They danced the toi-toi last night at the Washington Convention Center to welcome the man they had come to see and hear -- Nelson Mandela.
Some members of the audience, following the South African Chorus in the lively dance, bobbed left and right with fists raised, chanting slogans in praise of Mandela's native land.
"Si wa wa e Pitori," the chorus sang, which means "we are going to Pretoria." "The song means they are marching to Pretoria and the dance signifies the march," said one South African woman. "People just want to participate in the struggle. That's why they do the dance."
The toi-toi, which is also spelled toyi-toyi, is a political protest dance symbolizing opposition to oppression. It is a rallying vehicle used to encourage South Africans to revolt against discrimination and fight for their freedom.
The toi-toi grew out of South African tribal dances in the 18th or early 19th century as a protest against white Europeans who had begun to show an increased presence in the country, said Los Angeles African dance specialist Leon Mobley. The dance, which is done by moving in a jogging side-to-side motion with a raised fist, symbolizes the warrior's struggle for victory, he said.
In recent years it has become closely associated in the minds of Americans and Europeans with black South Africans' struggle against apartheid.
Simon Lebala, a South African and a member of the chorus, said the audience's participation in the dance was a fitting tribute to Mandela, whose three-day stay in Washington was capped by the rally. "It's a revolutionary dance. It is used to mobilize people to praise heroes and to address the positive spirit," Lebala said.
Corriece Perkins, of Alexandria, said she participated in the dance to show the African guests that she identified with their struggle for freedom. "As an African-American, I can identify with oppressed people any place else in the world. The dance represents victory over oppression, similar to what the spirituals did for slaves in the fields."
Perkins, who fought back tears, said participation in the dance signifies that Americans are committed to working with South Africans in their cause.
Before the rally began, Capitol Hill resident Mildred Haupt-Gordon, 30, said she hoped to learn the toi-toi during the event. "I hope the whole building ends up doing it. I think we should go out on 16th and Penn and have George and Barb do the toi-toi."
Cindy Thompson, who is white, said she feels a kinship with the South African movement that transcends color lines. "To me the dance signifies everybody working together to free South Africa."