09 March 2011

gumboot-ing boys

These boys... I've been with most of them since they were in the 4th grade - tutoring in math and reading - playing on the fields - talking about school and life - teaching swim lessons to a few. Now they are grade 7 - top of the heap in our South African school system. Too cool for their own boots. Yet, they are not. They are friends. They come to me with their bravado, acting like they don't want to talk... but hanging around waiting for the moment to be right to start the conversation. It's cool. I'll wait around with them. I respect their 7th grade-isms. I get them.

I understand, having my own 8th grade boy who said to me this morning "mom, you'd better kiss me goodbye now" (they are all going to school camp for the next three days) "because you're not going to be able to kiss me in front of my friends once we get to school"

Our dear friend, Everest, has been working with these boys for the past year on a cultural art form called "gumboot dancing". The history of this dance style is interesting.

"Gumboot dancing was born in the gold mines of South Africa at the height of the migrant labour system.
The mine workers were not free to move around at will and were separated from their families for long periods of time. At best, working in the mines was a long, hard, repetitive toil. At worst, the men would be taken chained into the mines and shackled at their work stations in almost total darkness.

"The floors of the mines were often flooded, with poor or non-existent drainage. For the miners, hours of standing up to their knees in infected waters brought on skin ulcers, foot problems and consequent lost work time. The bosses discovered that providing gumboots (Wellington boots) to the workers was cheaper than attempting to drain the mines. This created the miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots, jeans, bare chest and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat.

"The workers were forbidden to speak, and as a result created a means of communication, essentially their own unique form of Morse Code. By slapping their gumboots and rattling their ankle chains, the enslaved workers sent messages to each other in the darkness. From this came an entertainment, as the miners evolved their percussive sounds and movements into a unique dance form and used it to entertain each other during their free time.

"Gumboot dancing has developed into a working class, South African art form with a universal appeal. The dancers expand upon traditional steps, with the addition of contemporary movement, music and song. Extremely physical, the dancing serves as a cathartic release, celebrating the body as an instrument, and the richness and complexities of South African culture."

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