Did you know?
The violently oppressed and historic mine worker’s 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.
In South Africa, gumboot dancing has a seductive magnetism synonymous with the country’s mining culture, but few people know of the hidden meaning and history of this infectious dance tradition. Started in the gold mines in the last decades of the 19th century, gumboot dancing in South Africa 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.
Also 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.
Today, South African gumboot dancing is one of the most singular unique dance expressions from these shores. Musical theatre impresario Richard Loring has done phenomenal work with his show African Footprint, in which gumboot dancing plays a leading part. Regularly performed at The Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City, African Footprint comes highly recommended. Another show starring gumboot dancers is Umoja, a permanently staged extravaganza of South African cultural song and dance at the Victory Theatre in Orange Grove, Johannesburg.
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