Of course Sam Sklair did not invent the ‘gumboot dance’. He merely adapted the rhythms and sounds that are typical for the original style. The origins of ‘gumboot dancing’ can be traced back to the gold mines of South Africa at the height of the migrant labour system and during the oppressive Apartheid Pass Laws. The original name is ‘Isicahulo’ in the Baca language. ‘Gumboot dancing’ was performed by mine workers who worked in the Witwatersrand goldmines near Johannesburg.
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.Adapted. Original text can be found on www.gumbootsworldtour.com