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Let Dance do the talking

Dance as Traditional Cultural Expression in the African Community

Dance has the ability to take people to a higher state, high above all the hustle and bustle of life, to a state where one loses all sense of time and place.

It is said that before writing was invented, Dance was used as a medium to pass down stories from generation to generation.

A historical background of any form of dance will show how dance was used as a tool to communicate and express the universal concepts of love, kinship, solidarity, friendship and so on. The uniqueness of every dance form in expressing these universal human emotions lay in its cultural rooting.

Culture, in its simplest sense, can be defined as ‘the way of life’ distinctively interpreted and practiced by different communities around the world. This inherent difference in the interpretation of a universal concept helps to create a unique identity for every culture and generates values that distinguishes each culture from the other.

While this diversity in cultures should be celebrated, it is observed that, they are being mindlessly appropriated by some politically and economically advantageous communities without the permission or without giving any kind of credit or compensation to the Indigenous communities whose culture is appropriated.

This article attempts to highlight the importance of dance, as a traditional cultural expression that strengthens bonds in a community and helps to define one’s cultural values and cultural identity. This examination is done by focusing on the cultural dances of the African community, given the variety of dance styles they have crafted and their popularity in the western world.

Further, this article will point out the events of cultural appropriation in relation to various African dance styles and a need for legal protection to preserve and promote different Traditional Cultural Expressions.

Socio-Cultural significance of dance for African communities:

Ubuntu’ is a term which explains, in the most concise form, Africa’s cultural ideology.

It means “I am, because you are” being part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” translating to: A person is a person through other people. This concept highlighs the importance of forming strong community bonds to celebrate and preserve cultural values.

African dance or Black Dance as it was termed, was historically developed by enslaved Africans in Europe and USA as a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh realities of colonisation and to revive cultural connection to home and strengthen relations with fellow enslaved Africans.


In African societies, dance forms an integral part for narrating everyday life experiences. Dances are crafted for celebrating birth, mourning death, emphasising the responsibilities of adulthood, significance of religious rituals, celebration of holy matrimony etc.

Dances are also carefully choreographed to prepare for war or any other traumatic situation, where, a traumatic situation is repeated through rapid and different dance moves with the purpose of not only overcoming the original fear but also achieving a kind of stoic attitude towards a threatening situation. Thus, an act of enjoyment (dance) is used to master one’s emotions to deal with adversity that the Africans were subjected to by their enslavers.

Dance, therefore, has a much deeper meaning for the African Culture than being a mere source of entertainment. Dance was the language in which the Africans felt proud of their culture, safe to communicate their emotions and free to express their thoughts. Take for example the Cakewalk Dance, which was developed as a mockery of the European culture. The floating ballet movements of the European dance style were considered as a representation of the arrogant aristocratic lifestyle and as a parody of their dance form, Cakewalk dance was designed to mimic and exaggerate the more poise and subtle dance style of the Europeans.

The progression of African dance styles from the colonial era to post civil war in the US still maintains the idea of using dance as a medium to feel free from the oppressive behaviors of the Whites. Jook Joints were set up, where the famous styles like lindy hop, the blues, the Jazz, Krumping, grinding and twerking were invented. Jook joints were the only place where the Africans could lose control, celebrate their culture while the Whites, who attended these pubs, observed them respectfully.

The wildly famous dance and music style- Hip-Hop, was in fact an underground movement started by African and Latino communities living in the Bronx, New York City as a powerful medium for protesting the ill-treatment of minorities by the legal institutions in the country, particularly by the police. Today, however, nobody seems to know or bother to know the history and cultural significance of these African dances, instead a superficial cherry picking is done by the dominant cultures to promote their own interests.

Therefore, Madonna's use of voguing in her famous "Vogue" video for mere aesthetic appeal, Miley Cyrus' adoption of twerking as a way to rebrand herself and Lil Pump’s use of some hip-hop beats without any personal creativity in the song, Gucci Gang, which helped him gain worldwide fame and enormous financial success; are perceived as acts which are

diluting the cultural identity and absolutely discarding the meaning behind the existence of these styles in the first place. Given the complex socio-political backdrop such appropriation raises serious concerns about the cultural rights of minority groups especially when culture is the only tool by means of which these oppressed communities express their identities and garner respect in the society.

The menace of cultural appropriation

The goal is not to create “gated cultures” and exclude anyone, who does not belong to that particular community, from engaging in these art forms, however, it is important to understand how different cultures are placed in the larger socio-economic and political setting.

For representatives of the African Culture, who have been historically discriminated against, ill-treated and generally considered as “nuisance” to the society, when their cultural property is used to gain financial and reputational advantage by the privileged race, it is only strengthening the hold and control that certain communities have over other communities.

Additionally, no attempt is being made to identify if a particular community’s dance ritual or any product of cultural heritage is sacred or not. The Stamping Ground dance developed from observing Aboriginal tribes of Australia was in fact a sacred religious ritualistic dance of the Aboriginal Tribes. Jiri Kylian who borrowed this dance style, while explaining the difference between imitation and inspiration, stated that, “imitation would be somewhat of a robbery because it is one of the few things the Aboriginal people wholly possess, and each dance is “owned” by those who execute it.” Therefore, it is important to dig deep and go that extra mile to know and understand the cultural significance before appropriating.

It is feared by the Indigenous people that such mindless appropriation and blatant ignorance of the cultural sentiments of these groups by dominant cultures may gradually lead to cultural homogenisation further creating patterns of disempowering the marginalised communities. Therefore, there is a need for some structured legal protection to ensure preservation of the distinct cultural identities of less privileged communities.

Legal protection at an international level

Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) are products exhibiting elements of one’s culture and tradition. TCEs may be tangible products like artefacts, textiles, ornaments, or intangible products like music, dance, and stories.

Since the variety of dances practiced in the African society and as mentioned above are a part of a “creative communal process” which echo a community’s history, identity and values, these dances are Traditional Cultural Expressions.

As TCEs contribute towards innovation and creativity, International organizations like WIPO and UNESCO have been debating a suitable legal framework to protect TCEs, against unlicensed appropriation and/or their offensive use. But the dynamic nature of TCEs i.e. with every generation improvising the cultural property and the change in ownership with the property being passed down from generation to generation, questions regarding rightful beneficiary, scope of protection and term of protection are creating major complexities.

While a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not suitable for protecting something as diverse and dynamic as TCEs, a sui generis system based on the current Intellectual Property Protection (IP) model, is proposed by various international committees. WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore, has proposed to categories products of TCEs into four categories- sacred, secret, narrowly diffused, widely diffused and provide different levels of protection to products of each category; the former two shall be entitled to exclusive economic as well as moral rights, as established under the IP regime, while the latter two will only enjoy only moral rights. Though this approach suffers from some controversies it was adopted and applied by the New Zealand government to protect the cultural rights of a North Island tribal group named Ngati Toa.

The Maori haka war dance of Ngati Toa was appropriated by New Zealand's all Black rugby team by performing the dance as an intimidation tactic before games and later the same dance was used for an advertisement commercial by Fiat, the Italian carmaker without the permission of or any remuneration to the tribe which caused some “cultural distress”. Qualifying these two events as “inappropriate use”, the New Zealand government upheld the moral cultural rights of the Ngati Tao tribe and prohibited the appropriation of the dance by anyone in the country without the Tribe’s due permission.

The 3Cs' Rule: Consent. Credit. Compensation© developed by the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®

In the absence of a structured legal framework for protecting TCEs, some solace can be found under the Law of Contracts. The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI) a worldwide movement supporting the recognition of cultural IP rights© for craftsmen and women who are the custodians and transmitters of traditional garments, traditional designs and traditional manufacturing techniques, has designed, what is called the 3Cs' Rule: Consent. Credit. Compensation©.

The 3Cs stand for - Consent, Credit and Compensation. Taking the regulations in the field of intellectual property law, specifically the copyright regulations, as a starting point, CIPRI proposes the 3Cs' Rule as a tool for developing, maintaining and sustaining collaborative relationships with Indigenous people and local communities.

An important condition for the Rule to provide its intended outcome is for the three elements - (1) informed consent, (2) source acknowledgement and (3) fair and equitable financial or non-financial compensation - to be simultaneously fulfilled and CIPRI seeks to achieve that by negotiating and drafting contractual terms in a way that provides for a collaborative relationship between the user of TCEs and custodians of TCEs.

While international organisations are working on weaving a suitable legal framework for protecting TCEs, this model can prove beneficial in supporting, promoting and protecting the cultural expression of indigenous communities.

Legal protection of TCEs is sought to help empower marginalized communities with rich cultural heritage in managing and controlling their cultural property the way they want and if they want to.

Cultural Intellectual property plays a dual role of ensuring the welfare of a community in the face of economic and political instability and promoting creativity and innovation in the society. Protection against cultural misappropriation will help to develop pluralistic societies and ensure proper representation of varied cultures in the international socio-cultural arena. Thus, it is a duty of every nation to come together and endeavour to create a legal framework that provides suitable protection to TCEs, sensitise people about the issues of cultural misappropriation and spread awareness about the historical background of the development of a culture. CIPRI is one such organisation which is committed to creating a solution that ensures cultural sustainability and provides protection against cultural misappropriation.

As an artist, and an intellectual property lawyer, I encourage you to come and collaborate with CIPRI and create a worldwide community to spread awareness about the recognition of Cultural Intellectual Property and protection of Traditional Cultural Expressions.

Written by Shivani Talati for the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®

Shivani Talati is an Indian classical dancer. She always introduces herself as a dancer because her love for this art form helped her carve out her career in law. She recently graduated with a Master’s Degree in Intellectual Property Rights in India and is currently practicing as an Entertainment lawyer in India. The reason she chose to study law especially in the field of IPR is because she wants to serve the community of artists; by spreading awareness about their rights and helping them earn livelihood through their artistic expression.

In Shivani's words: "Being a contributing writer to the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative® blog isjust a small contribution towards fulfilling my commitment towards my community."

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