Dance Battle: Sukuma Dance Societies

Written by Thomson Safaris
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We have a fabulous idea for a surefire-hit movie:

Step Up 83: Sukuma Dance Battle

To be fair, the Sukuma—a Tanzanian people who have traditionally lived near Lake Victoria, and who total 15% of the population, making them the largest single ethnic group in the country—really deserve more credit than a mere sequel (or 83-quel). After all, they may not have invented the dance battle, but they’ve been going at it for a long time. Longer, even, than the most lucrative Hollywood franchises.

We know, it’s hard to believe ANYTHING has been going on that long.

Dancing has always been integral to Sukuma life, and many of the dances still being performed today started as a way to add a little interest to the workday; migrant farmworkers would compose and sing songs to help pass the time, using their hoes as dance-props (when they weren’t being used on the fields, presumably).

The hoes used as props in the Gobogobo dance reference Sukuma dancing’s likely origin

But whistling while you work is a far cry from fighting it out the only way your heart knows how: on the dance floor.

In the mid-1800s, that’s just what two respected Sukuma tribesmen did. Ngika and Gumha were both known as gifted dancers and composers, and both worked as medicine men in the community.

Really, a rivalry was inevitable.

But no one could agree who was the better healer, Ngika or Gumha. So, logically enough, they organized a dance battle to find out.

Of course the battle was about more than just the dance (there’s something more than dance?); it was meant as a referendum on each man’s skill as a medicine man. Before the dance began, each man concocted his most potent potions, none more important than the samba (or “good luck” medicine), all of them intended to make him more appealing to the crowd. Whoever won the dance battle clearly had the better medicines.

No one knows who won that fated dance battle (it could be that no one really “won”; supporters of each man likely decided his dancing was superior), but its rhythms have echoed down through the centuries. Both men went on to form their own dance societies, the Bagika under the leadership of Ngika, and the Bagalu headed by Gumha.

Each year, these societies (both still exist, and the Bagalu are now headed by Gumha’s grandson) and others that have followed in their footsteps participate in annual dance competitions, held every June and July in Sukumaland (which centers around the southern shores of Lake Victoria, near Mwanza). Dancers will showcase innovative new steps and dances, but some performances have become so popular that they’re revived year after year, such as the “snake dance” of the Bagika, or the “hyena dance” of the Bagalu.

Dances involving live animals, such as the Bagika “snake dance,” are perennially popular

Though the idea of yearly “battles” may seem like little more than a fun tradition, the dancers take them seriously, consulting traditional healers for medicines (which can be rubbed on the body in a lotion, worn in an amulet, or even buried beneath the dancing grounds so as to affect the most spectators), creating elaborate costumes, and sometimes using large or novelty props—from life-size puppets to plastic animals masks—to gain audience support.

The dances are always evolving (today’s dancers regularly infuse hip-hop moves into their dances), but the tradition is steadfast.

…which means there’s lots of room for sequels. Just in case anyone in Hollywood wants to talk with us…