haka made news during the protests following George Floyd’s death where a New Zealanders performed the dance in solidarity and in unity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The strong linkages with Maori spirituality faciliatates a call to the ancestors to endow strength to the dancer in order to intimidate his enemies and stand in protest and solidarity with those most aggrieved. 

Commonalities for Impactful Protest

The commonalities between the ToyiToyi and the Haka are striking. Both dances pay homage to the history and importance of dance in protest and both are drivers of meaningful change. Both dances exude the pride and fearlessness of people confronting inequalities and pursuing their human rights and freedoms in the face of authoritarian governments and unjust laws. Through dance, society’s most marginalized can demand justice and equality in a manner that is bold and confronting yet fundamentally non-violent.  Nothing is more universal, visceral and primal and which can emphasize human emotions so eloquently than dance. What other art form can use the human body in a way that provokes and confronts social injustice so compellingly?

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg-Morgan

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