The Joys and Sorrows of Gumboot Dancing

The British aristocracy copied the style of the war hero The Duke of Wellington when he had his custom made utilitarian boot made for him and his soldiers.

In 1852 the boot started to be made in vulcanized rubber and the leather was phased out.

The boot came along as a labor standard wherever Colonial Britain landed and many other colonial powers made their own versions.

All colonialists everywhere stuck their new captives into either fields or mines. The Spanish enacted “La Mita” in Bolivia where indigenous were “employed” for six-months at a time living in the mines. No sunlight. All brutal labor.

In South Africa mining was a valuable venture and the people of the land were forced into employment in the mineral rich mines. Part of the system of control was that the workers were forbidden to speak while working and often had to work wearing face masks or cages or even sometimes, on rare occasion, ball gags. In “kinder” mines silence was enforced by guards. But that would change gently as you’ll find out. The workers were stripped of the right to wear their tribal garments and either worked in rags or naked but with hardhats, chains and boots.

Wellington gum boots.

The miners used the items of their work uniform to develop a form of communication, for safety, and simply as a form of entertainment. Songs or chants sometimes accompanied these gumboot dances, often with themes of longing or loneliness, and sometimes making fun of their bosses in the songs.

The owners of the mines, through some miracle, became impressed with this phenomenon. When you watch the video below it is so impressive. Somehow some hearts softened and would allow the best gumboot dancers to form troupes and perform. The dances, the uniform, and the rhythms have lived on despite their horrific origins. From the gold mines in South Africa the rhythms and actions live on the African American tradition of step dance, as well as many other forms of music and dance that use the body to create arrangements of rhythms.

That rhythm and sound of people dancing in gumboots has been incorporated into a form of semi-traditional popular music, sometimes known as “gumboot music” or “gumboot zydeco” in South Africa. It is a bit of a tourist thing but the roots are not well covered.

The sorrow of indigenous miners is endless. Bridges could be made of the bones of the dead men and women across the continents and back to the home of the conquerors to remind them of what they did. And yet, they inadvertently planted a seed. Seeds of sorrow are planted all the time and there is no guarantee that dancing joys will ever come. But amidst the many thorns in South Africa a life-affirming glorious joy emerged and was made. This is culture making in action. I defy you to not feel the glory of this dancing.

I have had the burdensome privilege of having been at the throat of an animals as they have died with a knife in my hand and blood in the snow. It is a palpable sorrow. Feeling that weight made me want to make something of the feathers of those ducks or capture every drop of blood that I could from that pig for blood sausage or make stock as long as I could from every bone of that cow because I knew the cost.

Sorrows happen. We can’t duck or dodge them. They will come to your doorstep and stay under the lintel for a while, probably more than once. Their arrival is unbidden. Yet, death feeds life and plants and  animals are part of that. Primal Derma tries hard to be on the side of making something life affirming with these hard events. Making skincare from tallow is one small way to try to make some beauty from this hard thing.

Now let me be clear – a jar of tallow isn’t the same as Gumboot dancers or dancing, but the willingness to sit with these hard things and attempt to make beauty with it is the virtue I am trying to praise here and the old trail I’m trying to walk.

If you need some tallow, we have some.

If you have some sorrows, see if you might pull at the thread of your deep ancestors to see what they wove with their hardest times.

Talk soon enough


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