African Dance and the Controversy of the Pelvic Thrust

For centuries sexual connotations have been attributed to the so called pelvic thrust in African dance. The earliest European descriptions date back to a time when all things African were described as “primitive”. Very little early documentation exists. What there is, is limited in the main, to a few drawings or grainy, jerky footage often filmed with amateur cine cameras by travelers, missionaries, and early colonial functionaries.

British exploration and the British Empire in Africa coincided with a period in English history when any movement thought to originate from the pelvic region had only one connotation and that was sexual. Repressed Europeans made the claim and steadfastly maintained that African dance proved that its peoples were licentious. It never occurred to anyone that Africans might have a more balanced view of the place of sex within life. The critics failed to understand that it was not sex per se which was of importance but fertility in all aspects of life.

If someone is running they may be doing so for any number of reasons: they are late for work, they are running to meet a loved one, they are running away from something or someone. The viewer simply sees a person running. Why they are running becomes clear from other clues such as facial expression.A person jumps up and down. It might be in anger or joy.

It is the energy invested in the movement which tells the onlooker how to interpret what they are seeing. Not everyone is aware of or accepts the theory of a chakra energy system. Chakra is a Sanskrit word and signifies a wheel There are said to be seven main chakra’s or wheels of energy in our bodies. The Root chakra is situated at the base of the spine. One important chakra is situated over the spleen, and another in the solar plexus area. The Heart chakra is not surprisingly situated in the region of the physical heart. The Throat chakra lies at the front of the throat while the Brow chakra occupies the space between the eyebrows. The Crown chakra and highest energy is found at the top of the head. Most of these chakra’s are connected to the endocrine system.

Usually we operate on more than one energy at the same time, the exceptions being perhaps when we are in a state of mortal fear and in the higher levels of meditation. Even if we are not willing to give any credence to the chakra theory we are all aware that as our mental and emotional states change so these changes show themselves in the physical realms and affect the quality of our movements. We all know that when we feel sad or ill our bodies and our energies seem to go down towards the Earth. When we feel happy or excited or interested in something our bodies stretch, link up with our minds and soar upwards.

So perhaps we can now agree that our physical movements take on the qualities of our mood at the time. The physical movement itself does not have one fixed meaning or interpretation. This brings me back to the subject of the so-called “pelvic thrust” in African dance. The movement in fact is not from the pelvis. It originates from the top of a relaxed spine. It is only when the movement is from the pelvis that a copulatory thrust ensues.

We have now reached the point where we can all perhaps agree that a movement may be open to more than one interpretation. A ballerina frequently raises her legs so that her crotch is exposed. Does the audience automatically interpret this as being sexual. I think not. Sometimes it is but not always. So it is with the so-called pelvic thrust. Therefore we cannot maintain that this movement is always erotic. There are dances, mainly for young people, with a flirtatious element. I am by no means maintaining that this movement is never sexual. I am just saying that in many cases it is not.

These movements are part of the style of that particular form of dance. Sometimes movements and gestures do have a generally accepted meaning. This is “mime” which comes from the word “mimic” meaning to “imitate” or “copy”. It recreates words without the need for sound.

African dance still offers vast areas of research which needs to be carried out in the very near future before traditional dance changes beyond recognition.