Religious dances

Livingstone, Ivan. 1997. Dances for Gods in Benin. In: Dagan, Esther A. (Hrsg).1997. The spirit’s dance in Africa. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Arts Publication. S. 196-203

Abstract by: Christine Singer

The performance of Religious dances is a very characteristic element for the culture of the Benin people. Therefore, the author Ivan Livingston draws particular attention to the traditional religious dance practices and rituals of the Fon-people as well as of the Yoruba of Nigeria, who he was able to observe and to document.

First of all, there are six essential deities to be mentioned amongst the Fon, varying according to the diverse ethnic groups and regions of Benin: Dan, the god of continuity and of richness, Zakpata, the god of Earth and of smallpox and Héviosso, the god of thunder and lightning. Dangbé (the snake god), Tohossou (the god of waters and of infirmity), Ogun (the god of iron and human toil) and Egugun (spirits of deaths) are further deities spiritual rites are performed for. Despite this variety of gods and their initiation ceremonies, many central elements of dance correspond to each other:

For a start, the performance of each rite does not only aim to initiate new members into the specific cult, but also intends to create a positive influence on the divine power. In general rites are performed outside, next to a sacrificed place such as the deity’s temple, or by the shade of a holy tree. Basically, a traditional ceremony consists of a series of dances (e.g. for Dan, Tohussou), each of them being performed in different costumes. These traditional dresses are usually marked by intense ornaments and bright colours. In addition to this, participants may carry horsetails, wands, bells and other cultural equipment to underline the powerful character of the dances for their deity.
Furthermore, performances usually take place as a parade (e.g. the ceremony of Dan), in circles (Zakpata, Dangbé) or as a line of dancers (Tohossou). For each ritual group performance of many participants is universal. In some rites, however, such as for Ogon and for Thoussou, solo performances figure an essential part of the initiation ceremony.
Moreover, all traditional ceremonies start with a steady gait, but the pace increases to peak in a fast rhythm - the dance for Dan, the snake god, must be regarded as an exception, as its rhythm remains continuous. In return the accelerating tempo is created by a variety of drums, with the drum being the basic instrument of every deity cult. Correspondingly, body movements of the participants become more and more animated and powerful. They are often expressed in a synchronised way and are especially marked by jumping and twirling. Also, great movement of shoulders and arms is an essential element. Solo performers usually show a very acrobatic style that is even more energetic. However, in the Egugun Society, solo performers (“Egun”) are feared personalities who are considered to have strong spiritual power. Therefore, sacrifices are made on their behalf. The dance of the Egun is moreover supplied by guttering sounds and whirling movements.

To sum up, every Benin dance ceremony aims to explicitly express the power of the deity and the enormous respect of its participants. Consequently, dances are even practiced until exhaustment on many rituals.


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