History of ‘Langarm’ and Cape communities

Willie Jales, left, and Michael Dunseith in 2012 at his house in Lansdowne, Cape Town.

As a popular South African dance form, langarm often conjures up images of couples sokkie dancing sedately to the beat of Afrikaans pop music. This is especially how many white South Africans view langarm.

But langarm as we know it today, is more than just sokkie; it has a rich history, and was already used as a form of recreation and entertainment in the Cape during the colonial period.

Having been influenced by many styles of dance and music over time, such as English country dancing, the quadrille or square dances, military dance bands and Cape Malay quadrille bands, langarm over time became increasingly popular, especially within the coloured community.

“The term langarm was in widespread use by the so-called coloured communities of District Six and the Cape at large in the late 20th century, to refer to the then current ballroom dances and dance bands, as well as earlier ballroom dances and dance bands from the 1930s onward,” says Michael Dunseith, who is from Strand, and who recently completed his Master’s degree in musicology at Stellenbosch University.

He’s currently exploring additional topics of research for publication, inspired by his thesis.

Inspired by the late Willie Jales’ passion for preserving the legacy of coloured langarm dance bands in the Cape, Mr Dunseith explored the meaning langarm holds for the coloured people of Cape Town, and its origins in ballroom dancing.

Mr Jales was a tenor and alto saxophonist, originally from District Six, who lead both a Christmas choir and a ballroom-langarm dance band, namely Willie’s Starlite Orchestra.

During the course of his research, Mr Dunseith used primary and secondary sources to collect historical data and also conducted numerous interviews with leaders and members of two active dance bands: The Strand Combo and Kallie’s Dance Band from Grabouw, in addition to attending many of their functions.

Mr Dunseith followed Mr Jales’ lead, and joined the terms ballroom-langarm in a duel language moniker that clearly positions the culture firmly rooted in classic ballroom practice but with a local flavour especially to be found in the use of the vastrap rhythm, which was exclusively used in the square dances but is currently used for loose dancing or line dances.

“The coloured people of the Cape have embraced the term langarm as their own and for them, it refers specifically to a ballroom dance event and the dancing and music associated with it,” says Mr Dunseith.

“No other cultural group in South Africa manifest an evening of ballroom-langarm dancing in the same way that the members of the coloured community do, with a high level of traditional ballroom skills as well as the remnants of the squares utilising the vastrap rhythm which has now been adapted to modern versions of the American line dance, echoing strongly the old longways of the English country dances.”

According to Mr Dunseith, research has shown that the ballroom-langarm music and dance practices of the coloured people of the Cape, represent an unbroken tradition of musicianship and dance skills that span from the beginnings of the Cape colony until the present.

Regarding the future of langarm dance, Mr Dunseith says it is far from dead.

“According to research consultant Shireen Steenkamp, a leading dance teacher in Cape Town, there are at least 50 small dance studios functioning within the Cape Town Metropole, and teaching the next generation of ballroom-langarm dancers,” he says.

“The ages of those in attendance at these events, which take place regularly across the Cape Town metropole in town and community halls, are evenly spread across all age groups from mid-twenties upward and this applies to the band members as well. There are approximately 10 top dance bands that function in the Cape Town metropole, which rely on fundraising efforts for revenue.”

Mr Dunseith says there is still a strong awareness and knowledge of formal ballroom-langarm dancing among patrons of all ages as well as the dance bands and their choice of music.

“As long as this awareness can be maintained, through the help of the dance studios, combined with the fun and comradery of the new line dances, the dancing public will continue to enjoy these unique events as prime occasions for social interaction in a fun and civil environment within the community,” he says.

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