Gumboot dancing, or Isicathulo, was born in the gold mines of
South Africa at the height of the migrant labour system and
during the oppressive Apartheid Pass Laws.
The mine workers were not free to move around at will and were
separated from their families for long periods of time. At best,
working in the mines was a long, hard, repetitive toil. At
worst, the men would be taken chained into the mines and
shackled at their work stations in almost total darkness.
The floors of the mines were often flooded, with poor or
non-existent drainage. For the miners, hours of standing up to
their knees in infected waters brought on skin ulcers, foot
problems and consequent lost work time. The bosses discovered
that providing gumboots (Wellington boots) to the workers was
cheaper than attempting to drain the mines. This created the
miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots,
jeans, bare chest and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat.
The workers were forbidden to speak, and as a result created a
means of communication, essentially their own unique form of
Morse Code. By slapping their gumboots and rattling their ankle
chains, the enslaved workers sent messages to each other in the
darkness. From this came an entertainment, as the miners evolved
their percussive sounds and movements into a unique dance form
and used it to entertain each other during their free time.
Gumboot dancing has developed into a working class, South
African art form with a universal appeal. The dancers expand
upon traditional steps, with the addition of contemporary
movement, music and song. Extremely physical, the dancing serves
as a cathartic release, celebrating the body as an instrument,
and the richness and complexities of South African culture.
Under the direction of Kevin Fell, a South African Native and
Arts-in-Education Specialist, the boys of St. Andrew's on the
2008 SASSAW Project Team have developed their own 15-minute
presentation incorporating their interpretations of the language
of Isicathulo, or Gumboot Dance.