The gumboot dance developed from traditional African roots, to become a part of
urban South African working-class culture. The practice began with rural laborers
who came to work at the gold mines of Witwatersrand in South Africa. They
brought with them strong traditions of rhythm, song, and dance. Facing oppression
and hardship at the mines, including punishment if they talked to each other
while working, they were forced to adapt and create new forms of communication
and entertainment. The fact that many ethnic groups and languages existed
side by side also contributed to developing their associations through the
shared language of rhythm and music.
In the mines they worked for three months at a time, doing long, hard,
repetitive toil. In the total darkness of the mines, many workers were
chained to their workstations and forbidden to speak with one another.
Hundreds of workers were killed every year in accidents and many were
beaten and abused by the foremen. The conditions of the mines were
deplorable, where mine floors often flooded due to poor drainage,
causing skin problems and disease. Rather than spending money to
properly drain the shafts, the bosses issued rubber gumboots to the
workers. The miners' uniform thus consisted of jeans or overalls,
bandannas to absorb their sweat, hard hats, and gumboots.
The mine executives tried to divide workers from each other even when
they were not working, for fear of solidarity and uprising. Their
overcrowded living quarters were segregated along ethnic or tribal
lines. At the same time, they were forbidden to carry on their
traditions, or wear traditional dress, in an attempt to virtually erase
their ethnic identity. Faced with this repressive regime, workers
adapted traditional dances and rhythms to the only instruments
available - their boots and bodies.
Inside the mines, the
workers used the gumboots to communicate with each other, by slapping
their boots, stamping their feet, and rattling their ankle chains. As
the form also developed into a popular social activity, songs dealing
with working-class life, drinking, love, family, low wages and mean
bosses were sung to accompany the movements.
employers eventually became aware of this emerging dance form, and the
more tolerant ones allowed the best dancers to form troupes. These
troupes were used to entertain visitors and spread good PR by
representing their company. It was not unusual for these performers'
songs, sung in the workers' native languages, to openly mock their
bosses and criticize wages and conditions, while the bosses listened
on, blissfully ignorant of the content.
Gumboot dance is
now a popular art form performed worldwide to entertain and pass on
elements of South African history to new generations and other
cultures. Like many folkloric art forms, it is adapted to the modern
contexts in which it is performed.
Khumbula Dance Theater performed a boot dance in People Like Me 2004. The following is a translation of
a song that they sang. The rich harmonies are characteristic of much South
HAMBU' UYO SEBENZA
HAMBH' UYO SEBENZA
HAMBH' UYO SEBENZA
LOAFER GO AND WORK
MAHLALELA ... LOAFER
UYO ... YES