Cultural troupes are sprouting all over Kigali, all claiming to perform Rwandan dances. Does this mean that the city has a vibrant cultural life? Not necessarily. The numbers do not translate into the best or the most authentic traditional dance forms.
In fact, the many cultural troupes are more commercial outfits than artistic ensembles. They have been put together to meet the entertainment demands of the many weddings and other social events that take place in Kigali.
And like any sensible business undertaking, each group has sought competitive advantage over others.
To do this, they have had to be inventive.
They have created new movements, copied and adapted forms from other countries and in the process completely changed the original form.
Unlike successful businesses, however, they have not done so by either improving the quality of the product or marketing it better.
And so the result of the inventions to survive in the crowded market has been to turn Rwandan dance forms into gymnastics. The new dances are simply physical exertions disguised as meaningful dance movements.
Now, there is nothing wrong with gymnastics. Indeed it can be very entertaining. But it is not dance.
Gymnastics stress precision and synchronisation above everything else. It is a form of physical exercise meant to demonstrate agility. When performed in a group, there is no room for individual expression.
Dance is different. It is essentially about movement and rhythm, grace and elegance, and how these blend to make an individual or collective statement.
Even the more energetic dance forms from northern Rwanda have a natural rhythm and grace that is clearly not studied or contrived as happens with the new types.
Another distinctive feature of dance is that even in a group performance, there is always room for individual expression.
Let us illustrate with the Intore Dance. Typically, this dance has two parts.
The first is made up of different synchronised drills (imihamirizo) – performed in specific formations, each with its distinctive movements. These are done in harmony to symbolise group identity, discipline and common purpose.
The second part consists of more individualised performances. In essence each performer is permitted to express his individuality. This part of the performance is actually a display of traits or exploits that distinguish one from the rest.
In this sense it is supposed to express and also spur competition and excellence.
In sum, the apparent individual differences express a collective vitality and a sense of invincibility.
The cultural troupes that seem to sprout everywhere have changed the nature of the Intore Dance into an indistinct sameness.
Other dance forms have also changed. Elegance has given way to energy and individual grace to a group dynamic.
Sameness, even if energetic, can only make the form indistinguishable and unmemorable.
But perhaps there are good reasons for this change, even though the outcome is not exactly attractive.
I hear creativity and modernisation being mentioned. And to that I say, Amen.
Dance is, of course, a creative artistic form. But creativity should be within the same form. It should not alter the essential form as to make it unrecognisable.
The authenticity of the dance must be maintained.
Invention is also a good thing, but it must add, not subtract; build not destroy. And if a new form is created, let it be recognised as such and given an appropriate name. It is wrong to pass off such an entirely new creation as a well-known dance form.
The new forms are full of borrowing and adaptations from dances of other cultures. That, too, is a good thing. It is good to be aware of other cultures and their various artistic expressions.
But awareness of other cultures alone is not an excuse to copy and paste them on perfectly dynamic Rwandan dance forms. That can only be justified if done to enrich the existing form, not to alter it. Any adaptations must blend into the existing form, not replace it.
Dance is an art form that is beautiful in itself but that is also meant to entertain. However, its entertainment aspect must be balanced with its aesthetic element. Stressing one and leaving out the other kills the art in dance.
Rwandan dances are relevant and meaningful as they are, and ably express our history, values and collective outlook. They need no external validation.
Patches and appendages from other sources can only do harm. Relying on this to regenerate our dance, song or other artistic form betrays a lack of confidence in one’s own forms or inability to recreate.
There is simply no need for that. Not even for commercial purposes.