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Get into the groove: Joy, trauma and the Jerusalema dance challenge

Given wings by an Angolan dance troupe, the South African Jerusalema song is giving people worldwide a much-needed sense of community during the isolating COVID-19 pandemic.

Society

Improved muscle tone, greater endurance and a healthier heart – the health benefits of dancing are obvious. Perhaps a less apparent but equally important benefit is dance’s ability to transcend language and physical barriers while bringing people together, forming a sense of community in this age of coronavirus-imposed physical distancing. Nothing has made this more evident in recent times than the global Jerusalema dance craze that has taken the world by storm. It all began in early 2020, when an Angolan dance troupe called Phenomenos do Semba added their own dance moves to the 2019 South African hit song Jerusalema by Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode. Set in a backyard somewhere in Luanda, the JerusalemaDanceChallenge video shows a group of friends dancing while holding plates of food. In this age of the pandemic, their “#JerusalemaDanceChallenge video generated a counter-contagion,” writes literary and cultural historian Ananya Jahanara Kabir of King’s College London in an article posted on the ‘Modern Ghana’ website. “Almost overnight everyone from police departments in Africa to priests in Europe were posting their own Jerusalema dance videos that repeated the choreography.” The power and attraction of line dances such as the Jerusalema dance challenge lies in a choreography that is easy enough to make people want to join in and at the same time tricky enough to keep them interested. “Routines involve directional movement enabled by switching of feet, with dancers turning 90 degrees to repeat the choreography. Syncopated steps create enjoyable tension, and more and more people can join as the routine repeats itself till the song ends,” explains Prof. Kabir.

Creating joy out of pain

On their Facebook page, Phenomenos do Semba make reference to the “alegria da dança”, or joy of dance. According to Prof. Kabir, this “can also be read as ‘alegropolitics’ or joy pressed out from trauma and dehumanisation. Historically, enslavement, colonialism, commodification and a continuing threat to Black life brings forth Afro-Atlantic expressive culture.” This paradox between the exhilarating vibrancy of African rhythms and their traumatic origins was the focus of the completed EU-funded MODERNMOVES project led by Prof. Kabir and her King’s College London team. Prof. Kabir comments that it would be more useful to approach the Jerusalema dance challenge “in terms of ongoing creolisation processes – a mixing of cultures – that spiral around the Atlantic rim,” than as an intra-African phenomenon. “Multi-directional, unpredictable, but always innovative, creolisation is the motor of the ‘alegropolitics’ of African-heritage music and dance. If the Angolan video popularised the South African anthem, this is a collaborative and competitive creolising phenomenon,” she states. With its seamless transition from eating to dancing, the Angolan troupe draws “on deep and resonant reservoirs of Afro-Atlantic survival through joy,” remarks Prof. Kabir. “Jerusalema went viral during the coronavirus pandemic because the dance challenge enacted a simple way to connect and build community: especially at a time when people were hungering for these possibilities.” The MODERNMOVES (Modern Moves: Kinetic Transnationalism and Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures) project explored the evolution of African dances from plantations to cities around the world. The aim was to gain insight into the modern world’s relationship to African-derived rhythm cultures. The project ended in 2018. For more information, please see: MODERNMOVES project website

Keywords

MODERNMOVES, dance, African, Jerusalema, Angolan, COVID-19, coronavirus

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