As a teenager growing up in Montreal, I used to buy DVDs (and a few VHS tapes) of concerts in Kinshasa from Congolese-owned shops. Alone in front of a mirror, I would try to mimic the captivating choreographies that I saw performed by women at those concerts. Decades later, after reading Manda Tchebwa’s Terre de la Chanson (1996) and Bob White’s book Rumba Rules (2008), I began formally learning about this legendary music scene.
Congolese Rumba was recently recognized by UNESCO as part of its collection of intangible world heritage, raising its visibility internationally. This musical expression carries with it a deep global history of the transregional formation of influences migrating to and from Africa and the new world. Nowadays, these influences continue to circulate through virtual platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. The auditory quality of this music is inextricably linked to its visual quality through dance, which has also captivated spectators across the world, projecting virtuosic dancers into a new realm of exposure, and the emergence of new movement-lexicons inspire ever-new iterations around the world.
One striking feature of Congolese Rumba is that bands (or, orchestras as they’re called in the DRC) are massive, sometimes comprising more than thirty members. They are made up of singers, atalakus or hype-men, musicians, and as my book explores, dancers. While the 1970s did give rise to a few famous female orchestras and singers, women for the most part have been eclipsed by male performers, except in the realm of dance. Congo is perhaps best known internationally for its fashionable sapeurs, singers, and painters, yet women in these domains are often sidelined, instead being acknowledged as muses (though this is now changing). I was especially curious about the social role of the professional danseuse, and the kinetic histories of women’s dance in the colonial and post-colonial city. The momentum generated from dance speaks not only to gendered mobilities, as concretized in dance, but also to those of social mobility and change.
Of importance for any historian or social scientist interested in gender dynamics and social change in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital is Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain’s 1968 monograph Femme de Kinshasa: hier et aujourd’hui. In this book, she offers an account of the everyday lives of women living in the colonial city of Léopoldville where, in 1945, they were outnumbered by men 7:4, which created an urban dynamic that lent a particular rhythm to its time.
The author’s biography is as fascinating as the book’s findings, which are based on her research carried out between 1943-1945 and later in 1965 when the country gained its independence from Belgium. Recognized as the first Haitian-trained female anthropologist, Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain begins by describing her own positionality as a Haitian ethnographer married to a Belgian anthropologist. This in itself provides a snapshot into her situation vis-à-vis the colonial administration and her own social relations.
A student of Bronislaw Malinowski and colleague of anthropologist Melville Herskovits, Comhaire-Sylvain came from an illustrious family. Her father, George Sylvain, was an important figure in the resistance against the American occupation in Haiti, and her sister, Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau was one of the founders of the Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale, which fought for women’s legal rights, such as education, equality for married women, and suffrage. It is not difficult to see how these themes informed Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain’s research, for example, in her description of women’s associations whose role in the emancipation of women during independence speaks to the gender relations of the time. Her detailed interviews are particularly prescient with regards to how what has now been referred to as “urban informality” (locally known as débrouillardise) was employed by women living in patriarchal contexts with associated colonial histories.
Taking up this idea of gendered dimensions of local economies is Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law (2000), a co-authored book by Janet MacGaffey and Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga. It sheds light on the translational networks of trust built and maintained by entrepreneurs, many of whom are women. These issues are described more extensively in a book by Sylvie Ayimpam called Economie de la débrouille à Kinshasa (2014). In it, she details the ways in which Kinshasa’s citizens creatively invent new income-generating systems amid a context of institutional decay wrought by larger global forces. These two books attend to the particular choreography of circumnavigating social systems in central Africa, which while not explicitly about dance, can be useful tools for analyzing it.
Anyone who has attempted to describe dance in writing knows just how difficult it is. As a kinetic, shapeshifting medium of change, dance is nearly impossible to pin down with words. But this difficulty is partly the source of its power, as history has shown that rhythm is often a vehicle of revolution long before texts catch up with their cooler explanatory roles. One book that has inspired my approach to writing about dance is Katherine Dunham’s Island Possessed (1969). As a pioneer of dance anthropology and a former pupil of Melville Herskovits, Dunham traveled to Haiti in the 1930s to research Voodoo rituals, eventually participating in them herself. Like Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, her book contains riveting ethnographic accounts that attend to her own positionality as a local outsider on one hand, while also being a member of the African diaspora on the other. Dunham’s powerful prose reveals how dance rituals can inform methods for cultivating cultural intimacy.