Many Ghanaian communities generally regard dance and other forms of artistic and cultural expression, as important components of the events of life. Therefore, traditional belief systems, concept of birth, education, religion, politics economics, death and other social activities manifest their importance in artistic forms such as dance, music, poetry and the visual objects etc. Dance, as a non-verbal communication tool is one of the most powerful symbols and social indicators in the Ghanaian tradition.
The communities tend to share and cherish some basic cultural and aesthetic values. For example, the notion of beauty in body posture is conceptualized in terms of ‘curves’ and other circular images. The body is slightly rounded, the knees relaxed, while the weight of the movement is earth bound. The belief is that, circular images give a sense of perpetual motion and completeness of being. The African dancer is therefore expected to perform with an inner sense of roundness and balance. This aesthetic notion clearly runs counter to the linear and angular body stance maintained in some non-African dance forms. In the case of the latter, beauty of body alignment and technical perfection seem to be the overriding factor.
Dance and other artistic forms serve as agents for the creation of meaningful relationships, mutual respect and a sense of belonging among members of the communities. They also serve as index of the value systems that enable the community express and interpret the various events of life. The practice of these values as a community experience provides the necessary linkages based on kinship, religion and common language. The following constitute some of the basis for the evaluation of Ghanaian dances:
b) Symbolic meaning
c) Aesthetic quality
The creation and sustenance of dance therefore depend on the ability of the creators to arouse and inspire emotional involvement, aesthetic, symbolic and significance of the dance in their communities. Social, religious and other needs often help to create these dances. However, historical, ecological, environmental, climatic aesthetic and other considerations dictate the basic characteristic of each dance. To paraphrase Nketia, “… What may be considered proper and beautiful and therefore, acceptable in a dance from one area or in a particular period may deemed unacceptable in another…” (1) it depends on the circumstances and factors that gave birth to the particular dance form. The people usually bring such dances into the open for public approval. The following form the basis of appreciation and evaluation of dance in Ghanaian communities
1. Constant improvisation within the structure of the dance,
2. Creativity within the dance,
3. Freedom of individual expression
4. Emotional input by participants,
5.The use of circular images,
6. Basic maintenance of rounded body and relaxed knees.
7 Limited exaggeration of movement
8 Repetition of basic movements
9. Inter connectivity of movement, rhythm and beat
10. Contextual references to the dance.
11. Simultaneous uses of several movements and rhythms.
It is only when such dance creations conform to the norms of the community’s dance traditions, and that the dance earns such approval. Additionally, groups from neighboring towns and villages usually ‘borrow’ dance movements or whole dance forms from one other. Such borrowers add new movements to the idea they have acquired. They expand the rhythmic interpretations and other relevant elements, based on their own dance experiences to create new dance forms of their own. It is also worth noting here that, the various communities do not usually analyse and formally discuss aesthetic and other norms of traditional societies in Ghana, and indeed in many parts of Africa. Rather, manifestations of these in legend, folk tales, songs and riddles, and of course dance, occur through the experience of participation in such events and the support the individual receives from other members of the community.
In Ghana, it is common knowledge that the various communities hold their kings and other traditional rulers in high esteem. They consider these leaders as custodians of culture in many communities. For the community, it is not enough for such leaders to know the history of the lineage. Tradition requires that, the King Chief or Queen Mother should be able to dance and understand the dance. Their subjects also expect them to be conversant with the music to which they dance, and be able to interpret the language of the drums, poetry and proverbs of their people. So prior to the ascension to the high office, the candidate learns the intricacies of the dance traditions of the community.
SOME GHANAIAN DANCE FORMS
Each traditional area in Ghana seems to place emphasis on certain movement actions, and the use of particular parts of the body more often than other parts in its dances. Sometimes, the occupational practices and the environment of the people go to characterize the basic movement of many of the traditional dances of these groups. Trembling, jumping stamping and undulation of the torso feature prominently in these dances. The well-informed observer may therefore be able to discern at a glance, where a particular traditional dance originates. Dagomba and Nanumba a people in Northern Ghana emphasise the rotation of the pelvic girdle in the Bamaaya dance; and pivot turns, torso swings and calculated foot stamps in the Takai dance. In southern Ghana however, the dancers give prominence to the arms and the feet with moderate stamping and thrusting actions of the upper and lower torso. Among the ewe in south-eastern part of the Volta region, the dancers tend to emphasise the shoulder and upper torso areas in a contraction-and-release action; coupled with alternating shuffling of the feet in double time. In the Dagarti and Kassena areas of the upper region of Ghana, the dancers combine undulating and vibratory movement action of the upper torso, including strong stamping of the feet coupled with beautiful arms movements, epitomized in great dances like, the Nagla, Sebre and Bawaa. Below is a selection of traditional dances which are based on the popularity they enjoy in their areas of origin, and to some extent, their acceptance and practice beyond their places of origin.
THE TAKAI DANCE OF THE DAGOMBA
The Dagomba people perform the Takai Dance. The Dagombas occupy an area of undulating grassland spotted with Shea-butter trees and a few hills. Their source of water is the White Volta, a tributary of the great Volta River, the largest river in Ghana. The main occupation of the traditional Dagomba, like most of the other people in the area is cattle, sheep, guinea fowl and goat rearing. They are also in the business of growing millet, rice and the production of she-butter. The impact of Islam and to a lesser degree, Christianity and the advent of independence brought about many changes into the social structure of the Dagomba. Today quite a sizeable number of Moslems and a few Christian exist among the Dagomba. However, the main religion, Wende, or Wuni allows individual Dagombas to keep their own private lesser gods, Noli , Wuni. Noli Wuni is subservient to a superior god, Bogli. Bogli therefore, represents a pantheon of all the lesser gods.
One of the most respected and visible cultural practices among the Dagomba, is the annual festival. The Damba festival is held in commemoration of the birth of the holy prophet, Mohammed, and the Nnumba, Mamprusi, Gonja and Wala ethnic and other ethnic groups in Northern Ghana, perform the naming of the holy prophet Mohammed. A widely travelled Naa Zangina who became Ya-Na around 1700AD introduced the Damba festival to the people of Northern Ghana. Arguably, the most prominent dance performed during the festival celebrated in August is the Takai. Takai performance comes at the climax of the festival. The dance is a blend of Islamic religious influences, reflected both the in the costume worn by the dancers and in the actual movements of the dance; and elements of the indigenous culture of the people.
Today, the original commemorative function of the Takai has expanded to cover funerals, weddings and other special occasions. The King, who usually serves the principal dancer, holds a white horse-tail in one hand and walking stick in the other to perform the main Damba movements. An entourage of men and women and follow him. Some of the women fan the King as he performs short, calculated simple steps on the first beat of the phrase in the music provided by an orchestra of donno and brekete drums. He usually finishes the step at the end of the phrase, with half turns to the right; and then to left. He may enhance the basic movements with the articulation of the large Bumaa (smock) he is wearing.
This billows out and twirls gracefully as he performs pivot and spin turns, punctuated with torso swings and feet stamps. He dances with his head bobbing with an air of contentment.
The men, dressed in the same fashion and each holding a short metal rod in the right hand, perform the group version of the Takai Dance. Each dancer at regular intervals, strikes his metal rod alternatively against that of the person in front of him, and then turns around to strike the person behind him. The entire performance usually takes place in a circular formation with drummers in the centre in spirited but controlled and dignified manner. Today some of these dancers may be men of ordinary background, but by virtue of their knowledge and ability, may perform the Takai.
The Takai consists of several distinct, but interrelated variations including the following: Damba
1. Damba: indicates the number of steps the dancers should take before a turn while striking the metal rods against that of their partners.
2. Takai: the dancer is required to activate the large pantaloon he is wearing by making a series of turns.
3. Normali Ya: in this variation the dancer is required to strike the empty space on the right before turning to strike the metal of the other dancer; come back and touch the ground and then goes back to strike.
THE LILEK DANCE OF THE BUILSA
The Builsa people in the Upper Region of Ghana perform the Lilek dance. The main occupation has always been the cultivation of beans, millet and other crops of the region. Hunting iron, barras smiting, and basket weaving are also serious occupation of the inhabitants. During the Colonial period, the British Government recruited their men into the police force, and later the military, and coupled with their chequered history of migration, the Builsa today are scattered around the suburbs of almost every major city in Ghana. However, the Builsa have a glorious past. In the 1880s through the 1980s, when the notorious slave raider Babatu was operating in the north, it was the Builsa King Sandema-nab Anaankum and his people who defeated the former and his compatriots. The defeat of Babatu gave to a spectacular festival known as Feok. The Feok festival is a mixture of an existing harvest festival and the historic accounts of the defeat of the slave raiders. The festival is held annually in the month of November to commemorate this victory.
During the festival, sacrifices to the ancestral spirits take place with the general feasting and merry making. At the pinnacle of this celebration is the lilek dance.
Lilek, and the basic movements of dance, serve as the main feature of the Feok festival which re-enacts scenes from battles. The dancers track down in imaginary enemy with stalking movements, running steps, abrupt stops and dramatic changes of directions by the dancers. They crouch; shoot down the enemy with bows and arrows; and finish him off. Lilek is essentially a group dance performed in linear formation. The dancers wear impressive costumes of heavy russet, brown smocks studded with leather talismans over large pantaloons. Each dancer wears animal skin around the waist and carries bows and arrows as props. The costume includes the wearing of hats made of straw with two buffalo horns fixed on the middle section, intended to frighten off the enemy. Small animal horns, notched flutes, metal bells and long cylindrical drums held with ropes over the left shoulder and played with a single stick held in the right hand provide music for the dance.
THE AGBEKOR DANCE OF THE EWE
Dancing and music making comes easy to most Ewes people. The Agbekor Dance is one of the most significant dances of the people. The Ewe territory extends from the southeast delta of the Volta River, along the sandy Atlantic coast of Ghana and northward along the border with the republic of Togo. The river Danyi divides the Ewe on their northern border with the Guan speaking people. However, generally the greater Ewe territory extends beyond these boundaries to Togo and the republic of Benin. In many respects, the culture of the Ewe of Ghana and that of their cousins across the artificial and political boundaries in Togo and Benin, remain similar in many respects. The second largest group made up of Anlo, Fon and the be settled at Adele in Togo. The Adele and Ngotsie groups later joined forces under a collective name of Dogboawa under various leaders.
The story is told of how the people walked backwards under the cover of darkness through the gates of Ngotsie in order that their escape would not be detected. The escapees left behind mass footprints in the sand deceptively pointing. The citizens performed the special music and dance in the evenings and ‘secretly’ poured water on targeted sections of the mud walls during such performances to render them soft enough to break at the opportune time. The people danced the Misago backwards through the business as they escaped in three groups in three different directions. these groups known today as the Anlo, Tongu and Vedome, celebrate this historical event in their annual festivals, Hogbetsotso, Asafotu, and Danyiba respectively, with dance, music, in spectacular fashion. In later years, the influence of the French, and to a lesser degree, the Germans however, affected the culture of the Ewe people during the Colonial period. The main occupation of the Anglo Ewe of the South is both sea and lagoon fishing, trading, growing of onions, okro and cassava.
The Agbekor is one the most important dances of the Anglo Ewe documenting the trek and other experiences of the people. A series of upper torso contractions and releases, with an alternating arm thrust characterize the principal movement action of the dance. The dancers perform slight scooping movement downwards in a circular motion; and pull back towards the upper torso. Another characteristic feature of Agbekor is the variety of arm and leg movements, stance and trek the Ewe people had to make in search of peaceful place to settle after they left Notsie. Additionally, during the Second World War, when many West African men, including the Ewe, were recruited into the British, French and German Armies, significant movement of ideas was generated through the military drills that formed part of the training of the recruits, supervised by these Western countries. The Ewe incorporated some of the movement provisions into the original Agbekor dance in their own unique way. Choreographically Agbekor is a team dance. The dancers stand in columns of three or more and perform the same dance movements as directed by the lead drummer.
The Agbekor is essentially a dance of re-enactment of battles in celebration of victory. In the course of the dance, the performers show defiance to the enemy they advance and retreat, issue threats, engage in sword battle; capture the enemies and so on. Usually a chorus leader helps to warm up the performance through the singing of selected songs before the drummers begin to play. The leader holding a horse-tail as a mark of his or her office brings out a song as he or she moves around and encourages the team. The drum orchestra consists of lead drum, atsimevu, a tenor drum called sogo and two smaller supporting drums Kidi and Kagan respectively. The double bell, Gakogui and Axatse, rattles complete the orchestra.
THE KPANLOGO DANCE OF THE GA- DANCE PEOPLE
The Kpanlogo dance is the most recent dance form of the Ga-Dangme people. The Ga- Dangme claims their origins in Israel in the Middle East, from where they migrated indifferent groups through Egypt along the river Nile and through Benin in Nigeria. They finally settled in various places, including the grassy and water starved coast of present day Accra; and satellite agricultural colonies north of the areas close to the Akwapim Mountains in the 1600s.
The Dangme made up of the Ada, Krobo and Shai people also settled along the coast and forest areas respectively. The coastal settlers naturally took to fishing in the many lagoons, which dotted their domain, and later turned to sea fishing. The forest Ga indulged in farming of cash crops such as okro, pepper, tomatoes, cassava and the like. Each Ga forest settlement corresponds with the seven main Ga coastal settlements –Accra, Osu, La, Teshie, Nungua, Tema and Kpone.
Wulomei or Priests ruled the original Ga. Some of the most important and reveres traditional dances of the people which have survived today include Kple, Kpa, Otufo, and Me. However, dancers of the other ethnic groups, including those from other countries became popular. The Ga themselves went out of their way to purchase and borrow other dance forms to enhance their artistic and religious lives.
In Ga coastal areas, Tuesdays are spiritual holidays set aside to honour the god of the sea, Nai. It is a taboo therefore, for coastal Ga to go sea fishing on this day. It is on this day that the people come together to enjoy moments of leisure and to socialize. Music and dance play an important role on such activities. It is on such opportune occasions that the youth also find future partners. Kpanlogo, a youth social dance, came out of such activities. The youth of Bukom in the heart of Accra, led by a young man popularly known as Otoo Lincoln, created and nurtured Kpanlogo.
The dance, a ‘contemporary’ dance form originated in the 1960’s. Kpanlogo is a fusion of the movements of the Kolomashie and the popular High life dance, Oge, kru music and dance from introduced to Accra by Liberian immigrants in the 1950’s. It also contains movements from indigenous dance forms like Kolomashie, recreational street dances of Kple, Me and Kpaa religious dances of the Ga people; with their characteristic emphasis on hand and the feet movements; stamping, thrusting and rotation of body and limbs, serve as an examples. Kpanlogo is rich in mimetic and theatrical expressions and provides a lot of freedom for comic or playful and flirtatious and even some sexual undertones.
The dance gradually gained national popularity among the youth who gave different regional interpretations to it. In fact, so popular was the dance that the sexual elements in it became apparent. Some sections of the population called on the authorities to ban it. The matter went as far to the president of the Republic, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. He called for a demonstration by the Ghana Dance Ensemble at his residency to ascertain the claim. At the end of the performance, Nkrumah could not find anything wrong with dance, so the Kpanlogo dance survived to this day. What the President did not know was that the Mawere-Opoku, the Artistic Director of the Dance Ensmble had carefully taken out those movements considered profane when the dance became part of the repertoire of the Dance Ensemble. The inspiration for the Kpanlogo dance came about because of an Ananse story told to it originator, Otoo Lincoln, by his grand father. Ananse (the spider) stories originated from West Africa as an educational tool and a form of entertainment. Here is the story, “There once was an old rich man, and he was a chief and had a big land. He was married and had three daughters, Kpanlogo, Nmaa Nmaa and Alogodzan. The names of the girls were withheld from the public. Besides, they spent their entire lives within the confines of their father’s palace. Finally, when the chief realized that he was getting old with no son to inherit him, he summoned the community to his palace. The desperate old man put before his subjects, his intention to marry off his daughters to any man who could mention the names of his daughters.
However, previously, a man had sneaked into the palace. The girls were playing he suddenly appeared behaving like a mad man. The girls began to laugh at him. The mother not too far away, heard the commotion. In her attempt to find out what was happening from her daughters, she innocently called out to her daughter, it Kpanlogo when she did not hear from her. The mother shouted … out the names of the other two daughters, it Nmaa! Nmaa! Alogodzan. What is going on?” By the time, the girls started explaining, the man had vanished from the palace. They looked for him everywhere but to no avail. On his way home, the man kept murmuring the names until they stuck in his memory.
On the day of the contest, many of the men in the village as well as the surrounding villages gathered in front of the place. One man after the other tried fruitlessly to mention the names of the girls. When it came to the turn of the man who visited the palace, he took a few steps closer to where the chief and his family were sitting. He suddenly burst into a melodious song he had composed around the names of the beautiful girls, Kpanlogo-Alogbodzan nn-Kpanlogo-Nmaa oo Nmaa oo! Everybody was amazed. The chief demanded to know how he found out the names of his daughters. He narrated the whole process to gathering. The chief who was highly impressed gave his daughters to this clever man”
(5) The story itself does not contribute significantly to the actual movements of the dance, except perhaps those movements with flirtatious connotations. Some believe those movements came in because of the eventual marriage of the young man to the three daughters in the story. The movements of the dance are characterized by the feet thrusting and hand gestures pointed downwards towards the feet. The right hand points to the right foot and left hand points to the left alternatively. This action is accompanied by a constant twisting and rotation of the hips, enabling an outward turn out of the foot-stepping on the heel; the upper torso leans forward with the supporting leg slightly bent-knee facing forward diagonal. With these basic movements, individual dancers may improvise adding different movements, hand and leg gestures within the basic 1-2-3---four five bell pattern of the music.
These days, almost the performance of Kpanlogo takes place on almost every occasion; be it a Kpodziemo(baby naming ceremony), funeral or ordinary social gatherings. There are no special costumes or make up for the dance.
Usually the men wear a large pair of pants that measure from the waist down to the middle of the lower leg known as Adasan in the Ga language. The women perform in blouse-like tops with a piece of cloth wrapped around their waist. The songs that accompany the dance cover a wide spectrum of subjects including songs of praise, of insults and songs about general social life. The music accompanying the dance is usually provided by the two medium size drums known as Ampaa (male and female) and played by both hands. One of these serves as the lead drum while the other provides support. The orchestra is augmented by one or two Tamali, a square wooden drum, one Adawanu, a double bell, Dodompo, a castanet and Shaato, a rattle, accompanied by hand clapping, occasional whistling and a variety of songs.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN DANCE
Four years into independence, the first President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, considered by many as a man of culture and committed Pan Africanist, was determined to reverse the legacy of Ghana’s colonial past. He recognized the potential of the arts and culture generally in the developmental process of the Ghana. In 1961, Nkrumah approved the establishment of an institute of Arts and Culture was established in the heart of the community in Accra, the same year, operated directly under the office of the President. The Institute advised government on cultural issues generally. A year later, a School of Music, Dance and Drama and a Dance Ensemble were also set up under the Institute. The mandate of the Institute was to check the accuracy of written accounts of the African past; to help preserve the intrinsic values of the arts and culture and to find ways of guiding their inherent values to the changing needs and aspirations of the people of Ghana and Africa. The school has the responsibility of training young Ghanaians and other Africans who would help to direct the arts towards new frontiers without sacrificing the positive elements of the past. The Dance and Ensemble was to serve as a repertory for the traditional dances of Ghana and to some extent, Africa. It served also as a laboratory for research findings of Fellow of the Institute. These visionary arrangements facilitated the rapid promotion and development of other cultural institutions, and programmes in the country and set the pace for other African countries. The good work of the Institute of African studies ushered in the development of other forms of dance expression in the country.
This cultural re-awakening further saw the setting up of work place dance and other cultural and artistic groups. The Workers’ Brigade and the Young Pioneer Movement, Osagyefo Players and others, for instance, maintained artistic groups that performed programmes aimed at growth of a National Theatre Movement in Ghana. Nkrumah personally encouraged the construction of Ghana Drama Studio also in Accra occupying the spot on which the National Theatre stands today.
He gave these institutions generous support to strengthen their role in spearheading the restoration and development of the arts and culture in Africa. Out of the traditional forms, neo traditional and contemporary forms emerged. Perhaps the most significant dance development in Ghana began when Dr. Kwame Nkrumah invited the late Mawere-Opoku, then teaching art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi to Accra on the recommendation of J.H Kwabena Nketia to help establish the Ghana Dance Ensemble and to help develop the school. Numerous amateur dance groups sprang up around the country in the process, modeling their dance presentations on works of the Ghana Dance Ensemble.
From all these seemingly scattered and unconnected creative efforts from as many region, cultures and states, three patterns or schools have emerged.
Living side by side. The first of these stages represents the traditional dance forms. Traditional dance draws its existence from communal experiences and needs. These experiences dictated the form and content of dance creation and practice. The process of traditional dance development and training is relatively, slower and less formal in approach than the neo-traditional and contemporary forms. Collective inputs were paramount in dance creation and very rarely are creations of particular traditional dance forms attributed to individuals. Thus, all such dances considered as traditional, belong to the first phase of this development.
NEO TRADITIONAL DANCE
The second phase is Neo-Traditional dance genre.
Mawere-Opoku began the second phase – the development of neo-traditional dance, when he brought together existing traditional dance, when he brought existing traditional dances from around the country and carefully rearranged their movements to suit the conventional stage- outside their usual rural community contexts. He explores related art forms such as music and painting, as well as costumes, props and the principles of traditional dance performance from individual ethnic groups and organized them to suit the taste of his mixed audiences. He shortened the usually long duration of performances and the repetitions that characterize some of the dances in their original forms, to save time and to enhance their appreciation. The dancers who usually dance towards the musicians or encircled by the latter in the course of the performance, were redirected to dance facing different directions in the course of the dance. This allowed more visibility of the movements of the body from different angles. Important movements which otherwise may not attract the attention of the usually mixed audiences, were also ‘amplified’, for clarity and so on. As part of phase two, the development of a distinct Ghanaian Dance –Theatre emerged. The first serious Dance Theatre production in Ghana was Mawere-Opoku’s “African Liberation Dance Suite” (1965). Set in five movements-exploitation and enslavement of Africa; the awakening and call to arms; lamentation for the dead freedom fighters; struggle for freedom and celebration of victory. This choreographic work succeeded in achieving a concise but full and clearer dance presentation. It also allowed for flexibility, variety, and fluidity in visual flow of thematic content of dance composition in Ghana.
The most powerful movement in the choreography is the Lamentation for Freedom Fighters. A grave, deeply moving and dignified dance, served as the focus for Opoku’s masterpiece. The overwhelming success of the “African Liberation Dance Suite” opened the floodgates for the creation of major Dance- Theatre pieces like The Lost Warrior, the King’s Dilemna, Bukom and The Legend of Okoryoo, by Nii Yartey. Co productions like Solma by Nii Yartey and jean Francoise Duroure of France, Musu- Saga of the Slaves by Nii Yartey and Monty Thompson of the US Virgin Islands, Children of fate by Nana Nelson of Sweden in ages of Conflict by Nii Yartey and Germaine Acogny and Asipim (or Kusun Africa) by Nii-Yartey and C.K. Ladzekpo and others followed. Mawere-Opoku’s choreography also inspired the works of Ofotsu Adinku, Ampofo Duodu, Patience Kwakwa, Asare Newman and Nii Kwei Sowah and others.
Ghana Culture Magazine 03/2009