Embodiments of Axé in the African Diaspora
Christian Agbabiaka, Roda Musmar, Jesus Perez
When discussing what each member of the group wanted to research and present for our final project, we all agreed that our common goal was to explore diasporic dances and religions, and how Axѐinfluences each. In addition, we agreed to explore three main case studies, which were Candomble, Capoeira, and break dancing. It was the perfect blend of exploring a religion, an art form, and a contemporary dance. From there, we also decided to incorporate similarities from our own different cultures, since we were a group with such a diverse background (a Nigerian-American, an Ethiopian, and a Mexican-American). We thought it would add an interesting appeal that is beyond the purview of this statement.
Before talking about the different practices that we seem to be interconnected, we first provided a summary of Axѐ, the connecting thread that we have found throughout all these different forms of dance and worship. Axѐ can be defined as a force that guides movement and meaning within the African tradition. We likened it to the Africanist aesthetic, six different creative and kinetic characteristics seen across African Diaspora performances. As theorized by Robert Farris Thompson, Kariamu Welsh Asante, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild, they are: coolness, youthful vitality or ephebism, polyrhythms and polycentrism, balance in asymmetry, high-affect juxtaposition, and satire. More specifically, Axѐ is an intangible energy that is mostly about how intention and action/movement are conjoined. That is not to say that there is no way visual cues for Axѐ in movement. Axѐ can be seen clearly in dance as circular or spiralling movements or as a wave/undulation. We then took a look at a few different forms of danced practices, and examined how Axѐ manifests in all of them.
Starting with Candomble, the oldest form of the three examples, we discussed the practice’s Yoruban religious affiliations. Mostly practiced in Brazil, Candomble is a religion that incorporates dance-like movements during rituals and ceremonies. That’s when Axѐ is most felt or sensed. During Candomble ceremonies, participants witness the presence of the Orisha or spirit, when the divine mounts (possesses) an individual. At that time, the individual dons the characteristics of the said Orisha. The interaction between the worshiper and the divine energy that they are embodying is a perfect example of Axѐ. Or Axѐ materialized. It is the creation of an otherworldly reality, the intent of the dancer expressed through their movements. For that short span, the person becomes divine.
Somewhat related to Candomble is Capoeira. Said to be created approximately 500 years ago in Brazil by Africans enslaved primarily from the Angola region, Capoeira developed out fighting and self-defense techniques. It is an art form that defies a specific description. Interpreted or regarded as a martial art or dance performance, Capoeira is deeply rooted in the rich cultures of Africans transplanted to Brazil. There is very little documented written history of Capoeira and what we know has been passed down orally through many generations (orality being another great dimension of Africanist undertakings). YouTube video documentaries with contemporary practitioners propose that, originally, these practices were always accompanied by traditional African music to perhaps fool plantation owners into thinking fight training sessions were harmless dances.
Although Capoeira might have ambiguous origin stories, many scholars agree that it is a form of embodiment closely tied to Axѐ. When it comes to dancing, Axѐ is usually conceived as as a form of expression and is also used to create an art that encompasses the intentions and environments of the dancer. This relates to Capoeira because the enslaved Africans felt oppressed upon arrival to the Americas and had finally found a source of release, a way to feel whole and human. both their surroundings and intentions played a major role in the development of Capoeira.
Finally, we discussed Break dancing, a recently “invented” dance form that originates in New York City during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Some suggest it may have stemmed from martial arts moves developed by street gangs, also for self-defense. These moves later evolved into the Break dancing movements we recognize to this day. Break dancing tends to be fairly athletic, acrobatic, and energetic, encapsulating Robert Farris Thompson’s idea of “ephebism or youthfulness” in African Art in Motion. This quality is characterized by strength, flexibility, speed, and intensity in all parts of the body (7). With striking similarities to Capoeira in both origin and dance style, Break dancing piqued our interest to find traces of Axѐ across the Americas. What immediately stuck out to us was a quote from Niyi Afolabe’s Fragments of Bone, “[Axѐ] triggers action, it influences reality, it invokes as it provokes, it makes happen” (108). Break dancing not only invokes memories of the soul, and provokes them to be actualized into being.