How to do gumboot dancing

How to Gumboot Dance like a South African

Now reading: How to Gumboot Dance like a South African

Wanna learn how to gumboot dance like a South African?

The Isicathulo, or gumboot dance, is a traditional African dance done in Wellington boots known simply, in South Africa, as gumboots.

The dance is a dance of life; a celebration of what it is to be human. At the end of the rhythmic, earth beating and easy to learn dance, you’ll feel like a better person for the experience.

Follow these steps to learn how to gumboot dance, as if you’ve been doing it your whole life:

Here’s How to Gumboot Dance, Like a South African
  • Don a pair of gumboots, preferably black ones, but ye common garden wellies will also do the trick.
  • For extra effect, embellish your boots with bells, so that when you hit the ground, there is an additional jangle, or wear bells on your wrists.
  • Raise one of your legs, bent at the knee, so that your thigh is parallel to the ground.
  • Hunch forward over your raised leg, raising your arms at the same time.
  • Hit either side of the gumboot of your raised leg with a right hand, left hand, right hand again, to the count of 1, 2, 3.
  • And then plant that raised foot back onto the ground with a resounding smack on the count of 4, letting your gravity settle, for just that beat, with both feet planted equally on the ground.
  • Now raise the other leg and do the same thing – 1, 2, 3 down on 4.
  • Build this rhythmic hitting of either side of the boot to raised, alternate legs, into a pattern – 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • Good!
  • Now you add what’s known as ‘the posture’ – your body is bent, as if you’re almost sitting, tail out, knees bent, weight of the body over the knees – this makes it really easy to then lift alternate legs, because the weight of the body is equally distributed over the bent legs (it helps you from falling over).
  • Now that you’ve got the basic 1, 2, 3 down rhythm going nicely, you count down: 1, 2, 3 down (twice), then 1, 2 down (twice), then 1, 1, 1 down with a ‘hey!’.
  • It helps hugely if someone starts clicking the rhythm before hand, so that there’s a count in, or the whole thing can end up a shambles.
  • You know how to gumboot dance!
A bit more practice, and you could end up looking like this:

Do a YouTube search for learn how to gumboot dance, and you’ll find a number of variations of the traditional 1, 2, 3 down that we’ve outlined for you above.


Image Credit: Top image by and © Gabi Falanga




Narrative - Gumboot Dancing

Gumboot History

Picture from

    Gumboot dancing comes from South Africa workers who worked in the gold mines during the migrant labor system and oppressive Apartheid Pass Laws. During this time, workers were separated from their families and forced to work in harsh conditions  (Gumboots: Rhythm is a Language ). The gold mines they worked in were completely dark and flooded. The flooding caused skin breakdown like ulcers and several diseases. Not only was their work environment harsh, but so was the rules or guidelines. Workers were chained to their work stations with shackles and not allowed to speak to one another while working months at a time. Many workers were killed during this work by accidents, while others were beaten and abused  (South African: Gumboot Dance).

The Mine Worker's Uniform

Picture from

The flooding became a big problem because so many workers were getting ill. The bosses decided to take the cheaper route in dealing with the problem, so instead of draining the water they bought the workers rubber gumboots to prevent skin breakdown. Like the picture to the left, the workers uniform consists of hardhats, bandannas, jeans/overalls, and gumboots. With this uniform, the workers were not able to show their ethnic identity or carry on their traditions with their clothing, so they turned to another form of expression (South African: Gumboot Dance).

Communicating in the Gold Mines

Picture from

The workers began to express themselves by making rhythms and beats with their bodies, gumboots, and chains. They made the noises by slapping their boots (like the picture on the right), stomping their feet, and rattling their shackles. Not only did this express their ethnic identity by using their traditional songs and rhythms, but it helped them communicate in the workplace. The workplace was very dark and they were not able to speak to one another, so this was the only way to communicate with the other workers (South African: Gumboot Dance).

Gumboot Dancing Spreading out of the Workforce

Picture from

     Gumboot dancing started to spread outside of the gold mines and into the communities as a form of entertainment. As the dance became popular, the employers took the dancers and formed troupes to represent their company. They had the troupes perform to visitors and spread the good word about their company, but most of the performances were done in the workers own language. This allowed the dancers to express how they really felt by mocking their employers to their face and them not even knowing it. These performances lead to popularizing this style of dance to where it is performed worldwide today. This dance today is used to show the history of South Africa and as any form of dance, this style has been adapted to many new modern forms of dancing (South African: Gumboot Dance).

Step Dancing or "Stepping"

Picture by Dara Nikolova

Today gumboot is popular and has morphed into a different form of dance that is more modern called stepping. Stepping was created by African American college students. Stepping involves similar rhythms and instruments as gumboot dancing. Stepping involves using the body as the main instrument by stomping the feet, clapping the hands, and slapping different parts of the body to make rhythms. In stepping, the performers also use their voices to make the performance more expressive and dramatic. This style of dancing is very popular among sororities (picture on bottom right) and fraternities (picture to the left) at multiple universities across the United States. Just like gumboot dancing, stepping has also evolved and now is spreading into several communities all across America (Step Afrika!: What's Stepping?).

Picture by Anne Wernikoff

The Author's Thoughts

The reason I choose this dance was because I thought it had an interesting history and I wanted to learn more about it. The way they used the rhythms and beats to communicate to each other is very original and proved to be an effective way to express their feelings. I also choose this dance because I love to watch stepping and I wanted to learn the roots to the dance. When I watch gumboot dancing, I feel a sense of freedom and that I am able to express myself through dance and sound. When I think about the dancing, I think that these men were very brave to start this new form of communication with a strong authority over them and very creative. I can also imagine the hurt, pain, and anger these men must have felt while working these long hours and not being able to be free. I feel like slapping the boots was not only a form of communication, but also a way to let off steam and show emotions. My experience tells me that these men went through very hard times and were dying for a way to communicate and express themselves. I can't imagine being chained up, working months at a time, and working in the dark. The men also showed bravery and uniqueness. Overall, gumboot dancing comes from a difficult time in South Africa's history, but it has grown into an entertaining dance that brings communities all over the world together. It also has built a foundation for other dances including stepping.

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