By Drid Williams
Drid Williams was a professional dancer for thirty years before becoming a social anthropologist. She completed graduate degrees from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1976. She has recently completed a book for the University of Illinois Press entitled Anthropology and The Dance: Ten Lectures (Urbana-Champaign, 2004). She has done fieldwork among Carmelite nuns, Dominican friars and the Royal Ballet Company in England, and among Aboriginal communities in Northern Queensland. She has taught at Moi University in Kenya; at the University of Sydney, Australia; and New York and Indiana Universities in the United States. She is founder of the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (JASHM), first published in 1980, and she is the architect of a theory of human actions called semasiology.
The original monograph on which this post is based was the text of a lecture delivered under the aegis of the Institute for Cultural Research. Her original material was collected during 3½ years’ study in Ghana.
Why study dance? Perhaps we should simply dance instead. Studying the dances of other cultures, however, can bring valuable insights into human concerns: what it means to be human.
The existence of multi-sensory neurons – a recent discovery in the field of neuroscience – suggests that not only do single neurons process information from all our senses, but also, that powerful and lasting neural circuits are made when multiple senses are involved. Accordingly, we live better when we involve more senses. And dance is the art form par excellence for involving multiple senses.
A second point to make about this monograph is the highly valuable idea presented that art, as we understand it in the West – challenging, novel, a form of commodity – may be inferior to how other, more ‘backward’ cultures understand it. (Of course ‘backward’ has been replaced in recent years by other words: ‘developing’, ‘traditional’, ‘disadvantaged’- all of which can obscure the fact that art from such cultures may have something to teach us.)
The Sokodae: A West African Dance
The complexity, richness and diversity of today’s world, plus an unprecedented fund of available information in every field of human endeavour, produces fascinating areas of study, particularly in the social and behavioural sciences.
The study of dance, one very small and specialised facet of potential research in social anthropology, has unique attractions, advantages and disadvantages. Some of the latter are connected with the fact that in Western societies, ‘the dance’ has been classified not as an object of research but primarily as entertainment or as a means towards aesthetic enjoyment.
These classifications, of course, have not always reflected the attitudes of specialists.
Over forty years ago, Prof E.E. Evans- Pritchard pointed out that in ethnological accounts the dance is usually given a place quite unworthy of its social importance. It is often viewed as an independent activity and is described without reference to its contextual setting in native life.
Such treatment leaves out many problems as to the composition and organisation of the dance and hides from view its sociological function. In so doing, he indicated a core of concern for future research in the dance field, specifically about ‘problems as to the composition and organisation of the dance,’ which, sufficiently unravelled, can yield insights not only into the sociological function of dance but into its nature and meaning as a system of non-verbal communication and conceptualisation as well.
Material from my own work in Ghana, which took place over a period of three and a half years and which seems to be of interest to specialists and laymen alike, could be summed up, for the purposes of this discussion, in these two often repeated questions about dance research: (1) What does one study: movements, ‘emotional expression’ or what? (2) Why does anyone study this sort of thing at all?
This paper will deal principally with some of the answers to the first question, outlining components of the composition and organisation of a dance (in this case, Sokodae) which begin to form a rough outline of the general structure and relationships involved in the unit being studied, and to the extent which space permits, we will also examine a partial answer to the second question: why does one undertake such a study?
When people ask that kind of question, I often wish that they would formulate the query in somewhat plainer terms, terms which would, I think, state what is really on their minds; that is, of what use is the study of an African dance to anyone in a highly organised, technological society?
Dance of the Ntwumuru
The Sokodae, the dance around which this whole discussion turns, is a dance which belongs to the Ntwumuru people, a small group of approximately nine thousand human beings, who live in the north-eastern section of central Ghana. They are part of a larger group of Gang-speaking peoples, including the Rachis, whose history and present society is intimately involved with this dance.
Are these people and this dance not completely remote from our interests?
Not as much as we might think. Study of Sokodae, and of many other African dances, can be of use to us simply because they are from different environments, different traditions and different atmospheres.
This may seem a rather obvious point, but it is one which in my opinion can hardly be stressed too much, because we are, from a perspective of these differences, rather ill-equipped to judge or to criticise these dances or to try to do anything, at the outset, except understand them.
Habits of thought
It has been my experience that many people are willing to try to understand, even if the process involves some loss of cherished notions and/or stereotypes, but it is at this very point, no matter how positive an attitude we may have or how sympathetic we try to be, that we are in difficulties about which we are frequently unaware.
These difficulties lie in our habits of thought, some of our culturally conditioned, basically learned ways of seeing and responding, which can actively prevent, or at least obstruct, our understanding of traditional African art forms in the ways their practitioners understand and practise them, or, for that matter, the traditional arts of India or Islam as well.
For example, many people (as I am sure my readers are all aware) look at an African mask and they either say or think to themselves, ‘That was made before these people understood anything about perspective or anatomical drawing.’
In a like manner, many people look at an African dance (or think about it) as a rather disordered and chaotic affair. If not that, they think that it is a totally improvised, spontaneous and ‘free’ expression which lacks form of any kind, and this is because, first of all, they are used to seeing dance with a picture frame around it: this built-in picture frame in Western minds in relation to dance is a proscenium stage opening.
Second, they seem to want to believe that at least in the dances of Africa they might find some untrammelled, uninhibited ‘expression’ of human beings, an attitude which involves two stereotypes: (1) that of the emotionally and sexually uninhibited African; and (2) that of the naive belief that all dance behaviour is somehow ‘symptomatic’ of the participants’ feelings.
Thus, they are in danger of conceiving of these dances as being the first simple, if not childish and undisciplined beginnings in what they imagine is a ‘world history’ of the dance, which culminates in classical ballet or in some other contemporary Western theatrical dance form.
This point of view is, to be quite blunt about it, just dead wrong, for it assumes that these people are (or were) trying to do the same things with their art that we try to do.
It assumes that their art has the same reasons for existing that ours does and that they (poor dears!) just missed the point somehow…
Dance research, or research into any of the traditional art forms of the world, can demonstrate beyond any doubt that other societies are (and were) not trying to do the same things with their arts that we have done with ours, at least for the last two hundred years, and that their criteria for what we call ‘art’ was (and is) quite different from ours.
Moreover, these kinds of attitudes are appallingly ethnocentric and condescending.
Four of the major differences in criteria reflected in the Sokodae dance are these:
(1) The Ntwumuru and Krachi peoples, like the people of most preindustrialised societies, are not expressing themselves in their dances so much as they are expressing a set of ideas which are meaningful to them.
The truth of this assertion should become apparent when, later on, we examine the oral tradition for the Sokodae dance and the seven sections of it. This lack of the western concept of ‘personality’ or ‘individuality’ means that –
(2) Their art is not an end in itself; it is a means towards an end. It is not a ‘product’ in the same way that art is a product within the context of industrialised, producer-consumer societies. Which in turn means that –
(3) We must not forget that all of this kind of art is anonymous, as was most of the art in the Western world before the Renaissance.
Neo-African art, including the dance, has acquired many of the same conventions as present day Western art together with ‘personality cults’. These phenomena seem to be inevitably associated with industrialisation. Finally –
(4) Traditional African art is not relevant (in the plastic and graphic areas) because it is ‘like’ Picasso or Modigliani or, in the dance field, because it is ‘like’ the works of Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham or any other contemporary dancer.
Nor is it relevant primarily because of its design, composition, or aesthetic surfaces, elegant and beautiful though they may be.
An anthropological view
This art is relevant because of its content, because of the functions which it performs on the societies in which it exists and it is considered to be ‘successful’ in traditional terms if it ‘works’, that is, if it accomplishes the purpose for which it is done.
We must therefore try to understand the Sokodae (or any other traditional art form) in terms of its content and its criteria; an attempt which is much more akin to an anthropological rather than a Western aesthetician’s view of art in general – a view which in our contemporary world hardly needs an apology.
Most anthropologists are committed to trying to understand how people outside of their own cultures think; they are committed to trying to understand the contents and meanings of cultural behaviour in any society, including their own.
They tend to bring the same kinds of attitudes to bear upon dance, ritual and art forms which are a vital and ubiquitous group of social phenomena in West Africa. The results of this anthropological commitment in reference to art are myriad, but for our purposes, two points are perhaps most important: research of this kind can produce fresh, interesting points of departure for a re-evaluation of both the products of art and of artistic behaviour in our own society and it also means that in the next section of this paper, I shall attempt to tell you what the dance, Sokodae, is about in contrast to telling you ‘about the dance,’ for in finding out what Sokodae is about, I believe we will get nearer the mark.
The weaver bird song
Akyemba, agyanka bedi agoro,
Agoro, agoro Agoro a eye me de nono Agoro
Eee—ee—Akyemba, agyanka Agoro, agoro.
The weaver bird’s child, the orphan, comes to dance, Dance, dance. This is the dance belonging to me (which I own) Dance. The child of the weaver bird, the orphan, comes to Dance, dance.
This song, in the Twi language with its English translation, is one of the ones sung in the first section of the Sokodae dance. It is reproduced here because it contains the three key ideas which the Sokodae is about:
(1) Ownership, (2) Orphan and (3) Birds in general and the weaver bird in particular.
In order to establish their ownership of the dance and to give some idea of its age, the Ntwumurus tell (a story that is 200 years old about tribal origins and the dance.) The song quoted was especially important, because the Ntwumurus wanted to be sure that another tribe, the Juabens, clearly understood the origins, meaning and ownership of the dance.
The other two ideas connected with the weaver bird’s song are somewhat different both in character and in kind; the notion of ‘orphan’ and that of ‘birds’.
Orphan has no literal meaning as we would understand it as it is used here; the dance is not about someone who has lost his or her parents. It has what we might call a figurative meaning stemming from the fact that that Sokodae dance belongs to everyone. This dance has no ‘parents’; that is, it is not restricted in any way to persons of a particular cult or class. It does not require any special knowledge nor does it have any priests attached to it. All Ntwumuru may participate in it regardless of status, economic standing or other considerations.
Another kind of ownership of this dance is expressed in connection with ideas about birds: that part of the song which says, ‘ … which belongs to me’ or ‘which I own’.
The ‘I’ is used in a generic sense; it means ‘I, an Ntwumuru’. The idea is expressed symbolically through associations with the weaver-bird. As everyone knows, this bird builds one of the most complex and distinctive nests to be found among the feathered species. No other bird can reproduce it. The Ntwumurus see themselves as the weaver birds and the Sokodae as the nest.
May I hasten to point out here that by no means is there any confusion in their minds as to whether they are really weaver birds or not, any more than there is any confusion in an English ballet dancer’s mind as to whether she is really a swan while performing Swan Lake.
The weaver bird in Sokodae is used in a conceptual fashion, as we shall see.
The major motif of the Sokodae is that of the courting and mating of birds. In the first section of the dance, which is called Kowurobenye (Kowurobe = orphan, nye = has got it), the men dance in clockwise and counter-clockwise circles simultaneously. They present a striking spectacle with their brilliantly coloured cloths streaming out behind them. The cloths in motion extend the male dancers’ bodies like the bright tail plumage of peacocks, cockatoos and parrots.
The movements all suggest the bowing, strutting and ecstatic rushing movements of the courting male bird.
Our informants pointed out to us that in the Kowurobenye, the males rival each other for the attention of the females. Within the step patterns, they even try to bump against one another in an attempt to knock each other off balance so that they will make their rivals appear clumsy and unaccomplished to the audience of watching women.
The second section of the dance is a female counterpart of the first male section, although the movements are quite different.
Men, if they wish, can change the positioning of their cloths to simulate how women wear them and dance in this section as well.
In decided contrast to the strong locomotor movements in the first section, the movements in this section, called Kenemoe, are subtle and delicate both in terms of footwork and movements of the torso.
The whole of the torso is involved in a kind of light rippling movement from front to back having no lateral overtones at all. Sometimes, this move is carried into the head and neck, reminding one of fowls walking or pecking softly at grains of food.
The word, Kenemoe, means a movement, which makes it a little difficult to translate!
The third section of Sokodae, called Kumumuwuru (spinning), is probably the most spectacular from a Western point of view. It involves whirling, spinning turns done by the men in solo sequences. They practise the rather difficult manipulation of their cloths privately – part of the physical skill required to do the step properly – for the cloth must be made to rise up in such a way that the upper part of the body is invisible.
While turning, the total shape of the man and his cloth should resemble a tulip blossom and stem. The men do this to ‘make themselves look beautiful’ – and it does.
Kumumuwuru is done for the same reason that the peacock spreads his tail and vibrates it in the sunlight making his beautifully coloured feathers bedazzle the female.
Making a mark
The two women will usually dance the fourth section, which is another women’s section, together. The kind of step involved in this section makes a track in the earth and the way the footwork is accented is closely related to the name of the section; Kikyen, pronounced roughly ‘key-chen’, with the accent on the last syllable.
This step makes a track in the earth, and the evenness of the steps and the straightness of the track are desired results of the performance of the step. It is interesting to know that this type of step may be observed in many parts of Ghana, always in women’s dances and usually in dances involving puberty and marriage.
There seems to be a strong association between women and the earth among the Ntwumurus and throughout Ghana. The essential meaning of this step is that it is important that a woman makes her mark firmly in the earth, for it symbolises her passage through life.
The fifth section of Sokodae is danced by men and women together. The name, Kedenkenkyew, is taken from the drum beats. This whole passage of the dance is freely, strongly and boldly erotic.
Contrary to uninformed and ill-informed opinion, this is one of the comparatively few dances or pieces of dance among many hundreds in Ghana which has the theme of eroticism as its content.
The movement patterns are quite consistent with the overall theme of courting and mating birds already established in previous passages of the Sokodae. Kendenkenkyew’s movements are unselfconscious, direct and unmistakable in their meaning. The atmosphere is one of heightened awareness, joy and ease; a genuine zest for living seems to pervade the whole dancing community. There is a complete absence of fear, hatred, shame or frustration – a total contrast to much of what currently passes for eroticism on the Western theatre dance stage.
Kyenkyenbrika, ‘step-step-turn around,’ is the sixth section of Sokodae and it is also danced by both men and women. They do not necessarily dance together, however, as in the previous section. If someone wishes to dance solo, they may do so. One of the most interesting gestures for women occurs chiefly in this section. The woman points to her forehead with her right hand and to the small of her back with her left. This means that the woman follows the man with her mind and supports him with the strength of her back.
The image given by our informants to explain this was that ‘all during the day from the morning the woman follows the man in her mind when he is hunting or in the fields. At night, when he comes home, he rests and she tends to his needs, feeding him and serving him – all this because of the strength of her back.’
Women use this characteristic gesture whether dancing alone or with men.
The concluding section of Sokodae, Kedenkyenkprofe, also a name taken from the drums, contains the greatest variety of step patterns.
It is danced mainly by men, with the women occasionally forming complementary patterns, either with the Kikyen or the Kenemoe steps. There is one gesture which means, ‘I am a true son of the land’, another which means that the dancer’s great grandfather killed a man in battle. A complex series of jumps, changing from one leg to another means, ‘My father was an Ojya’, which means a priest of one of the state gods.
We were told that in the old days, only older men would dance Sokodae with cloths. All cloth was handwoven then and younger men would not have acquired sufficient wealth or status to have them. The young men wore waistbands and a loin-cloth and danced with their arms lifted to simulate the outspread wings and breast of a courting male bird.
Now, everyone wears an imported Java-print cloth, or a cotton cloth made in Ghana or an Adinkira cloth. The art of weaving has, to my knowledge, disappeared among the Ntwumurus.
The musical ensemble which accompanies Sokodae is of special interest. It includes both drums and tusk or head horns.
The dance, one of the ancient art forms of Man, if not the oldest of them all, has many sources, many impulses and many uses. Considered only superficially, we are confronted in Sokodae merely with a group of adult people who are imitating the movements of birds and we may well ask why do people do this sort of thing. Is this not a childish, simplistic, if pretty and pleasurable activity?
I think not, for it seems that in an attempt to classify, categorise and explain their impressions, in attempts to formulate in non-verbal symbolic terms their knowledge about their particular universe, men have used the movements, colours, shapes and sounds derived from other creatures and from nature to convey their ideas about the nature of the phenomenal world.
In the case of the Sokodae, the weaver bird (or rather, selected characteristics about it) has been used to communicate ideas about various social relationships and divisions of labour between men and women.
The nature of Man
This propensity to conceptualise in these kinds of ways is, according to Lévi- Strauss, one of the most fundamental characteristics of the human mind.
We might reflect profitably on the fact that although a dance like Swan Lake concerns some rather fundamental notions about psychological transformations instead of social roles or divisions of labour, groups of adult Western dancers have for the last century been imitating the movements of swans.
By this statement, I do not mean to imply that Swan Lake and Sokodae are the same in terms of form, neuro-muscular coordination systems involved, idiomatic gestures, costumes, etc. But I do mean to say that on a certain level of conceptualisation, the use of weaver birds and swans as vehicles for whole constellations of ideas about the nature of Man, is in fact similar.
At this point I feel constrained to add, because of the intellectual level of this particular audience, that neither Swan Lake nor Sokodae reflect the highest levels, either of conceptualisation or of function which it is possible to attain through the dance.
This is a fact which is abundantly clear even through reading available extant literature about various forms of dance in the Near and Far East, but this in no way lessens the importance of dances of the same genre as Sokodae and Swan Lake within the context of their societies, and I hope that even this brief examination of Sokodae has contributed to an enlargement of understanding of the phenomenon of ‘a dance’.
Dances, regardless of where they are found in the world, are highly organised, highly structured human symbolic behaviour. They reflect, as it is possible to see even from the one example of the Sokodae, an interesting and fairly broad range of ideas, associations, cultural mores, value systems and symbols belonging to the societies in which they are embedded.
Monica Wilson has said: ‘Ritual reveals values at their deepest level… Men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventualised and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed.’
I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies.