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SanDance! A vibrant journey into Africa’s original dance culture

The recent (and still ongoing until August 31) Encounters Documentary Film Festival, only available virtually within South African internet borders, featured SanDance!, an remarkable film about San culture and dance in Southern Africa. Read excerpts of Michael Britton’s review and interview with Director Richard Wicksteed. Then read Carol Martin’s reflections about the film. Your free ticket at https://encounters.co.za/film/sandance/ and film trailer at https://vimeo.com/richardwicksteed

I praise the dance!
By Michael Britton

Photo credits: Kevin Rack
Full article at https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/482/207579.html

SanDance! is billed as a journey to the heart of Africa’s original dance culture, but it’s much more than that. It opens a door onto a segment of African culture that is in danger of dying out. Music and dance are combined, adding to the overall level of enjoyment of this film. In the film music score, two of South Africa’s most versatile musicians, Pops Mohamed and Dave Reynolds, play an array of instruments, from ancient African to functionally contemporary. The soundtrack is too beautiful to ignore, but very easy to overlook when you get caught up in the stories.

The film’s voice-over tells you that 130,000 San people live in tiny communities scattered across six vast southern African countries, speak about 12 different click languages, and keep themselves culturally strong through one of humanities oldest and most universal passions – dancing.
Vibrant San dancers and healers are seen preparing for the annual Kuru Dance Festival, which is always held at the time of the August full moon, at Dqae Qare San Lodge, outside Ghanzi, in Botswana. San groups from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa come together here to celebrate and share their cultural heritage of storytelling, song and dance.

SanDance! touches briefly on tragedy and injustice, and hints at past genocide in doing so. The hunting parties of the colonialists, both in the Cape and in then German South West Africa, where the hunted were the San, remain an untreated and festering sore in colonial history. Writer and film director Richard Wicksteed says,

“In the 1970s, the South African military forces, operating in Namibia and Angola, needed trackers in their war against the liberation movements. Thousands of Namibian and Angolan San were forced to leave their hunting grounds and settle in military bases. The men were conscripted as trackers and forced to fight, and sometimes die, under white officers.”

That the San and their culture have survived, and still survive despite families and communities being torn apart by forced removals and war, is testimony to their resilience.

Richard Wicksteed with San dancers

Richard Wicksteed has spent decades filming and working with the San, making at least 10 films of varying length. With a level of acceptance and trust from the San, Richard makes no political judgements and points no fingers. However, successive governments of SADC States have dismally failed the First People of this region and neglected their historical and cultural heritage. However, what lies at the heart of this beautiful film is the future and the importance of the dancing and healing.

Richards asks, “What happens if the dancing goes?” Elder dancer Letshogo Ikaegeng replies,

“Our history will be over. If our children don’t learn … if we don’t maintain the culture in our life, we may as well be dead. If we don’t continue to dance, our spirits will not travel to the spirit world and we will be condemned for denying our ancestors.”

The ancient truths are universal, so it did not surprise me to find that a technique shown to me decades ago by a Buddhist Qi Gong instructor, is echoed in San culture. In the film, a San healer says:

“The spirits they come and they tell you, there is a light coming! You must catch it, pour it into your eyes, you must catch it, pour it into your eyes because you can start seeing everything.”

As he says this, he scoops a handful of air first into one eye, then into the other eye, in much the same way I learnt in that Qi Gong lesson.

The trance healing dances are key in the film. Says one elder, “You must dance these songs. If you don’t, then people in your village may get sick. If you do the healing dance, the village will be good.” With only three days to the full moon, Richard explains the rehearsal intensity of the Xuu-Khwe-II dance group. Later that night, for the important and powerful lion healing dance, they decide to rehearse deep in the wilderness, close to the wildlife, close to their ancestral spirits. As Boemo Vivian Pekenene says:

“This song is for the lion, we repeat its lion name because we worship lions for our ancestors. As San, we live in the bush with lions. When I start to sing, my body temperature rises, I can feel shocks and vibrations in my body, and I will connect with the spiritual world. When I start dancing, I will be filled with happiness”.

The next morning, the dancers discover paw prints from seven lions in the dance area that night. Did they hear the call of the dancers?

When I interviewed Richard Wicksteed, I asked him about the highlights of the years spent making the film. He spoke about the power of the trance healing dances, before adding,

After the Mababe group had done the lion healing dance, I left a couple of the guys at the fire to do a bit of yoga to help me sleep. Then I heard a sound, like something jumping down to the ground. I had a powerful torch, so shone it around. And there was a lioness. Not quite between me and the camp, but I’d have to pass uncomfortably close to her.”

Which he did, shining the torch on her the entire time. The next day, an elder told him “The lion was not there to eat you. She was there to thank you, for bringing us together to dance.”

The stories don’t stop. The film is a rich source of powerful insights, often told with a playful or mischievous smile. But most of all, it enlightens those with the heart to hear, and uplifts those with the soul to see. Like this. “Inside our eyes, we have two spirit eyes. And then two on our nose. The eyes on the nose communicate with the upper eyes, then we travel with the spirit wind.”

Watch SanDance! – for the dance – for the music – for the story – for the pleasure.

***** Carol Martin’s Reflections *****

I don’t think it’s about ‘survival’ of culture, but about changes, transforming in newer realities, adapting to earth shifts (like climate changes) and administrative protocols. The San’s spirituality, if true to self, should carry through these transformations, and I think the film portrayed this well, particularly for educating our more globalized world. Yes, the San will ‘survive’ but present us with totally different voices that build on their past histories. The real issue is: are the children learning about these past histories, or are the histories silently archived? Or perhaps a better question would be: HOW are the children now retaining worthy values imbedded in past histories and applying them to their present realities? Dance certainly can do that…. But …. Will / can the dance of the San, alone, impart solid values and customs which have held their societies together? And HOW do we know that the San groups’ spirituality is actually being transmitted to the young dancing children?

I prefer to get away from this dichotomist thinking, of thinking about ‘loss’ of culture, or ‘gain’ of something else, but look at a human continuum of thinking and behaving that allows a people to come even close to surviving and ruling over their collective needs. I refer to some Native American First Peoples, like the Navaho Indians, who have ‘lost’ so much of their original lifestyles, but have managed to establish a lifestyle that avoids the State from [continuing to] trampling on their land. Case in point: Some USA States allow for tribal ownership of lands. Arizona State has a law that requires permission from a First People’s tribe if a developer wants to build a hotel on lands under tribal ownership. The tribe then reaps the financial benefits of that enterprise. So, much of those ‘gains’ are from casinos and tourist spots, for instance. Trick is: Have those worthy values and customs of Navaho ‘culture’ been retained and transmitted? In some places of the Navaho areas, community radios broadcast in Navaho language! (I made some recordings as I drove through those areas of northern Arizona/southeastern Utah).

I don’t know the answers unless I research. At least, I know the questions to ask!

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