By Stef Terblanche
When it comes to traditional dancing in South Africa, everyone knows about the Zulu warrior dancers, the gumboot miners’ dancing, the Cape Town minstrels, and the Reed Dances staged for the Swazi and Zulu kings.
But how many people know about, let alone have witnessed, what is South Africa’s oldest dancing tradition dating back to the early Khoisan people…the fabulous rieldansers of the Northern Cape and adjacent regions?
If you think the above dances or something like Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance have energy, rhythm, precision, flying dancers and daring moves, you aint seen nothin’ yet!
The rieldans is about much more than just music and dancing – it encompasses an entire cultural world that spans the Northern Cape, Western Cape, Karoo and some other regions. It represents a way of life with all its customs and traditions, and is a rhythm-and-dance language all of its own. Its roots can be traced all the way back to the Khoisan, the original inhabitants of much of today’s racial and tribal melting-pot of Southern Africa.
In a way it can be viewed as South Africa’s unintentional answer to Argentina’s tango street dancers, only with much older roots, even more flamboyance, and with the ballroom grace of the tango being replaced with the fast-paced, high-energy fancy footwork of the riel. But like the tango, as a dance it strongly reflects the love ritual with its sexually charged and suggestive moves. Yet it also goes significantly beyond that.
Whereas the tango originated in the working class courtyards, on the street corners and in the brothels of Buenos Aires, the riel originated around the campfires of the Khoisan and Nama after the return of their hunters, after good harvests or during celebrations. The Nama name for the dance, Ikhapara, was derived from the word khapas which means ‘hat’, and the hat of a man was considered a useful article with which to court a woman for her hand in marriage. Hence the dance also became a dance of love and gave rise to many of the dance moves still seen today, while hats still form an integral part of the costumes of male dancers.
Over the years the rieldans was also adopted as the dance of farmworkers and sheep shearers in the Karoo, Namaqualand and other regions, elements of their daily life and activities being portrayed in some of the dances.
Owing to the original campfire dancing venues in sandy, desert-like rural settings and the later venues on farms, the dance is today still largely practiced upon sandy locations. Adding to the electrifying energy of the dance produced by the fast tempo music and the dance moves, is the kicking up of a veritable dust storm by the nimble-footed dancers. Many of the dances are still performed in a circular movement, just as they were by the ancient Khoisan around their campfires in the dusty veld.
While the riel has survived in relative obscurity over the ages, it enjoyed much popularity among farm workers and other working class people of the Northern Cape, Western Cape and Karoo between the 1940s and early 1960s, after which it started fading away. But it has been placed firmly back on the national dance stage since 2006 with the assistance of the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV), or Afrikaans Language and Culture Association, with dance competitions and sponsorships.
Central to its revival, is Elias P. Nel, a native of Verneukpan in the Kenhardt district of the Northern Cape region known as Boesmanland, who grew up with the riel being danced in his area. Many years later he approached the ATKV which adopted it as one of its many cultural heritage projects and now organises an annual national rieldans competition, with Elias becoming its chief organiser, ably assisted by the younger Benjamin Bock.
Thanks to their efforts, today the rieldans is again riding a wave of popularity in the regions of its inception and beyond, and is danced by people ranging from toddlers to pensioners. At recent dance competitions more than 80% of the dancers were under the age of 18, a welcome injection of youth that will ensure its survival.
Elias says tongue-in-cheek that the rieldans was originally created for people with rubber knees, long breath and playfulness in the genes (in Afrikaans, “mense met slap knieë, lang asems en ’n klomp speelsheid in die gene”).
These days dance groups with colourful names like Bitterfontein Tradisionele Dansers, Kamiesbergdansers, Vloedrieldansers, Betjies van Betjiesfontein, Betjies Rooirots, Griekwa-Ratelgat-rieldansers, Kuierkraal-rieldansers and Knersvlakte-rieldansers practice their dancing in the towns and villages with equally colourful names like Pofadder, Loeriesfontein, Garies, Kakamas, Onseepkans, Pella, Vaalputs, Soebatsfontein and Kamieskroon, where the dance has survived since the early days.
But the riel is not only practiced with a view to competitions. It is also a common form of entertainment over weekends in many of the towns within the area of its original inception.
The rieldans is recognised as an ancient celebratory dance and the oldest entertainment form used as a social, cultural and educational tool by the Khoisan people before the arrival of Western cultures and traditions at the Cape of Good Hope. But as the original Khoi and San languages increasingly disappeared over time, and the influences of Western culture spread across the sub-continent, the name Ikhapara became less used and was replaced by the word riel.
The name riel was borrowed from the word ‘reel’, a Scottish folk dance, and adapted to the Afrikaans now mostly spoken by the descendants of the Khoisan and the Nama, the latter being the largest surviving sub-group of the Khoi.
The music changed too, from the original trance-like chanting and indigenous wind, string and percussion instruments of the Khoisan, to an infusion of various other musical influences. These included the Irish and Scottish folk music influences, the boeremusiek developed by the descendants of Dutch, French and German settlers, along with the goema carnival sound of the Coloured people at the Cape and practised by today’s Cape minstrels, which in turn bears the influences of Malay slaves and the minstrel songs of the south of America.
Today common music instruments used include the guitar, banjo, violin, concertina and accordion. All of these musical developments have of course over time also influenced modern jazz music and has even found some resonance in today’s hip hop genre, far beyond local shores.
It is not only the music and instruments that adopted influences from elsewhere over time. The clothing is also matched closely to the clothes worn by those engaged in courtship in a bygone era. It is customary for the dancing groups also to dress up in colourful costumes resembling the traditional colonial-era and mid-1900s clothing of the working classes and farm workers, both of the everyday and Sunday-best variety, including long floral-print skirts and dresses, the kappies or bonnets of the colonial era, braces, bowties, wastecoats, fedoras, homburgs and feathered walker hats. These are interchanged with more modern costumes reflecting the era of jazz, or the ancient traditional animal-skin wear of the Khoisan.
While you can view the annual ATKV rieldans national competition in December each year – the last one was held in Paarl near Cape Town – it may be even more fascinating and satisfying to see these dancers performing in their home towns in the everyday settings from where the dancing originated.
Following the dance trail will take you to some of the most unique and exotic locations in South Africa, where you will experience some of the oldest, most enduring cultural blends of the sub-continent as the guests of some of the most hospitable folk to be found anywhere. The trail will take you through regions or parts of regions that include the northern Western Cape, the Tankwa Karoo, Roggeveld, Knersvlakte, Boesmandland, Namaqualand, Griqualand West, the Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy, the western Karoo, Kalahari and even up into the Richtersveld.
Here you will find the world of the sheep shearers travelling with all their worldly possessions and their entire families from farm to farm on their karretjies, small donkey-drawn carts, from whose ranks developed an associated music genre immortalised by David Kramer in his show Karoo Kitaar Blues.
In some parts the last surviving San clans still hunt and live as they have done for thousands of years. It is the world also of the mission stations with their beautiful churches established by the likes of John Campbell, Robert Moffat and David Livingstone (see our article in the Hidden Gems section as well as our feature on the Northern Cape of this edition).
In the west along the Atlantic coast you will find communities of fishermen and diamond divers. In the northern areas of the Richtersveld and Riemvasmaak conservancy you will encounter Nama herdsmen on their seasonal treks with their herds between different areas, as they have done for hundreds of years. Travelling through these areas, along with dramatic changes in the natural landscape, you will find delightful little towns with much preserved original architecture, hospitable people and interesting local characters, historical sites, natural scenery, wildlife and plenty of cultural activity. The indigenous cuisine of these areas is out of this world.
And if you ask around, or keep your eyes open for the movement and your ears for the music, you will see the colourful groups of rieldansers kicking up a storm, just like their ancient forebears used to do. The rieldans is as much a part of the Northern Cape and adjacent environs as sheep, Witblits, the Kalahari, Nama herds, gemsbok, and diamonds, and a cultural and entertainment must-do in the itinerary of any visitor to these parts.
For more information:
- ATKV Tel +27 (0)11 919 9000 or website atkv.org.za
- Northern Cape Tourism Tel +27 (0)61 667 4321 or website www.northerncapetourism.co.za
- Clarissa Damara of Riemvasmaak Cell +27 (0)83 873 7715
- Green Kalahari Tourism Tel +27 (0)54 337 2800
- Namakwa Tourism Info Office Tel +27 (0)27 341 8131
All pictures supplied courtesy of the ATKV, with thanks to Benjamin Bock.