earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel
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Sukuma Dancing and Worship

Sukuma Dance Exposition in Luchelele

One Saturday in September 2014, a Sukuma dance troupe visited the village near our home. I decided to check it out since the predominant tribe around us, the Sukuma, are famous in Tanzania for their dance competitions. My interest was piqued when neighbors told me that this dance society was also known for dances with live snakes!

But I didn’t get to see the Sukuma snake dance on that occasion; I left soon after the program started–once I realized that this sort of dancing was unfit for Christian scruples. Later I learned that traditional Sukuma dance competitions are typically opportunities to exhibit all the things that are otherwise too scandelous to speak of openly in the village.

Features of Sukuma Dance

In a traditional dance competition, two groups dance simultaneously, competing for the attention of the crowd. The winner is determined by the size of the audience that has gathered around them. What sorts of things win dance competitions? You could dance with an 8-foot African rock python, for example; others may include cross-dressing; explicit references to marital intimacy; and satirical commentary on public figures. People come to watch the dancing because it gives them opportunities to see and hear things that are unacceptable to mention at other times. As a form of entertainment, dancing has the potential to be just as scandalous as any other form I had been more acquainted with.

Dancing in Worship Services

Of course, not all of Sukuma dance tradition is scandalous and anti-Christian. Good is mixed in with the bad. Other forms of traditional dance are commonly associated with thanksgiving, story-telling, and celebration–all appropriate themes to Christian worship. Christian groups have attempted to adapt traditional dancing and bring it into the church. This effort is commendable since the alternative would be unthinkable: telling an African to give up dancing is much like telling them not to breathe. If David could dance in reverent worship to God, then the problem is not dancing itself. The question is how do you do distinguish reverent African dance from irreverent African dance.

Church Choir on Container

We haven’t yet reached a satisfying answer to that question. Someday, together with our Tanzanian co-laborers, we hope to reach some conclusions about a form of worship that is both meaningful to Tanzanian believers and honoring to God.

For now I can begin to show you why this isn’t a simple problem by outlining some of the cultural dimensions to this issue.

  1. Centrifugal vs. Centripetal:[1] The goal of the Sukuma dance is to attract the audience to your spectacle away from the other competitors. Most church choirs in Tanzania operate with the same objective and they are largely successful. The choir is at the top of typical reasons Tanzanians choose a church. But if your guiding principal is ‘do whatever attracts people,’ there isn’t much differentiating you from any other source of entertainment.
  2. Provoke vs. Reflect: Dancing exhibitions in Tanzania can be opportunities to let the music and dancing temporarily sweep away moral scruples. In contrast, we believe dance in godly worship ought to be reflect what we are singing about.
  3. Man-focused vs. Content-focused: Sukuma dancing exhibitions (and most church choirs) are events which showcase dancer’s skill. The audience can reward good dancers with monetary gifts during their performance. Again, we believe that the result of godly worship should be directed to God not the human performance.
  4. Joy vs. Sobriety: Tanzanians believe that anything worthy of joy or celebration should involve dancing. This works well for happy themes in worship, but what do we do when we are singing our lamentation or petition?
  5. Strength from Charms vs. Strength from God: The traditional view is that the source of powerful and successful dancing is channeled through empowered charms. We will be most successful in providing a Christian alternative to traditional worship when people can replace dependency on charms with trust and strength in God.

African traditional dance is one of many areas in which a deep cultural intelligence is necessary for developing a biblical response. Honestly, there are currently more pressing issues on the table to discuss with our Tanzanian co-workers, but we hope the upcoming years will help resolve some of the areas where traditional and biblical ideas about worship are incompatible.

  1. I am grasping for an alternative to “missional vs. attractional.” Attractional is the model most TZ church choirs use, but “missional” doesn’t make much sense here as an antithesis. Centripetal means roughly towards the center; centrifugal is out from the center.  ↩

1 comment

1 Charles { 10.05.16 at 12:04 pm }

We are the Sukuma.

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