Dance, gender and independence

I have watched quite a number of cultural groups of the Oshiwambo people perform, but never what I saw danced today on the occasion of the 21st independence celebration of Namibia. Until now, the Oshiwambo dance I had known was always segregated by gender: the women do their thing and the then the men do their thing. Always the dance is done in a group of dancers and musicians (drummers or singers) and everyone claps rhythmically, depending on the dance. But it has always been either a group of men or women.

Less than an hour ago at the Otjiwarongo Paresis stadium in Namibia came along a group of women dressed in traditional Oshiwambo attire – the ondelela pink skirts that come up to the shins (otherwise the dancer would have trouble executing those terrifying attacks to the ground with her feet). There was, however, what appeared to be a young men wearing an ondelela on top of tracksuit pants. At first I wondered whether this just nothing other than an androgynous looking woman, but then I saw he did not have the accompanying pink scarf around his head, as all the other women – he was clearly a man.

So I there came along of group of women (and a man) who assembled in front of the tent of dignitaries to perform for them and the nation. The one man did blend in, he was one amongst about ten, and so he was almost inconsequential. They formed the typical semicircle and one of them began the drumming. Then the soloists entered. This is how this type of dance, which I had only seen performed by women, takes place: a woman enters the rest clap and there is the drummer. Of course what transpires is much more dynamic than my static description. The beat of drum is at first regular, though fast, as the soloist matches the rhythm with her feet striking the ground with intent, keeping the knees rather bent. But though I considered this dance to be one that happens below the waist, I was amazed to actually observe how much happens above the waist – thanks to the camera of the NBC that broadcast this dance. The soloist lifts her arms up and away for her head while sending reverberations of the movement of her legs travel through her back and shoulders. There is a thunder like quality with quick jolts of energy passing through the torso as the drummer accents certain beats, which now are far from steady. There is a certain prowess here of the African woman that I had noticed in performers of Alvin Ailey (American Dance Theatre). Now I realize this prowess stems from strength in agility that is somehow common to the Alvin Ailey women whose long legs pull away from the earth and these women whose stomps seem to threaten to crack open the ground.

This dance is imbued with womanhood, so where did this one man fit in? After a few women soloists came his turn. He scrawny looking body looked out of place with this muscular women who had come before him, but nevertheless he did his stomps,  as other women had done. But he went further he grabbed the ground and kicked his legs back as if he were horse kicking. The crowd went nuts. Had they ever seen anything like this before? I certainly haven’t – hands in contact the ground – that is something new for this type of dance. Perhaps his small size permitted him to do what the memes (Oshiwambo term for madams) could not.

Gender roles were recast as a man entered into the arena that had so far been proscribed to women. I remember when I attended two weddings last year that I was always the first man to jump into the group of dancing women, for which I received a reproach from my father and brother. The women, however, were more than happy to have me dance with them and they encouraged me dance with even more fervor. Therefore, perhaps the dancers at the stadium too enjoyed their male co-dancer, who enlivened this traditional dance form with his own ‘skills’ or ‘wicked skills’ as we say nowadays. This was the first dance of the 21st independence anniversary of Namibia and it set it apart from all others.

25 March 2010: Note I spoke to local choreographer, teacher and performer Angelica Schröder who claims “they always wear dresses, haven’t you seen?” I guess I have’nt. So what appeared strange for me may not have been that radical. I spoke to Angie after a contemporary dance performance at the National Theatre of Namibia this Tuesday 22 March. Will I write a review on that? Do you want me to write a review?

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About writinghealth

Wannabe Epidemiologist? Wannabe med anthro person? I guess. Christian, scientist (not Christian scientist), i mean like I studied molecular biology. I am doing a Masters of Public Health, at the University of Cape Town.
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One Response to Dance, gender and independence

  1. Pancho says:

    it was hardly surprise to see a group of women doing this very dance on World Breastfeeding day in Okahandja. This traditional Oshiwambo dance, the semicircle, the women in pink stripped, shin-high folded dresses, the clapping and the storm of stamping that kicks the sand up is expected. But then there was a lady, a dancer, sitting inside the space created by semicircle with a baby. She was breastfeeding. That I had never seen before. And beside her, a fellow dancer attacked the sand with feet, doing the characteristic punctuating movements so sharply that I could hear the drummer, even though the performance was muted. Instead, I heard the voice of the first lady who was speaking about the importance of breastfeeding – the dance was clearly performed either before her speech or after, but in any case they showed glimpses of the dance performance while she spoke.

    What on the earth am I too make of this? How does a mother breastfeeding on the ground while another dances in steps and turns communicate the importance of breastfeeding. As professor Ze’eva Cohen once said in our choreography class, dance cannot say ‘my sister is..’, it’s not like theatre. But it can still communicate. Was the purpose to merely entertain the audience while reinforcing the image of breastfeeding? It seemed so. Or was there an element of performance or a statement to be made about breastfeeding through the dance? Did the virtuosity of the dancing women in any way relate to the woman breastfeeding? Can breastfeeding be a dance?

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