Celebrating African-inspired dance does not come around often enough in Omaha. Within the past decade, most events happen through the African Culture Connection or a few festival-style events hosted by local non-profits Omaha Diversity Experience and the New American Arts Festival. So it’s nice to witness such a production available to a larger audience when the Omaha Performing Arts brought in the South African Dance tour this fall.
About 20 dancers took flight on stage to a full house at the Holland Performing Arts center last Sunday featuring two dance ensembles. The Real Actions Pantsula and “The Gumboot” Musical both performed extensive routines with the means to educate while they showcased the varying styles of footwork.
The first set by “The Gumboot” dancers introduced the audience to the socio-economic impact of men working in the mines in Johannesburg. A chilling portrayal of the hardships associated with the need to provide for their families and working in life-threatening conditions, the men display a sense of fortitude despite the long working season. Lyrics were sung in part English, part Zulu by the lead vocalist and Djembe player Siyabonga Hlatswayo. It became an audibly engaging experience with the added pounding of the dancers feet over the live band and DJ playing in the background. (A short video of the Gumboot Style) If the drumming or humming didn’t catch your attention, there was no way to ignore the pulse within your own body during the scenes of this set. Besides, even if you tried to take your eyes off of the stage for only a moment, you might look up and be greeted with a Gumboot dancer at your feet charging you to clap with the others. Crowd participation was a given during this performance along with the traditional call-and-response that is expected during most dance ceremonies and celebrations.
What followed after intermission was a surprising interlacing of both traditional and modern South African dance by the Pantsula Company. The dancers thoroughly portrayed their footworking skills accompanied this time only with Afrobeat tunes by DJ Sello Rueben Modiga. The music was faster and the 808 beat deeper forcing anybody without rhythm to find one. This time, scenes displayed a new kind of hustle with men washing cars or construction with an added sense of humor about a day’s work.
The finale was worth the wait bringing back the musical storytelling and added props, plus a special showcase by the DJ doing hip hop inspired break dance. A standing ovation followed accordingly. You had to be there to witness the Joy expressed on these dancers faces throughout the night. Once the last note was sung, the dancers asked the audience to rise and follow them into the hallway entrance where they pulled out a woman from the crowd dressed in African-garments and danced around her. It was a chance to see the dancers up close for people sitting in the back and a thoughtful send off honoring the women who waited for the men during such tumultuous working days in the City of Gold, Johannesburg.