Contemporary dance is growing in Ethiopian cities and towns. Talented youth in relatively large numbers join the dancing world despite the absence of specialized institutions or training centers teaching the art. It is also becoming a source of income for youngsters, although the payment is not ‘commensurate’ with their efforts. EBR’s Kiya Ali explores.
For Sara Girma, 18, dancing is an essential part of her identity. She fell in love with dance at an early age, learning the steps from music videos broadcast on TV and online. Instead of playing other games, she was obsessed with dancing. That early attachment to the art has now transpired into a career path. “Dancing is my life,” she claims defiantly.
Sara joined a dance group called ‘Yodiak’ when she was just 15. After gaining basic skills, she left for ‘Jano’ dance group which has six dancers and a trainer. Sara’s crew is currently amongst the most sought after dancers by musicians and businesses. “It is also my career now,” says Sara.
Thanks to its recent evolution in Ethiopia, contemporary dancing has lately become a business with which people can make a living. The days when dancing was only a mere artistic expression of one’s impression of music are gone, even in Ethiopia. Music and dance are attracting new audience, resulting in the mushrooming of home-grown productions, particularly those aimed at the urban market.
It has become relatively more common in Ethiopia these days for urban youth, between ages 15 and 30, to form dance groups. The trend is indicative of a deviation from the past where parents wanted their kids to only succeed academically. The fact that contemporary dance has become a source of income for the youth who would otherwise potentially bear the brunt of unemployment has helped draw more youngsters. By virtue of being an art form that needs fitness and time, dancing also reduces their propensity to addiction.
With a growing number of singers making music videos and releasing singles these days, dancers have become more sought after than ever. Celebrations, events, and traditional songs used to be the major domain of dancers. In the past, only few contemporary singers featured dancers in their music videos.
In a radical turn of events, almost every producer now involves dancers in their music videos to make it more engaging. The trend is also not limited to the capital Addis but encompasses other major cities in the country such as Adama, Bishoftu, Batu (Zeway), Assela, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, and Hawassa. Businesses, especially breweries, also use street dancers to promote their products.
It has become normal for dance groups to showcase their works on the streets or during holiday exhibitions. The latter, especially, has increasingly become a venue for dance crews to participate in competitions and refine their art. This has even helped organizers of exhibitions attract more people. “There was even time that I went to the exhibition center just to watch live music and dance,” remarked Tsion Demeke, a dance lover.
Working in a country of more than 80 ethnic groups helps contemporary dancers redefine themselves. By drawing from the vast culture of various Ethiopian ethnic groups, dancers augment and develop their creativity. They have consequently won the hearts of many, as demonstrated by the fact that traditional singers have started to give them the opportunity to work alongside them.
Although contemporary dance has shown drastic growth as of late, many dance crews are still ill-equipped and don’t even have permanent places to train. This includes Jano Dance Group, of which Sara is a member. The group trains twice a week but doing so was impossible until they were allowed to use a local government (Woreda) hall for free around Sidist Kilo. “The hall doesn’t have the necessary equipment like speakers, mirrors, and mattresses,” Sara notes despite the gratitude she feels towards the permission to train. The absence of these materials compromises their safety.
Even though many agree that dancing is crucial to the music business, it has ironically evaded the understanding of movers in the business. Dancers complain that they are underpaid and do not get the respect they deserve from singers. “There is a tendency to consider our profession as something unnecessary and secondary to the music while the reality is that it is equally important. The compensation is also not satisfactory and commensurate with our efforts,” Sara says.
Yosef Betsiha, a dance trainer, also shares Sara’s contention that dancing is not a well-paying job. “Although dancers require foods that are rich in nutrients, the money they earn does not even cover their daily expenses,” he complains.
Dancing’s limited ability to generate enough income has forced many to either shift to other professions or relegate dancing to a part-time job. “I wish dancing was my full-time profession but that is not possible in Ethiopia, where the profession is at its infancy and practitioners are underpaid,” says Yosef. When Yosef started dancing a decade ago, he and his friends used to be paid less than ETB100 or even work for free at times just to appear on music videos and become popular.
Through time, the payment has improved but not significantly enough, especially when compared to other professions. For instance, the seven members of Jano share a maximum of ETB5,000 when they appear on a music video or do some promotional works. This is around ETB714 each. But as they don’t get job offers easily, they are paid ETB500 each when performing in music clips.
The dancers feel that the wrong perception and underestimation of the profession by musicians and business persons are partly responsible for their underpayment. Sara also says the dancers themselves are partly to blame. “Dancers don’t have an association and fail to collaborate on their mutual interests. For instance, regarding payment, we could have agreed on setting a minimum price and charge accordingly instead of killing the profession by accepting unfair offers just to appear on music videos,” she remarks.
The dancers are adamant that the lack of standards and the use of inappropriate types of dancing for cinema, promotion, music video, entertainment, and other purposes hold the profession from growing. They argue that a big change could have already been realized, had there been a professional association that targets developing the career path. “Marketing professionals are abusing the profession as they don’t care about choreography and what the hired dancers produce,” said Getahun Sema, a dancer and trainer with over 15 years of experience. He notes that such an environment has limited the growth of dance companies, forced dance crews to remain informal, and dragged the profession back from improving.”
Lij Temesgen, Choreographer, agrees. “No proper academy teaches the skill of dancing; no book has been written on the art of dancing by an Ethiopian despite the abundance of resources. In Ethiopia, we have communities that mourn the death of a person through dance, but we have not capitalized on this,” he noted. The most worrisome thing Lij Temesgen has noticed through the years is the consideration of dancers as assistants to musicians. “Dance is a respected and independent profession that can stand by itself,” Lij Temesgen concludes.EBR
9th Year • Feb.16 – Mar.15 2020 • No. 83