Gumboot Dancing, an African art form hundreds of years in the making, originated from the inhumane conditions surrounding the era of the Apartheid Pass Laws. This was a dark time in South African history, as the people were being taken as slaves and forced to work in the sordid conditions of the gold mines. Workers in the gold mines had no protection of labor laws.Because of this, the mine supervisors were able to enforce policies on the laborers that had little to do with their safety and well-being. The tradition of African Gumboot Dancing at its roots was African heritage in the making.
The Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act No. 67 of 1952 stripped black Africans of their rights and enforced that they carry documentation proving their identity, work history and place of residence. They had little to no personal rights, much like what was being echoed in American culture during the Jim Crow era. It was due to this oppression, that the ingenious African Gumboot Dance was birthed.
Miners were forced stand in stagnant water, deep in the gold mines of South Africa. Owners and supervisors paid little heed to the needs of the workers they depended on to harvest gold from these mines. Rather than humanely draining the mines of the standing water, owners turned to an alternative that cost far less than removing the watery threat. Because the workers were suffering from infection and disease caused by less than appropriate working conditions, supervisors implemented the use of standard workforce uniforms, including an issuance of “Wellington Boots”.
The Wellington Boots were made of durable rubber, mostly black in color and rose in height to the knee cap region. Heavy duty coverall work uniforms were introduced as well as hard hats. This minimized the remaining sense of identity for the African workers in the oppressive environment. As though this were not enough, the laborers were chained together at the ankles to prevent their escape. Their supervisors forbade them to talk or sing as they worked, further inhibiting their rights and making life for the African people nearly intolerable
From the dark and disparaging depths of those dank and flooded mines, the only sounds that could be heard were the sounds of workers tapping at the rock, the clinking of their chains, and the shuffling of their boots as they went about their work. From these was birthed a new experiment in ingenuity. The laborers there in the mines had to do whatever they could to maintain their sanity despite the cruel conditions. By creating a language through dance, the workers were able to speak to each other as the day progressed.
A series of boot taps and chain rattles, clapping and stomping quickly turned into a Morse Code type of language as diverse in its depth as any spoken tongue. The African Gumboot dance was born. Suddenly, they could break free of some of the stringent mandates as placed on them by their supervisors and communicate with one another as human beings without being apprehended. This sparked a movement that is still an integral part of African culture, even in the post- Apartheid period, where these types of regulations are no longer lawful.
It is from this traditional dance form, that the modern-day “stepping” arose. Stepping is a similar dance, revolving around a group of coordinated stomps and hand clapping to create a perfectly synchronized rhythm and movement in which a large group participates. The ingenuity of the art of African Gumboot Dancing is a true testament of the resiliency of the African people. As a nation, the African people have been subjected to harshly inhumane treatment due to societal mandates surrounding their existence. However, there remains within them an unquenchable fire that never seems to be lost among them. The African spirit is characterized by ingenuity and quiet strength.
Perhaps it would have been easier for many in the same conditions to have died down in the African gold mines of the pressure and despair that was their circumstances. Perhaps the unsanitary working environment was enough to claim their lives alone. The African Gumboot Dance, a heritage of ingenuity, was created as a means of connection, as much as it were borne as a means of survival in the most treacherous of circumstances.
By J.A. Johnson