Strictly, come Dancing

About Eritrea - History & Culture

It is unlikely that any human society has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like cave painting, the first purpose of dance is probably ritual - appeasing a nature spirit or accompanying a rite of passage. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication. Pleasure can never have been far away. Music makes everybody dance including the animals. They say the cobra dances to the snake-chamber’s flute and the elephant wobbles its head to the drum of the mahout.

How about the bees? Yes, they dance, but only by way of passing information to their species. Who knows if we are not after all passing information to the spirits in high places by dancing in the manner of bees?

Every dance has a meaning. It is performed for the purpose of communicating with high life and it does it by sending vibrations through the body. We know that King David danced almost naked before the Ark. Unfortunately his wife saw him in secret and despised him in her heart.

In most ancient civilizations, dancing before the god was an important element in temple rituals. In Egypt, the priests and priestesses, accompanied by harps and pipes, performed stately movements which mimed significant events in the story of a god, or imitate cosmic patterns such as the rhythm of night and day.

Sacred occasions in Greek shrines, such as the games at Olympia from the 8th century BC, were inaugurated with dancing by the temple virgins. The choros is originally just such a dance, performed in a circle in honour of a god. In the 6th century it became the centre piece of Greek theatre.

In India, the formalized hand movements of the priestesses in Hindu temples are described in documents from as early as the 1st century AD. Each precise gesture is of subtle significance. A form of classical dance based upon them - known as Bharata Nhatyam - is still performed by highly skilled practitioners today.

Again, some dances are expressions of joy while others like war dances, are preparations for bloodshed. There are anxiety dances also, as when people dance for rain. Add to these, sexual dances and frenzied dances of the voodoo and you have every reason to throw a party in your house just for the heck of it.

Back in the day in traditional Eritrea, adults used to scare children about certain behavior of the baboons. If they caught you walking around on their hills, they said, they just skinned you alive, filled your blood-dripping hide with pebbles and crafted it into a drum to perform their macabre dance. Such ghoulish stories caused some faint-hearted children to stay home and read instead.

And then they saw the grownups singing to a snail, and he would stick his head and pretended to dance.
The children following suit would say, “Please Mister Snail, come out and dance for me”, and the snail seemed to say “Give me a break, will ya!”

The same thing happened with the dancing falcon. As the feathered predator hovered in the sky borne by warm air currents, they sang down below:

Lilo Lilo please dance for me I will give you a chick for your daughter’s marriage…..

And the dancing falcon would sway here and there in the sky and we would become very happy indeed.
And the kids did the Dervish whirling to make it rain. And it rained just on time. Then why pray when dancing was more efficient in the happening of miracles?

It is said back in the 1960’s, the flu had its first large scale attack on the people of Asmara. No amount of aspirin or antibiotic could persuade the plague to leave the town in peace. For the traditionalists, flu was not a common disease but something that bad fairies brought as a cruel gift to the people they hated. So the women organized a dance and crafted something that symbolized the disease and danced their way up to the outskirts of Asmara and waved it goodbye. Good riddance! And so much for learned treaties about flu and public health care.

The children also sang to the chrysalis and he danced. When they grew up, the learned and wise told them that all the dances that they witnessed or performed themselves were meaningless movements to which their simple minds lent anthropomorphic and divine interpretations.

Goodbye, age of innocence!

During the 30 year armed struggle for liberation, the freedom fighters danced between battles. It heightened their morale and helped them to forget for a while the carnage they had just experienced. They danced also for joy, as when a battle was won and that with less caualty. They danced to entertain the masses and also for the sake of dancing.

Dancing did not only keep the fighters’ morale high and leave it on top, but it consolidated feelings of patriotism among the Diaspora. For this, special dance troupes toured Europe and America and through their music and dances assured the people that everything was okay and that independence was just around the corner.

A few days ago when I was watching how Eritrean citizens in Diaspora celebrated Independence Day, I had the impression that dancing was the main program of the celebrations. Everybody dances in circles with the singer seeming to cast a spell on the swaying mass of people who shook it and crouched it until early hours of the morning.

What cannot be expressed through words can best be articulated through vigorous dance accompanied by song whose words touch nationalistic chords.

About two years ago, I was sent to cover a reception at Embasoira Hotel held to implement the convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in Eritrea. The Sbrit dancing troupe was there to perform the nine Eritrean ethnic dances. Some of the invited guests who came from various parts of the world were enchanted by what they saw.

The evening dance performance began with that of the Kunama ethnic group. I felt like I was watching the Watussi dance of Burundi.

The Hidareb dance was superb. The soft rhythm of the music and the mournful tune accompanied by the undulating from the waist movements of the girls leaning backward with the sword brandishing boys leaping nearby looks neither African nor Asian. This particular dance has to be studied and developed.
And finally they invited everybody to come forward for the Tigrigna dance. I said why did they save the Tigrigna dance for a final mass dance? Why not the others? The answer I got was that Tigrigna is so simple that everyone, including the lame and the limping, can do it. You just shuffle in circles for a full 10 minutes and suddenly it is the ‘entrance to the frenzied phase’ which is the sibra. You just sort of squat and shake your shoulders and then rise up to your full length, and that’s all.

And now for the shuffles and going round and round in circles. Oh no! Not again!

It is in such moment that people remember that they have just forgotten a very important appointment with their beer or whisky-filled glasses lying on the table. And they just disappear.

Tigrigna dance is so monotonous in the Kuda(Circling) part that at times it is possible to conduct business deals with the person who is circumambulating next to you, or else talk about things of personal nature.
That’s until the sibra( crouching and shaking) time.

However, a friend who was sitting just next to me saw it differently. It is not that monotonous as you put it, he said, if you had seen it being performed during the armed struggle for liberation you wouldn’t have said that.

In some ways he is right. But, after watching the Kunama doing their thing, the Tigrigna dance is just a highland version of a Desert dance akin to that of the Bedouins.

The Tigre dance with the girls wagging their heads vigorously and thereby lashing their dreadlocks left and right is an interesting artistic performance.

But what happens in the village to girls whose hair refuses to grow?