Performing gender in Ethio traditional dances

In modern restaging of traditional courting dances, performances across different cultures in Ethiopia showcase an almost identical skit: an intrepid and boisterous group of men hover around timid women that are engaged in performing domestic chores. A man sets his eyes on a girl and approaches the group of women either by himself or together with his cohorts to make his intentions known. The woman never readily agrees to his advances. She retreats sometimes violently, other times in tenuous steps. Either forcefully or after coy side-to-side swings accompanied with occasional under the eye glances -- she concedes. In this production, the woman’s initial refusal serves as a catalyst encouraging the man to play his socially ascribed role of an authority, a person in position of power who cannot be denied his desires. Gender, like dance is a performance orchestrated by rules that draw the blueprints of a social fabric. Masculinity and femininity are definitions that mutate through time and their transformation is instilled within cultural expressions that reveal the subtle rules governing a society. Dance is such an expression capable of narrating the interaction among its performers and their changing relationship in time. Various Ethiopian traditional dances serve as sites for gender performance, facilitating the production of masculinity and femininity. Taking two dances from Northern Ethiopia, Sekota and Gondar, it is possible to demonstrate the making and manifestation of masculinity in one and femininity in the other.

An amorphous group of Sekota men and women dance in a circle. Two men enter the inside of the circle and perform a pair dance that mirrors each other’s movement. “Amesasel” is a phrase used to direct dancers in the middle to perform identical Eskesta* motifs. When one dancer changes his movements, the other follows immediately. This similarity in their performance incites a competition between the two dancers, each striving to perform better than the other. It is also a means of cooperating to jointly deliver an energetic performance, adding flavor to the piece as a whole. The dancers circumscribing this pair conjure a competitive atmosphere with their clapping and cheering. The music, following the spirit of the duel, transforms from its progressive mode to a trance-like repetitive beat. This moment replays the amorphous relationship of men in a social structure. Their interaction oscillates between contention and camaraderie and sometimes an overlapping of both. This undulating sentiment links the two bodies with a taut string. Their tension reaches its climax when the bodies merge physically. One dancer climbs on his partner and wraps his legs around his waist. They both lean back and continue performing identical shoulder motifs. This dance atmosphere is craftily curated to allow the dancers to access their learned masculine behaviors and perform them with a heightened sense of urgency. Locked in a match to expertly execute the men traditional dance, they exhibit their bodies in its effort to perform the masculine gender.

In Gondar traditional dance, the woman appears as a muse, a potential lover, a mother and so on -- all characters fashioned under the male gaze. She usually takes center stage, appearing in a group, a pair, or independently. The women dance with their upper bodies, utilizing the shoulders, chest, and neck. They’re clad in accessories that accentuate the slightest movements in these areas. During courting, dances the women are expected to appear attractive and enticing to secure a potential mate. Nonetheless any signs of attempting to be seen appealing and desirable is considered vulgar expressions. This condemnation is directed towards performance that ranges between those that involve the hips to others in which the woman appears to overreact and show off, even while performing the accepted Eskesta routines. Women in these performances straddle loosely defined terrains, caught in between drawing the spotlight to secure a potential mate and the expectation to act coy and reserved while dancing. These ambiguities extend towards the dancing woman’s body, which exists in constant risk of objectification as a body displayed for entertainment

Taking a sweeping look across traditional Ethiopian dances, we find numerous sound indications that the society was acutely aware of gender roles and the dances are a glimpse into their representation process. In Gumuz, for example, a neighborhood celebrates when a girl gets her period for the first time. This celebration includes a feast accompanied with dancing and a bathing ceremony for the newly minted woman. This ritual accentuates the female role of fertility by placing great importance on the transition of a girl into womanhood. In a women-only dance in Sidama, the women imitate the act of masturbation. This dance, Hiadayo, is performed by mothers away from the eyes of men. The existence of this practice and its continuation as a traditional norm is an indicator of the awakened sexual awareness of elder women in Sidama society.

Analyzing traditional dances through contemporary gender theories poses a danger of imposing current worldviews on the past without the proper knowledge of its social fabric that, in the first place, produced the cultural expressions we see today. The investigation of gender roles becomes increasingly pertinent to the study of traditional dances in Ethiopia when considering the intimate relationship between dance and gender. Both, as performances carried out by the body, they exhibit a symbiotic relationship wherein an insight towards one duly benefits the other. Still, few places in the country hold spaces for open and informative conversations on gender. Traditional dances provide an additional entry point for gender discourse in Ethiopian culture and a fresh methodology for cultivating discussions.