South African Gumboot Dancing in Soweto
Written by Jaillan Yehia
Gumboot dancing started in the dank and dark gold mine tunnels of South Africa more than a century ago as a codified tap used by oppressed black miners as a form of communication. But not everyone knows the hidden meaning and history of this dance tradition.
Started in the last decades of the 19th century, South African gumboot dancing stems from a code that mine workers devised because of the repressive ban on talking enforced by mine bosses. Kitted out with Wellington boots to fight skin diseases from fetid water flooding the mine tunnels, the ‘muzzled’ miners found that they could communicate with one another through coded slaps on their boots and bare chests.
Prevented by bosses from wearing their traditional dress in the mining compounds, to further estrange the miners from their rural roots, the migrant workers from diverse, ethnic backgrounds found common ground in an extended gumboot patois. Enter gumboot dancing. Initially, mine bosses banned it outright, but eventually its qualities as an uplifting social activity, unlike drinking alcohol and its destructive effects, were acknowledged and even encouraged.
Some mine bosses even allowed the formation of gumboot dance troupes and organised gumboot dancing competitions that they often attended. Standing by, applauding the by-product artistry of their workers, for decades mine managers remained oblivious that the dancing they so appreciated was often coded criticism of poor conditions, bad pay, and the bigotry of white bosses and the historic mine workers strike of 1946 that led to the formation of the African Mine Workers’ Union, a precursor to South Africa’s powerful labour movement, was first mooted through the secret, codified tapping of miners wearing gumboots.
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