Dances Namibia should not forget

Mans, Minette.1997. Dances Namibia should not forget. In: Dagan, Esther A. (Hrsg).1997. The spirit’s dance in Africa. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Arts Publication. S. 231-235

Abstract by Christine Singer

One of the most essential aspects about indigenous Namibian dance is that it plays a social rather than a theatrical role. A large variety of dance practices are established all over the country. Correspondingly, the Namibian population (around 1.8 million people) is marked by a striking diversity of languages and cultures. Moreover, in order to examine the practices of indigenous dance, it is essential to see their embedment in several contextual parameters, i.e. cultural traditions, social life and geographical features.

Music and dance are central elements of every day life in Namibia. For this reason, almost every dance event has an informal character and needs to be regarded as the nonverbal expression of a people’s values, beliefs, of its existential circumstances and so forth. Modalities of performance vary from area to area, depending on the natural environment of the dancers, as well as on the character of the event.

Basically, Namibian dance events mirror the social context which they belong to. Community participation is an essential aspect, even though solo performances occur in several dance presentations. Additionally, certain dances are segregated according to gender, age or status of the participants, while others do not represent any separation. The most common Namibian dance pattern is the formation of a circle by singers and onlookers around a solo performer. Amongst the Ovahimba and the Ovazemba people (north-west Namibia), for example, the social dance game ondjondgo as well as the competitive dance game ongandeka is extensively practiced. Ondjongo involves both men and women forming a circle, clapping, stamping and singing without any instrumental support. Solo dancers, who perform in the middle of the circle, play an obligatory role. Ogandeka, which is often correlated to a boxing match, is performed in a similar way, though only young men are allowed to take part. The central topic is the simulation of a boxing match between two bulls, imitated by the solo performers. Moreover, linear structured dances like the konsertliedjes or concert songs are an established but quite uncommon structure of Namibian dance. This typical performance of the Damara people (of central and western Namibia) exemplifies the cultural effects of historical contact with Western church music and South African styles. Participants are lined up in several rows resembling a western choir, their foot patterns creating a rhythm. Additionally, the dance is expressed through forward, backward and circular movements. Finally, couple dancing is popular in southern and urban areas. Especially among the Orlam and Reboth people, the langarm dance, which may be compared to the Western Waltz, has become an established way of dancing. However, the Nama-Step, a group dance involving step patterns, is more traditional among these peoples.

In addition to this, it is important to briefly picture the geographic influences on the distinctive forms of music and their relation to the dancer’s body movements. On the one side, drums make up a significant characteristic of the northern dance, due to the availability of wood within the area. Because of the involvement of hip rotation, shoulder vibration and leaps, the typical body movements appear to be very lively and energetic. On the other side, dancers of other regions, like the arid south, where the accessibility to wood is not given, produce different sounds for the supply of their dances. Southern Namibians therefore often involve stamps and swishes to generate rhythmic sound patterns as well as dust. Compared to northern dancers, body actions are quite small and just moderately powerful.

Last but not least, many Namibian dances are performed in a ritual context. These dances form the essential part of spiritual healings, initiation ceremonies and of seasonal festivals. Body performance, rhythm and tone patterns differ from region to region. Spiritual healing dances, which are practiced in case of illness, require the participation of the whole community in song, rhythm and dance in order to supply the healer’s solo performance. Among the Ju/Hoansi for example, lots of emphasis is put on the trance stage the healer tries to reach through the ritual of his dance.

Additionally, one should not forget the variety of dances Namibians perform within the context of initiation rites for girls. According to different regions of the country, the initiation may be a communal event with a group of girls being initiated altogether (efundla in the Ohangwena- region). In contrast, it may also take place as an individual happening when the girl has to be instructed on her own (simbayoka in the Caprivi- region). In both cases, however, several dances form an essential part of the transformation stages and aim to symbolize their change from girlhood into womanhood.

n conclusion, Namibian dance can never be separated from a variety of cultural elements and therefore needs to be regarded as the nonverbal expression of a people’s values, beliefs and of existential circumstances.


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