A dance is more than just movement to music. It is a wordless way to release our emotions, show cultural origins and belongings, express feelings of sadness or joy. That becomes extremely evident when one looks at a fairly unknown dance Pantsula.
Pantsula is a ghetto rough dance that emerged in South Africa in the 1950s-1960s as a response of frustrated civilians to the forced removals implemented by the apartheid government shortly after its ascent to power. At first it was mainly performed by older men who were gambling in the streets of Johannesburg townships while playing music and dancing. Later they formed into groups and engaged in informal competitions. Over the course of the years, Pantsula dance spread through the country. By the 1980s, Pantsula was all over the dusty streets of South Africa, practiced by people of all ages, and was no longer limited to men. It became a resisting form of art during the black movement struggle, a demonstration of unhappiness towards the Afrikaans government, a word of awareness about social issues, such as lack of education.
Pantsula stands for a freedom of expression that unlocks the inner anger and inner joy, an art of demonstrating that fear can be turned into joy as long as you believe in better.
Black South Africans grew up in poor areas where they danced through the pain of being oppressed. And so Pantsula emerged to help them get through their day-to-day struggle. The dance moves combine a demonstration of physical pain, black consciousness and the power of unity. It is very synchronized and united, with high jumps and sharp quick movements – which is how you had to be in order to survive the apartheid era’s police brutality. The dance shows how the people in black movement had to stand together in fighting the government, and be fast in jumping away from the gunshots.
Pantsula is a syncopated, quick-stepping form of dance with loose feet and arms. It has elements of South African cultural ceremonial dances and of modern-day hip-hop, and can be performed by a group of dancers or solo. One needs to countless hours to perfect the coordination of strong legs and body with soft feet and easy look. Expert dancers have an unmistakably powerful and stylized expression. The arms are quite loose, while the feet are extremely fast, performing shuffling and jumping movements as groups of dancers move in and out of geometric shapes.
There are three distinct styles of Pantsula: a very popular Kwasa Kwasa Style, Slow Poison, and Umxentso, which means stamping your feet constantly and creating sound effects in a syncopated pattern.
Originally, Pantsula was danced to drum music, accompanied by noise made by the street gamblers who whistled and shouted as they were winning and losing. This combination of drums, whistles and shouts with time formed a music genre called Kwaito. Today it is a popular style that mixes all eleven official South African languages and is frequently heard at parties, in houses and in the cars.
Interestingly, the Vuvuzela sound also comes from the Pantsula culture of whistling.
After the end of apartheid, Pantsula gained popularity also in the non-black communities of South Africa and begun to take on a new meaning as a dance form for all. It became very famous in the 1990s and mid-2000s, when, after watching American music TV, people started adding hip-hop movements to Pantsula. Popular dance groups emerged, such as Trompies, who combined Pantsula dance with old school Kwaito and 1980s disco.
Beyoncé Knowles is still a big fan of Pantsula; she had countless lessons and got Pantsula dancers to partake in some of her music videos.
South African kids of today still dance on the streets, but it is no longer Pantsula. It developed into other dance styles, such as Gwara Gwara or Mnike. The modern way of dancing continues to make more use of legs than upper body, but it is more relaxed and easy-going. The urban street dance culture reflects the improved life conditions.