Travel: Immerse Yourself In The Magic Of African Cultural Dances

“It is interesting how we don’t like our bodies, but we like the way our bodies move.” She said as she shimmied and gyrated parts of her without restraint. She was a friend of a friend but as my friend told me this story, you could see his eyes light up at the beauty of the statement. Dancing is an art, a skill, part of the “artistic heritage of Africa”, as declared by Andre Marlaux in a speech at the Dakar Festival.

Dancers in the water. Image credit Antony Ochieng

Sometimes it is the moments when we stop being observers and join in the fun that are the most fun and memorable. Image credit Antony Ochieng

Looking at the pictures and the videos of the cultural dances performed at the Rusinga Cultural Festival and sponsored by the Kenyan Tourism Board I was reminded of how cultural dances are important in helping us celebrate occasions. According to Anne Eboso, the organizer of the festival, the Suba cultural dances were normally performed in all celebratory functions. Dances seem to be a central part of all cultural festivals and they are used either for entertainment or education.

Women dancing. Image from http://www.brooklynartscouncil.org/directory/16219

According to the New World Encyclopedia African dances are a means of marking life experiences, encouraging abundant crops, honoring kings and queens, celebrating weddings, marking rites of passage, and other ceremonial occasions. Dance can also be purely for entertainment and enjoyment. We have been restrained from it because of teachings that it is unholy but dancing is African. The movement of hips, waist, and arms combined with shuffling of feet to a beat is aesthetically pleasing not to mention simply fascinating. With all these things it is easy to see how it is deeply ingrained within the history of a people. A form of telling their own story the way they know how, in a way similar to Oral Literature.

Africa Imports blog explains dance, to be an integral part of the African culture. Dancers use symbolic gestures, masks, costumes, body painting and props to communicate. The dance movements can be simple or complex with intricate actions including fast rotation, ripples of the body and contraction and release. Dance is used to express emotion, whether joyful or sorrowful and it is not limited to just the dancers. Many times, spectators will be encouraged to join in. The dance is communal, an invitation to see a story play out in front of you.

If this is the case, then as a wander luster what is the point of traveling if you don’t get to hear the stories of the people of the land you are in? Why bother gracing their territory if you are not interested in their history? Even if you are not the scientific archeological type who is into artifacts and historical sites, experiencing the people’s dance is a way of experiencing the authenticity of the people in an almost magical space. This is how you listen, watch, and learn.

(1974) Kwabena Nketia says that through the dance, individuals and social groups can show their reactions to attitudes of hostility and cooperation and friendship held by others toward them. They can offer respect to their superiors, or appreciation and gratitude to well-wishers and benefactors. They can react to the presence of rivals, affirm their status to servants, subjects, and others, or express their beliefs through the choice of appropriate dance vocabulary or symbolic gestures.

Amazing African Traditional dance Botswana

John Gunther, a Western observer, traveled through Africa from 1952 to 1953, to 105 towns in almost forty countries. He got to experience the beauty of traditional dance as a foreigner seeing it for the first time. He probably learned a lot more from it than about the people than from other sight scenes.  In the Congo, he observed a rather placid dance (in its music and movement)—”a ring of shuffling women around several drummers…the nakedness of the bodies and glittering ornamentation made them superlatively picturesque.” (ibid., p. 680)

Tswana Traditional Dance

In Rwanda, the ‘mwami,’ or king, gave the Gunthers a stupendous lunch and treated them to their famous dancing. “Watusi dances are altogether different from any other we saw in Africa—wild, violent, crushingly dynamic, and marked by tremendous jumps and bounds…The leading dancer, Butera, seven feet tall, weighs something like three hundred pounds…is celebrated as a dancer and high jumper…The dancers carried spears and wore red and white cotton skirts, long-tailed white headdresses of monkey hair and beading, and bells around the ankles.” (ibid., p. 687.)

Visiting Uganda, the author found that, “the Buganda love to dance…the night clubs outside Kampala are often a clay court underneath a tree with visitors sitting on crates or boxes… The dancing is aggressively sexual, but not in an unpleasant sense…African girls with beautiful supple bodies…climbed to a Dias in the center of the hall…guests tossed coins, and the girls…strove to outdo one another in pelvic gyrations. (ibid., p. 431)

One of the other examples given on the Longwood website is a celebratory dance by the Setswana people during the wedding festivals.

There is also the Zulu and Ndebele national dances such as the Indlamu. As binoandfino.com explains, it is derived from the Zulu warrior class of ancient times. It is carried out by men in full regalia; traditional head pieces, ceremonial belts, shields and spears. In Guinea there is the Moribayassa. From the Malinke people in Guinea, this dance is done by women who have overcome great adversity. The woman starts the dance wearing old ragged clothes. Accompanied by musicians she circles the village several times, singing and dancing. The women of the village follow her and sing too. The woman then changes her clothes and buries her old clothes in a special area.

The Atilogwu is also known as the ‘Acrobatic Dance’ of Eastern Nigeria. The leaps, turns, jumps and intricate footwork of the dancers is certainly a sight to behold. The dance is usually performed at key events & ceremonies. Also performed in Nigeria is the Ewegh dance which is a dance form performed by the nomadic Tuareg tribe of North Africa. The Ewegh is strong dance performed by men in groups during festivals and ceremonial events. The San tribe of Botswana are one of the oldest tribes in Africa. The San style of dancing is one that involves fast movement, singing and complexities of rhythms that can be found in many of the dances of the Africa diaspora.

Last but not least bringing it back home we almost forget how much richness there is in our cultural history. From the Maasai who have Aduma which is one of the most famous traditional dances of the Maasai performed during Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of warriors. It is also known as the ‘”jumping dance” with each of the young warriors trying to jump higher than the previous one.  Members of the group may raise the pitch of their voices based on how high one jumps.

Maasais dancing. Image from https://www.thestar.com/life/travel/2013/08/23/kenya_maasai_chief_revels_life_of_tribe_in_maji_moto.html

To the Swahili in Coast who let their waists loose with every beat. It is a sort of dance heat. Chakacha is a very popular dance amongst the coastal tribes and their music is usually traditional or Taarab. With Taarab music and dancing, the instrumentals take up most of the song giving both the dancers and the performers time to shake their waists and move their hands freely. The major difference between chakacha and Taarab is the tempo of the songs with chakacha being the faster kind of music.

In Central Kenya the Mwomboko is the most famous dance. The rhythmic stamping of feet and sequential arm movements make up most of the dances in that area. The leg movements of both male and female are systematic and one missed step ruins the whole performance. This dance is one of the least vigorous dances in Kenya.

The Isikuti is the next most beautiful finale to the dances of Kenya. It is with much vigor and passion that the people of western Kenya dance. They probably have the most energetic dances that combine all the other four dancing styles. Unlike the coastal people who shake their waists, or the people from central whose main focus is the feet, or the northerners who love to jump and the easterners who shake their shoulders, the people of western Kenya shake their whole body. Accompanied by the famous Isikuti drums and the karingaringa, a metallic circular instrument that is hit to produce sound, they put the expression “shake what your mama gave you to good use”.

As you look at their smiles you also see dancing as a huge part of who they are. Divided even further in the regions are several ethnic groups with their own interpretation of dance. One such example is the Bukusu people who have the kutahiriwa ritual during circumcision. This is just one of the several occasions where dance is used. In special traditional ceremonies regardless of the nature of the occasion there is dance. To celebrate life and death, birth and marriage, dances which show us the diversity of cultures even here within one country. If you want to know the story of a people when you travel then, look for their dances. But don’t just be a bystander, join in and experience the magic that dance has, it weaves its own magic on the body and soul of the one who is privileged to be a part of it.

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