Significance of traditional dances in forming ethnic/national identities

Participating in a traditional dance performance is an act of belonging and/or appreciation to the historical and cultural circumstances that birthed the specific dance form. Traditional dances build communal identity dissolving individualism in the process. Ethiopian celebratory traditional dances usually take a circular formation strengthening the sense of communion. Beyond a dance configuration, the circular shape reappears in various aspects of traditional life. In Sidama Qetela, a warrior’s dance, is performed in a big circle for Chenbelala [Sidaman new years], with dancers standing next to each other shoulder to shoulder. The houses in Sidama are built keeping a circular architecture. A weekly Shengo, a traditional neighborhood courthouse, is held with the local attendants sitting in a circle. A meal is served, arranged in a way that creates a round dining area.

The circle functions as a leitmotif signifying an interdependent way of life. It has a power to create both a sense of belonging and of isolation. Defining its boundaries helps identify the nature of its union. A circular family meal can expand to include neighbors during times of celebrations. In traditional dances a group of men dancers fuse with a group of women dancers creating a new circle that transcends gendered identity. In a similar manner, ethnic dances have the potential to attain the spirit of national identity. This crossover is easily performed by ethnic dances from the northern highland regions of Ethiopia, whose culture has gained the most exposure across the country allowing them to attain national identity as an embodied experience as opposed to an assigned label. Ethiopian national identity has been predominantly represented with northern Ethiopia cultural heritages. Habesha, is a name reserved for inhabitants and descendants of Amhara and Tigrai regions, that have, throughout the years accumulated a rich and vibrant history that the entire country has come to be known for. This dominance in cultural exposure is also visible in the dance field. Eskesta, is not only the most popular but also the most sophisticated dance, exhibiting a lavish stock of motifs. The contemporarily of its function is also a witness to its advancement. Beyond its ritualistic value in traditional life, Eskesta is widely performed in various cultural houses for entertainment purposes. It has also been choreographed to express contemporary political struggles*, accommodating organic changes in its repertoire.

A different sense of national identity is observed among communities whose ethnic identities extend beyond Ethiopian boarders. The Nuer and Agnuaha ethnic groups are found both in Ethiopia and Sudan. Although they live in close proximity with each other, mixed together in different woredas, dancers from each of the five ethnic groups in Gambella [nuer, Aghuaha, opou, Komo, Majang] rarely perform each other’s traditional dances. They use their dances as strong identification currency and strive to accentuate their constantly contested ethnic identities. In the capital, Gambella traditional dance is equated only with Agnuaha ethnic dance, leaving the rest unrepresented. This hierarchy in exposure exists in different strata of identity formation, both in national and ethnic levels, contributing to the creation a skewed historical account.

In an attempt to combat the uneven distribution of platforms to showcase and advertise ethnic identities across the country, the government launched a new festival that celebrates each ethnicity in equal measure. Nation Nationalities and people’s day has been celebrated in Ethiopia every year for the past eleven years. It is a commemoration of unity in diversity of the eighty+ ethnic groups found in the country. Dignitaries and cultural performers from all ethnic groups gather at a selected city to take part in the festivities. The host city undergoes significant cultural reformation in preparation for holding this coveted event. In Gambella, two fully functioning villages were constructed as sites for organizing cultural performances for the Nation and Nationalities day celebration that later started serving as permanent housing for multiple families. Harrar, in preparation for the latest celebration inaugurated a cultural museum that showcases the traditional crafts and handiworks of its inhabitants.

The highlight of the nation and nationality day celebration is the cultural show by the various performing groups from each ethnicity in attendance. Each regional Culture and tourism office has an in-house performing group of around twenty dancers that are adept in traditional dance movements. Leading up to the event these various cultural groups rehearse a piece that they believe embodies and showcases their cultural practices. In these choreographies the regions’ distinctive traditional practices are highlighted appearing at the beginning or end of the dances. These dances are usually performed back-to-back increasing the pressure on the groups to device a unique performance for their audience.

Through the years since the beginning of the nation and nationalities celebration dancers accessorize their costumes to an increasing precision to olden customs. In such platforms that promote cultural introduction and exchange, dancers take special pride in small details such as the distinct embroidery stitching at the hem of their dresses or the unique piece of jewelry they wear on their heads. The emphasis on the distinctive aspects of their culture demonstrates the dancer’s attempt to delineate the circle that defines their ethnic identity boldly, as boldly as some of the most celebrated cultures in the country. Each ethnic group appears as a contender to earn recognition by contributing a characteristic component towards the diverse Ethiopian identity. Although not all ethnicities have been equally assimilated, yet, these festivities increase their exposure and familiarity with one another.

As told in an urban legend, a Somalia dance exquisitely highlights while simultaneously erasing the demarcation between habesha and non-habesha Ethiopians. During the fascist invasion of Ethiopia, inhabitants of Somalia retreated to the jungle, living their land open for attack. Invaders who wanted to talk with the leaders of Somalia brought an envoy from the highlands of the country to facilitate the conversation. Somali women, in an attempt to drive off the invasion used to compose poetry that demoralizes the fascist and English troops. They perform this poetry in groups, accompanied with dance movements. Among the performers, on the day the fascist and his envoy arrived, was a little girl and her aunt. The girl bewildered by the brown skinned habesha points at him and asks her aunt. Who is this? Who is this? And the aunt would say: He is ours. They form this back and forth word play that today is performed as an ostinato in Buranbur, a type of Somalia traditional dance. In the moment the girl poses the question we observe a split in her identity. As she points towards her fellow countryman she peels her ethnic identity from her national one, exposing both as independent entities. Upon receiving the answer, he is “ours” a positive possessive pronoun, she performs an act of assimilation, expanding her sphere of identity in a manner that includes a new unit.