There is a rich assortment of dance styles across the African landscape. Each one is peculiarly purposeful to its region, with dynamic steps that intertwine culture and rhythm.
By Somto Paul
One of the most significant cultural practices among African communities is dance. It is an art that speaks of a people’s substantial heritage through rhythmic movements and tuneful melodies. While popular culture stoutly attributes dance styles to being a form of entertainment, for Africans, it is more than just a medium for amusement. It is a way of life and a noble means of cultural expression.
There is a rich assortment of dance styles across the African landscape. Each one is peculiarly purposeful to its region, with dynamic steps that intertwine culture and rhythm. This vibrant art is practised for numerous reasons, most times, as a requirement to complete spiritual rites and other times, as a medium for storytelling, or as an element of communication.
Today, we journey through the brilliant Sub-regions of Africa, to unveil 5 of the most captivating dance traditions that have always illuminated the African cultural essence.
Setapa is a dance style belonging to the Tswana-speaking people of southern Africa who inhabit parts of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. It is a choreographic form that most people attribute to the Bangwaketse tribe of southern Botswana as it is believed that the dance was first performed there.
Setapa, truly, is a riveting dance tradition performed by both men and women. It features spellbinding footwork, beautifully synchronic back-and-forth motions, and magnificent stances similar to animals standing on their hinds. It is accompanied by chants, songs, and clapping gestures that enunciate gladness.
Male Setapa dancers weave their costumes made from the skin of antelopes into a special kind of briefs called motseto, while women dress in traditional skirts known as diphaeyana. They protect the soles of their feet with sandals made of oxen skin and strap-on ankle rattles that brighten the dance’s rhythm with each move.
Although the dance traditionally exists to celebrate the lethafula (harvest season), it has gained a lot of popularity across southern Africa, and it is performed in different festivals, events, and competitions, to showcase the opulent heritage of the region.
Not to be mistaken for the annual Indian traditional buffalo race, Kambala is a sacred dance of the Nuba people who inhabit the North African country of South Sudan. The Nuba people celebrate all kinds of prodigious ceremonies with special dances throughout the year. Among these many powerful rites is the Kambala — a ceremony of the harvest.
The Kambala festival celebrates the buoyant harvest of grain and is also associated with the coming of age for young Nuba men. The festival’s major highlight is a spiritual dance called the Kambala dance. It is a unique dance largely defined by spell-binding attires and enigmatic steps that are stunning imitations of cows in the field.
The dance is performed primarily by men, while women watch, sometimes with clapping and chanting. Dancers progress in a curved line, rhythmically stamping their feet in unison, and would echo cattle noises periodically. It is a special kind of dance that represents strength, with performers occasionally clashing to celebrate and express the vitality of their clan.
As custom requires, the dancers are ornamented with beautifully decorated Buffalo horns that are tied to their heads with a long white turban, various neck beads, thin leather belts encircled with palm strips that stretch down to their knees, and rattles that are wrapped around their legs to accent the rhythm. They also carry around a whip that they swing when performing.
Bata is a radiant dance style that belongs to the majestic Yoruba people of West Africa, who find their homes in the southwestern parts of Nigeria, southeastern parts of Togo, and the southern parts of Benin Republic. It is a spiritual dance that is believed to have come from Sango — the Yoruba god of thunder — and is performed at significant ceremonies and events.
Oral tradition accounts that aeons ago, the highly spirited dance served as a means of communication between Sango and his devotees. This is largely showcased in the energetic nature of the dance today, and in the thunderous drum lines that accompany it to acknowledge the famed god.
Bata is performed by both men and women and features intricate rhythmic patterns and glaring costumes. The prolific waste twisting, knee bending, and many other acrobatic movements add to the intrigue and brilliance of the dance. Performers customarily dress in distinct Yoruba clothing and wrap bead anklets around their feet to sweeten the rhythm.
Men are fitted in their Agbada (a kind of flowing gown), a pair of trousers, and a fila (hat), and the women are in their Iro (a wrap-around skirt) and Buba (a blouse). These fabrics are skillfully adorned with designs that reflect the opulent heritage of the Yoruba tribe. The Bata dance goes hand in hand with a large set of drums that are vigorously played to enhance the essence of the dance.
The popularity of Bata has spread even further in the modern age and is performed in cultural events and festivals worldwide, allowing people from different cultures to experience and appreciate the magnificent artistry of this dance form.
Eskista is a charismatic dance style of the Amhara people who populate the northwestern Ethiopian highlands. The word Eskista translates to English as “shaking shoulders”. Just as the name implies, this lively dance features a myriad of fiddly shoulder movements. It is a dance that expresses happiness, and it is mostly performed at weddings, cultural events, and other social gatherings.
According to Ethiopian legend, the origin of the dance came from the careful observation and subtle mimicking of the waggling neck gestures of snakes whenever they hear music. These patterns inspired the intense shoulder techniques of the Eskista dance, and have since become a substantial aspect of Ethiopia’s legacy.
It is danced by men and women of all ages, including children. Its fundamental focus is on the upper body, with rapidly bouncing shoulders that create a wave-like flow. It also features sublime footwork, clapping, and admirable twirls that add to the dynamic nature of the dance. It is accompanied by Ethiopian folk music and instruments like the masinko (a single bowed lute) and the kebero (a traditional drum), which enhance the rhythm and convey cultural essence.
Dancers appear in a traditional wool dress called gabbi or netella, which gives more colour to the performance and makes it refreshing to watch.
The Venda people are a small community that finds their home in the Soutpensberg Mountains of Limpopo. They are known for a couple of pious traditions, with the most notable being the Venda initiation ceremony — a coming-of-age ritual for the younger generation.
The initiation begins when young boys and girls reach puberty and consists of two separate schools for both genders. There are 3 stages in each school. The boys go through vhutuka, thondo, and then murundu, and the girls vhusha, tshinkada, and dombani.
The Dombani school extends the longest, and parts of it are attended by boys who have completed their phase in thondo. It features the mighty Domba dance (python dance). The dance is performed by the girls as the final rite in the festival. The girls form a long chain (diu) by holding the elbow of the person up front, and move in a clockwise position around the courtyard, while monotonously responding to calls from their lead singer.
Traditionally, the girls danced naked, but modern times require that they put on a shedu (a piece of clothing that passes between their legs, forming an apron in front). They also lock on metal bracelets and anklets that glimmer as they dance. Domba is a symbolic dance that represents the great python god who inhabits the sacred Fundudzi Lake, and it is strongly associated with fertility.
Somto Paul is a writer who crafts content that explores various aspects of human experiences. He is the author behind “Memoirs of a Contemporary African”, a monthly newsletter on Substack. Through this platform, he shares intriguing narratives from his unconventional life journeys with his ever-curious readers.