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  • The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance, and Democratization in Malawi by Lisa Gilman
  • Umi Vaughan
The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance, and Democratization in Malawi. By Lisa Gilman. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Pp. 252, illustrations, maps, photographs.)

The Dance of Politics is a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on gender, performance, and socio-political transformation in Africa. For several generations now, scholars such as J. H. Kwabena Nketia, John Miller Chernoff, Karin Barber, and Kelly Askew have given attention to the importance of music, dance, and other performances as social discourse and as means for individual and collective social/ political action. This book provides a deep exploration of music and dance in the context of a specific African nation during a key moment in its history. Lisa Gilman examines the use of women's dancing for political aims before and after independence in Malawi. She explains how traditional circle dances like the chiwodi were re-oriented, first to serve the project of achieving independence from England and later to consolidate and defend political power in the newly independent Malawi. Her work on dance in Malawi helps to clarify the meaning of women's performance practices across the continent.

In "Introduction: Gender, Power, and Performance," the author explains tradition as a process that entails selecting practices from the past, then re-creating them for use in the present and future. She focuses her study on women's dancing in two main historical contexts: spontaneous pre-independence dancing and programmed dancing in the independence era. Chapter 2, "Dance Nationalism and the Independence Movement," explains various types of groups in which women danced during the 1950s and 1960s Malawi independence struggle. She focuses on the politically based dance groups that only perform when a particular party requests that they promote their causes and campaigns. She shows how women were marginalized politically even as they occupied the center of the dance space. The chapter includes a fascinating discussion of how dance was also used to proclaim the value of traditional African culture, thereby rejecting the notion of European culture superiority.

Chapter 3, "Dance and Social Control during Banda's Presidency," contains some of the most compelling sections of the book. It features Gilman's analysis of women's songs and dance performances from the President Banda era. She lays out stories from interviews with dancers, political organizers, and other participants as she explains their significance to gender and performance studies. In this chapter we hear from women who were forced to dance in support of President Banda. Gilman points out that [End Page 227] women's powerlessness—here, their inability to refuse to dance—was reflected in their very limited voice within the Malawi government. In chapter 4, "Dance, the Transition to Multi-partyism, and Patronage," Gilman explains the role of women's dancing in the post-Banda era. At first rejected as a negative, "coercive" practice by the former dictator, women's dancing reestablished itself as a natural or "traditional" element in Malawi politics.

In chapter 5, "Power and Performance in Political Rallies," Gilman explores the complex messages and multiple trajectories of communication that are possible through performance. Speeches, slogans, prayers, and dances are all interpreted as performative texts that serve the interests of power wielders, yet also yielding opportunities for negotiations of power. She notes how some women were swept away by the joy of the dance as performance and thereby participated enthusiastically for years, even though they did not support the ideology and policies of the President. Chapter 6, "Why Do Women Dance?," explains the various kinds of benefits that accrue to women in exchange for political dancing: support for their preferred political party, leadership roles in the community, status distinction and rewards, opportunities to perform and travel, money, food, and material gifts. Since 1994, women are no longer coerced to dance in Malawi. This chapter discusses the factors that inform their thought process and influence their decision of whether or not to dance.

Chapter 7, "Gendering Democracy," presents the author's reflections on Malawi upon her return there after an extended absence. It reports her disappointment in what she sees as the minimal advances in women...


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