Rwanda Focus (Kigali)

Rwanda: When Innovating Traditional Dance You Might Step On Someone's Toes

Dancing has always been a prime form of entertainment in Rwanda. The ancient kings appreciated different styles of dance representing all corners of the country, and the people explored, cherished and enjoyed such variety of educative, informative and entertaining performances.

Today too, traditional dance remains very popular, and no official ceremony is complete without a performance. "When we grew up, we always enjoyed dancing in my family," says Jean Pierre Hitababyaye, a 42-year-old lawyer and the manager of Imena cultural troupe in Nyamirambo, who has been in the field of traditional dances for over 20. "It was great that we always had people around who never ceased to train us and explain the significance of those treasures."

The former dancer explains that while dancers performed to convey different meanings of their daily activities, all forms of dance had one objective: showcasing the elegance and inner values of Rwandan culture. And it is not so different today, he adds.

"Today, you see people dancing choreographies defining current issues like peace and reconciliation, unity, democracy, etc. but in the ancient Rwanda dances reflected the basics -you could see dancers imitating cranes, cows, movements of clouds, water, etc. It was more a representation of nature, things that they could see around them," Hitababyaye says.

That is also visible in the different styles of dance that were developed in the era, he explains. For example, there was the Imishayayo dance: when girls had gone to collect grass or to weave baskets far from home, they could gather and rehearse slow and elegant dances meant for girls, which portrayed an image of a respectful, graceful, soft and intelligent woman. Such qualities obviously made them interesting as spouses, Hitababyaye points out, so while performing girls had to realize that they should not just entertain or educate, but also that they might attract potential suitors.

Not all female dances were smooth and slow though. "Imishagiriro for example required energy and strong moves which combined body gestures performed in consecutive vibrant moves," the Imena manager says. "And speaking of energy, there are also the likes of Ikinimba, another type of dance from Northern Province, where we have dancers doing consecutive high jumps."

A warrior with artistic touches

For boys too, there were different styles of dancing. A renowned one is Imihamirizo, which is in fact a comprehensive dance demonstration that portrays a man as a mature character. As Hitababyaye says, we often hear the word Intore, which is derived from Itorero - the cultural centre of civic and martial arts trainings which was mainly frequented by boys.

Intore is someone chosen from this center who had undergone different types of training which would help him as a man in handling daily issues but also as a warrior to defend his country. Performing Imihamirizo thus involved an artistic demonstration of different aspects which characterized a warrior such as spear throwing and arrow shooting (Kumasha), high jumping (Gusimbuka Inkiramende), racing, wrestling (Gukirana), protection with a shield, etc.

"During the performance, especially at the royal palace, it was more of a competition; you had to demonstrate all those techniques and add impressive artistic touches. If you managed to please the king, you would be richly rewarded," the dance coach explains.

Last but not least, there were also dances performed by boys and girls together, Hitababyaye continues, such as Ikinyemera and Igishakamba, dances which reflected pastoral life - how they interact with cows, how they name them, etc.

New steps, new moves

But while Hitababyaye is passionate about the richness of ancient dances, he also understands that today's generation is bringing in new themes. "Culture is dynamic and should embrace any sort of change that enrich it," he argues.

He is not alone with that view. One notorious proponent is Serge Nahimana, the trainer of the renowned cultural troupe Inganzo Ngali, which has wowed many an audience with their innovative mixture of modern and traditional dance. Yet Nahimana explains that while many people appreciate the group's performances, others criticize it for having completely changed the image of Rwandan traditional dance.

"We take our inspiration from the same culture, but as a group we bring in new steps, new moves, new looks; we try to embrace variety in our dances, and people like it," Nahimana explains. "We can't continue repeating the same performance, we try to garnish the traditional dance, and make it enjoyable for everyone watching."

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