In Ethiopia, traditional dances used to celebrate festivals, weddings, and occasions of every kind. With more than 80 traditional dances from all the corners of the country, one of the most widely known forms of Ethiopian traditional dance, known as eskista, has been experiencing some ups and downs in the past few years. However, eskista along with other traditional dances are making their way to global audiences currently. Even some people in Europe and America are learning Ethiopian traditional dances on their own. EBR’s Menna Asrat looks at where Ethiopian traditional dance is today and what the future may hold for the art form.
Traditional dancing has been part of everyday life in Ethiopia. Although it existed for centuries traditional dance has not made the transition to a respected art form for so long. In the past, theatres in Ethiopia even hosted regular shows dedicated solely to showcasing traditional dancing from different parts of the country. However, in the past two decades, the places where traditional dance could be showcased on a national and international level have decreased. After the shows at the country’s theatres dwindled and eventually stopped, and formalised traditional dance has all but become a thing of the past.
But now, younger dancers and the ubiquity of social media are starting to make people more aware of the art, which in turn, encouraging folks to try and revive its popularity. In fact, traditional dance currently is becoming a fixture in restaurants and bars, as well as music videos with a group of dancers performing eskista, a catch-all term for a dance from many parts of the country that focus on intense shoulder and chest movements, sometimes described as resembling the movement of a snake’s tail.
Meron Tsegaye has been dancing for the last 20 years. She started teaching traditional dance about five years ago, and she has seen a resurgence I popularity in classes, but not for those trying to become professionals. “In the last few years, I have seen some older people becoming more interested in learning traditional dance,” she told EBR. “But I still haven’t seen as much of an increase in the public perception of traditional dance as a profession.”
Among the more than 80 or more types of traditional dances (termed wuziwaze in Amharic) existed in Ethiopia, eskista is one of the most well-known especially in northern part of the country particularly in the state of Amhara. One of those eskista dancers is Biruk Melesse. The 24-year-old started dancing with his friends after being inspired by broadcasts of the old shows in the country’s theatres. “I got interested when I was a child,” he told EBR. “I got together with a group of my friends and we began to teach ourselves to dance. Sometimes we got pointers from older relatives or other kids in the neighbourhood.”
There are even those who used the art form to move into other areas of dance. Medina Hussen, in an interview with EBR in May 2018, explained how traditional dance had started what would become a lifelong love affair and career path for her. Medina is one of the few dancers who work in spite of her physical disabilities. Even though she now works in contemporary dance, eskista opened doors for her. “I started out with a group of traditional dancers,” she says. “That was what sparked my passion.”
Traditional dance is also used as a selling point to attract tourists to Ethiopia from all around the world. However, some of those in the industry feel that attracting tourists has been placed above professionally developing dancers.
Melesew Menberu, a traditional dancer and teacher has been dancing since he was 17. The 38-year-old feels that even though venues understand the business value of traditional dancing, they don’t pay much attention beyond that, leading to small salaries, a lack of teachers and a long term impact on the industry.
“This is more than a profession,” he said. “The young dancers in the industry could have reached great places by now. Once you get into this industry and start to love the people and the art, there’s no going back. But the dancers in the restaurants and bars only make around ETB2000 on average.”
Melaku Belay, a seasoned veteran of the Ethiopian traditional dance scene, has worked in shows in Addis, and all around the world. As a dancer who has performed with stars like Mehamud Ahmed, and others, Melaku founded a dance and music group called Fendika, and operates a venue by the same name in Addis Ababa. In the time that he has been working, he has seen people come and go in the industry, and has had a front row seat to the changes in how people perceive traditional dance.
“In the past, traditional dance was not considered an art form,” he told EBR. “With the changing times, it seems as if it doesn’t have more respect than it used to have, but is becoming more monetized.”
Traditional dance seems to be facing many hurdles. Customarily, in many African cultures, and Ethiopia as well, artistic jobs like dance have been misunderstood, if not outright rejected. It is in that environment that Melaku has been operating. “The problem lies with the way traditional dance is perceived, not just by the general public, but by the government,” he argues. “There isn’t a governmental protection for traditional dance. There are few concrete researches conducted on traditional dance.”
The people in charge of the country’s cultural and historical profiles agree. Nebiyou Baye, former head of the National Theatre, and the current head of the Addis Ababa Culture and Tourism Office, takes the same stance as Melaku. “Right now, if you want to see Ethiopian culture and dancing and singing, you have to wait until night, and go to a bar or restaurant,” Nebiyou said in an interview with EBR in July 2018. “There are no refined, national-level culture displays in Ethiopia. Cultural nights are private initiatives, and you can’t be sure of what you’ll see. It’s such a sad thing that Ethiopian culture is associated with going out and drinking at bars.”
Melaku agrees. “It does tend to cheapen it when you trade on your culture,” he says. “The fact that this art is not regulated and protected by the government exposes it to misuse. People just up and go to other countries in the name of doing a traditional dance show. But they are exposed to being trafficked and mistreated abroad. Even in Addis, the women who work in the various bars as dancers are mistreated.”
With such a complex problem facing traditional dancers, it seems like there is a long road ahead for those who love the art form. Until a lasting solution is found however, Melaku says, something is better than nothing. “It isn’t ideal to have our culture represented only in bars and restaurants. But it is better than letting it die out completely.”
Meron agrees. “There should be an official body that studies and preserves traditional dances. There are over 80 ethnic groups. Their dances should be studied, and classified into what is reserved for weddings, or funerals or festivals. We’ve not come as far as we should have with dance.”
6th Year • Sep.16 – Oct. 15 2018 • No. 66