The traditional dances of Madagascar

Rakotomalala, Mireille (Tr. by Liz Burns).1997. The traditional dances of Madagascar. In: Dagan, Esther A. (Hrsg).1997. The spirit’s dance in Africa. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Arts Publication. S. 245-249.

Abstract by Christine Singer

As a result of colonisation and historical migration, Madagascar’s population is marked by a rich diversity of cultures from all over the world. Influences from Austronesia, Arabia, Africa and Europe have contributed to form a multiethnic society. This diversity is especially manifested through the medium of dance. For this reason, Madagasy dance consists of a large variety of forms of which each is embedded in different social contexts such as weddings, exhumations, inaugurations, religious ceremonies and so forth.

Consequently, the multiplicity of styles and genres of dance is enormous: Tromba or Salamanga (religious-magical dances), Fampithana (dances that assure social relationships), Joros (sacrifice dances) to only state a few. An exclusive form is the operatic theatre Hira-gasy, as it combines several forms of artistic expression, including dance. Generally speaking, dance is the central feature of many social Malagasy occasions. Therefore it needs to be regarded as the expression of the performer’s sentiments and of group identity. In the article given the dance ceremonies of the Merina people, the Betsileo, the Betsimsakaa, the Tandroy and the Sakalava are presented in detail.

Furthermore, collective dances also serve to transmit traditional knowledge that is highly protected by families and that is therefore transmitted from generation to generation only. The traditional dance performance consists of a competition between two groups. At this point, the basic motivation of the contest is to criticise administrational issues through metaphorical language and through rhythm. Additionally, gestures and choreography serve to create a correspondence between dancers and onlookers. The formation of a circle is the most common arrangement of the Malagasy dances (Latsitanana, Dihy Soroka, Salegy etc). Furthermore, among some peoples, like the Betsileo and the Sakalava, dances are separated according to gender and age, whereas in other regions such separation does not occur.

What is essential, secret messages and emotional expressions are also presented by a variety of body movements. These play a distinctive role in Malagasy dances and are defined by the arrangement of hands, feet and a variety of body poses. Movements may be fast or slow depending on the music, but their character is rather subtle than energetic. Besides, dances like the Salegy, the Kahhoitry and the Jabana aim to imitate waves and therefore can be regarded as manifestation of a people’s close relationship to their natural environment. In addition to this, in the Latsitanana and Tsinjaka, mythical birds are imitated by delicate movement of fingers and hands. In other dances more emphasis is put on foot patterns and small jumps (Kidodo) or on a precise movement of the shoulders (Sy Dihy Soroka).

Moreover, the bamboo cithar, drums and flutes are basic instrumental features of creating songs and rhythms. According to diverse ethnic groups and occasions of performance, tempo and lyrics of the songs may vary. In some dances like the Jihy, a story teller’s solo is the central element of the ceremony. In general, the lyrics aim to transmit traditional histories and mythical knowledge.

In addition to this, the use of traditional costumes also forms an essential element of dance performances. Among the various ethnic groups, there is a wide range of ornamented robes, shirts and pants, that are worn for dance purposes. However, the lamba, a woven piece of silk symbolising prestige and power is a central characteristic in many Malagasy regions.

All in all, the traditional dances of Madagascar do not only serve to manifest social identity, but also play an important role in transmitting historical, secret knowledge from generation to generation.


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