Dancing 'Gumboots' tells history lesson

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A gloomy, industrial stage set of metal pipes and dark corners yawns at the opening-night audience at the Wiltern Theater. It is past curtain time, yet no performers are visible. Ticketholders shift restlessly. Then, from the rear of the theater, a rich, sonorous a cappella chorus of male voices pours through the darkened space.

Boisterous, smiling South African singer/dancers tumble down the aisle to the stage, where they sing, dance, and pound out 80 minutes of high-octane South African history.

"Gumboots," so named for the big rubber boots that the actors sport throughout the evening, is culture as a history lesson. As it turns out, the unwieldy Wellingtons are the heart of the event. What unfolds onstage is a high-energy tap/song/dance recitation of the evils of South African gold and diamond mines during the apartheid period.

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The working-class art form, which has become a communal art form in the townships of South Africa over the past century, was born in a crucible of despair. Mine owners who shackled black miners to their posts and forbade any conversation between them, began dispensing the rubber footwear after they realized it was cheaper to put boots on the workers than to drain the mines properly.

As a result, the migrant laborers working some 11,000 feet underground in near-darkness, developed a morse code of slaps, stomps, and splashes that was their only form of communication.

After the mines closed, gumboot dancing evolved with each new generation. Dancers still perform all over South Africa with bottle tops strapped to their boots to symbolize the chains their ancestors once wore.

This group, which was a critical hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as London's West End, takes the gumboot tradition a step further, combining it with the poetry and music of the South African townships. The result might best be described as Ladysmith Black Mambazo (the South African-vocal troupe Paul Simon made famous with his "Graceland" album) meets the Australian all-male tap dance troupe, "Tap Dogs."

"Before Paul Simon," says artistic director Zenzi Mbuli, "Ladysmith was just like us, a neighborhood troupe. We want to do what they did and perform for the whole world."

The idea to combine the various forms was born in 1974 when Mr. Mbuli, the director of the Soweto Youth Club, took promising youths from the streets to teach them traditional ways. It took on the current size and stage of an international touring hit when the brains behind "Tap Dogs," gave them a new set, a story line, and financed a London tour. "We tell the story of the mineworkers," says Mbuli, "in a joyful way that will lift people's hearts all around the world."

'Gumboots' will tour 12 cities including Boston, Miami, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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