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Culture, Jiva

Dance Egos

by Ray van Wyk / 30.05.2013

There are few places in the world that can make you feel more out of touch than on a dancefloor. Out there, surrounded by so many critical eyes, you can falter and your body becomes a writhing collection of skin, bones and self-conscious awkwardness. Imagine the disparity when the dance challenged people of the world read things like: “We’re not here to compete. We’re here to teach!” coming from one of the local dance crews competing in the Red Bull Beat Battle. It’s disconcerting.

Dance in it’s essence is a liberating form of social expression, something primitive, almost instinctual, it’s as natural to us as breathing, as old as time. And it’s particularly popular as a socio-cultural movement as well as a ubiquitous and enjoyable pastime in Mzansi’s lokshins. In these places, where creativity is stifled by concerns over your next meal, getting to bed without being mugged, alongside the more subtle forms of repression like bad education and a lack of job satisfaction (you should be satisfied just to have a job, wena), dance vaults forth as a liberation. A means to escape the overwhelming burdens of daily life. A way to channel both discontent and joy through movement.


But while dance could well be a transcendental art, it becomes difficult to reconcile this with the attitudes generally expressed by these dance crews; that they are indeed the greatest that ever lived and breathed. These are attitudes centred on narcissism, self-promotion and competition. What is is going on here that dance as a form of liberatory expression can so easily be turned into a tool for conflict and one-upmanship in its own right? And should we simply accept that this is the very nature of the dance. To stiek uit on a primal level.

Firstly we need to take pause and remind ourselves that the use of art or talent for personal gain is hardly anything new. And to succeed at this game, necessarily requires a good measure of hubris. Ego. Personality or good old fashioned flossing. Now add the fact that contemporary dance, in South Africa, is heavily influenced by, if not rooted in hip hop. And hip hop has long promoted the idea of the artist as benefactor and self-promoter.

As Jay Z famously said: “How could you falter when you’re the Rock of Gibraltar?”

In other words, success is guaranteed when one perceives oneself to be a rock, solid, invincible. This is power talk. The stuff people pay self-help gurus for at expensive seminars. The dancers in local crews take their cues from this world of shameless self-promotion, elevating themselves first through an act of radical affirmation in dance and then they carry this affirmation over to the way they interact with their scene and most importantly, the way they want you to see them. So they spell it out for you, numbnuts.

Like The Playboys from Orange Farm: “We gonna kick some ass!” Or Kasi’s Innovative Dancers (K.I.D): “We’re gonna kill it, no matter what!” And as this year’s finalists Jozi based B-boy ninja crew,
Beauty and the Beasts put it: “We’ve come to conquer the Beat Battle.”


Similarly the entire field of advertising and especially visual advertising is the exploitation of the arts to meet the requirements of promoting goods and services on the market. Products need to be what they are first, to affirm themselves loudly and then carry that over into the public consciousness through the medium of advertising. Getting the word out there, as it were.

Add to this that the very fabric of modern capitalist society is centred around the theme of competition. Be somebody. And the person with the most cash wins the game, right? And that’s mirrored in the dance world. The merit of dancing is measured in how far it elevates the dancer from their surroundings and that inspires the and fuels the competition with other dancers. So you see the Reptilez on stage with Kanye West, VINTAGE cru rocking with Die Antwoord, Lady Gaga and Zaki Ibrahim. And then suddenly they need two full days to process all the dance crews at the Beat Battle qualifiers in Jozi!

All based on the home truth, expressed by the anonymous dancer at a Beat Battle qualifier in Jozi last year. “We all come from Freedom Square. It’s a rough hood. This is why we dance, because we love it, and it provides a way out.”

And finally, the dance ego is often fuelled by the sad reality that nobody else but the artist themselves will voice the conviction that they are superior. And so it becomes an act of bravado and self-affirmation at the same time. And what would dance be without some talented kid telling the whole world that he is indeed the shit, then stepping up to the stage and proving it. Saying it, doing it.

So we can forgive these crews their self-love and delusions of grandeur if indeed they put their money where their mouths are and bring it to the stage for the world to see. Anything else is just hot air.

*Images © Samora Chapman, Filipa Domingues.

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