This is an excerpt from Dance Cultures Around the World With HKPropel Access by Lynn Frederiksen & Shih-Ming Chang.
By Jennies Deide Darko
Dance to us is not outside of daily life, not an escape, nor a spectacle. Dance lies at the center of our world, each and every moment of existence.
In an interview, Kofi Owusu, a royal and a son of a linguist from the chief’s palace at Adukrom Akwapim in the eastern region of Ghana, said that fontomfrom dance features prominently at royal funerals. All citizens of the royal lineages (the ones who have not converted to Christianity) have the fontomfrom played during their burials and funerals. These events provide a platform for the departed to be eulogized for the valiant and virtuous feats they accomplished while alive. The drum also interprets moves of various accomplished dancers as they express shock, sorrow, and a sense of loss at the departure of the deceased. These dancers usually include the deceased’s family members, spouses, and children. Through the dance performances, the society assures the bereaved members of support in the absence of their departed relations (K. Owusu, personal communication, Nov. 16, 2019).
“To us life, with its rhythms and cycles is Dance. The Dance is life expressed in dramatic terms. The most important events in the community have special dances to enhance their meaning and significance. To us the Dance is a language, a mode of expression, which addresses itself to the mind, through the heart, using related, relevant and significant movements, which have their basic counterparts in our everyday activities, to express special and real-life experiences in rhythmic sequences to musical and poetic stimuli. For a deeper insight into our way of life, our labours, material culture, aspirations, history, social and economic conditions, religious beliefs and disbeliefs, moments of festivity and sadness—in short, our life and soul, and the realities perceived, conceived, or felt, that make us the people that we have been and are at present, are revealed to the serious seeker, in our dance” (Opoku 1965).
In the statement in the opening vignette, dance artist and scholar Mawere Opoku (1965) captured the essence of dance in the Ghanaian worldview. It is a general perception that people in various Ghanaian cultures enjoy speaking without their voices and use dance as a medium of communication. In most African societies, dancing plays pivotal roles in all the major stages of life from birth through to death. Dance is regarded as one of the leading performing arts forms, manifesting in religious, social, occupational, and ceremonial events. It serves, among other things, as a facilitator of unity, a demonstrator of the complexities of cultures, a communicator, an entertainer, a correction agent, a mode of exercise, and an occupation. Dance is, on the one extreme, spectacular and vigorous, but it is also solemn and graceful on other occasions.
Although dance anthropologist Pearl Primus’ (1996) assertion that the African was the first to dance has been variously contested by many scholars, there is certainly no doubt that dancing is important in the Ghanaian worldview. Indeed, in practical terms, you can find dance in most places—most celebrations and most significant events of our life cycle. There are dances during the naming of newborn babies, puberty rites, marriages, festivals, and funerals. Wives dance to spite their rivals in polygamous unions; sports fans dance to celebrate victories. Hedonism seems to be on the ascendency in Ghana, and there is dancing in bars, in nightclubs, on beaches, and on the streets. Dance has even crept into the commercial domain, where it is used for advertising consumer goods (Darko 2016). All these factors probably validate Opoku’s claim that to Ghanaians, dance is life. Movement and dance have been powerful instruments for keeping community events alive in most Ghanaian societies.
There are four broad categories of dance in the African context: social, religious, occupational, and ceremonial.
- Social dances are used to entertain, to make merry, and to socialize. An example is the kpanlogo dance among the Ga people, who predominantly live in the south of Ghana. It is performed by the youth of both sexes.
- Religious dances are dances associated with religion. An example is the yeve dance performed by the Anlos of the Volta Region of Ghana. They are dances associated with the cult and by initiates of a secret society. The dance helps the citizens to communicate with their ancestors.
- Occupational dances depict the kind of work of a people or actions that characterize a person’s occupation. An example is the adevu—hunters’ dance—from the Volta Region.
- Ceremonial dances, like the fontomfrom dance among the Akan people, are performed to commemorate funerals of political leaders and other important events.
This chapter examines, in detail, one social dance and one ceremonial dance from two of the dominant ethnic groups in Ghana to illustrate how dance in Ghana fulfills its central role in the culture.
The area now known as Ghana has been occupied since at least 4000 BCE by various groups. Migration of peoples within the area and from neighboring regions has long defined the shape of Ghanaian society. Colonization by Islamic and European powers also put its stamp on the nation, formerly known as the Gold Coast. This name encapsulates ancient Ghana’s renown for its wealth of gold mines and mastery of the gold trade, placing the African rulers at the core of a vibrant economy. When Europeans arrived, they colonized Ghana’s coastal areas first, starting in 1482 with the Portuguese. In subsequent centuries, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, German, and British colonizers jockeyed for power over the wealthy region. “With the opening of European plantations in the New World during the 1500s, which suddenly expanded the demand for slaves in the Americas, trade in slaves soon overshadowed gold as the principal export of the area” and Ghana became central to the slave trade (GhanaWeb-Gold Coast/Slavery).
Starting in the late 1800s, the British colonized Ghana, and though the African population was largely excluded in the political procedures of the colony, in 1957 Ghana became the first African nation to declare independence from European colonialism. The turning point was the return to the Gold Coast in 1947 of Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) to become General Secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention, the main political movement agitating for self-government. Following many vicissitudes, Nkrumah became prime minister in 1952 and served again after independence in 1957. The current republic, now led by Nana Addo Danquah Akuffo Addo, has endured since 1992.
Most contemporary historians tend to interpret the history of the emergence of Ghana as the creation of an artificially designated nation-state, discounting the natural kinships that exist between the different ethnic groups and their cultures. Sociologists Smock and Smock (1975) opine that several historians and commentators have simply presumed that Ghana’s evolution into a nation-state occurred with the onset of colonialism. The effect of such presumptions on Ghana’s emergence as a sociopolitical unit is that it comes to be regarded as a conglomeration of disparate tribal units, with no natural connections with one another, either historically or culturally. This perception underestimates the historical role of migration within Africa and cross-cultural exchange in shaping Ghanaian identity, and similarly undervalues the implications for dance in cross-cultural cohesion.
Cultural Bonds Versus Colonial Structures—Migration and Identity
It is noteworthy that, apart from external borders and state structures that were artificially created, cultural bonds between the various ethnic groups are largely natural. While the colonial experience was significant in connecting the peoples of Ghana as a geopolitical entity, it is only one of the several important stages in a natural process of evolution. Colonialism bestowed its structures of modern nationhood to the independent Gold Coast. However, the sense of belonging together as one people started to evolve long before the first Europeans arrived. In fact, colonial rule interfered with what was a fairly natural process of evolution and distorted what would have been the physical borders and naturally evolved political systems of the nation-states that eventually emerged. Historian Ivor Wilks posits that Ghanaian culture grew from various stages of a historical process during which a sense of bonding as a people who belong together emerged progressively, despite the bitter interethnic state rivalries marked by wars, burdensome payments of tributes by the vanquished, and slave raids.
Historians have discussed the extensive cultural interaction among the peoples of West Africa that must have occurred as early as the period between 500 CE and 1000 CE. These interactions involved migrations of peoples from one part of the subcontinent to another. The ancestors of many of the ethnic groups in contemporary Ghana were part of this development. According to scholars, the inhabiting of the land was marked by continuous movements of groups in different directions. Scholars cannot agree on the nature of these migrations, and their exact trails are difficult to reach. But there is almost complete unanimity that such movements did take place (Wilks 1961). Studies of oral traditions that explained origins have enabled scholars to build reasonably plausible theories of migrations and resettlements. Major ethnic groups such as the Akan, Ga-Adangme, Dagomba, Ewe, and others all became established in Ghana over the centuries through settlement, absorbing other groups, and creating independent states within the region (Salm and Falola 2002, 4-8). The migrants did not all move in one sweep but in batches, and by the end of the year 1200 CE, major movements had ended. Though some further migrants did arrive later, they were small groups of invaders that were absorbed by the existing communities (Boahen 1977).
The beginning of the evolution of a common Ghanaian culture must be located in this period. It has been suggested that the fusion of indigenous societies that were mostly stateless with immigrant peoples who already had centralized political systems led to some important changes in that period. Borrowing of cultural ideas and practices between the various peoples who encountered each other in the movements and resettlements that occurred must have been accompanied by a gradual integration of the various groups. Agriculture became an important occupation of the settled communities, and chieftaincy, with its sacral associations, probably began to take shape and spread during the stage of migration. Along with migration, trade and other forms of contact led to cultural fusions among the peoples of Ghana and between them and their neighbors. Such free movements of peoples and contacts no doubt led to the diffusion of cultural ideas and practices.
The Slave Trade in Africa
Ghana was a major conduit for slaves taken to the New World. “During the heyday of early European competition, slavery was an accepted social institution, and the slave trade overshadowed all other commercial activities on the West African coast. To be sure, slavery and slave trading were already firmly entrenched in many African societies before their contact with Europe. In most situations, men, as well as women, captured in local warfare became slaves. In general, however, slaves in African communities were often treated as junior members of the society with specific rights, and many were ultimately absorbed into their masters’ families as full members. Given traditional methods of agricultural production in Africa, slavery in Africa was quite different from that which existed in the commercial plantation environments of the New World” (GhanaWeb-Gold Coast/Slavery).