Rwandan traditional dance: A firm grip on culture

Rwandan dancers. File photo

Last week, a Rwandan cultural troupe paid a surprise visit to the Arsenal Training Centre, where players were in preparation of the new season.

The men, wearing the intore dancers’ famous wigs and carrying spears, performed for the cheerful group of world famous players and coaching staff as part of the ‘Visit Rwanda’ campaign — a three-year tourism promotion deal Rwanda signed with the football club. 


The video also showcased something else — Rwanda’s rich culture.


One of the strongest pillars of Rwandan culture is the traditional dance, because music and dance have always been an essential part of society.


Known for its grace and outstanding drumming style, the Intore dance is popular at many celebrations, from wedding ceremonies to national celebrations and festivals.

The vibrant costume of the Intore dancers consists of long or short skirts, ankle-bands and head-bands made of different beads, headdresses with grass wigs, and small hand-painted shields and sticks.

The female dancers wear ceremonial clothing like the traditional umushanana, with a sash draped over one shoulder, worn over a long skirt and well fitted vest-like top.

The men have a more energetic presence whereas the women move in a gentle and graceful manner. Their moves highlight radiance, purity and kindness.

However, like it is in other cultures, for example Latin dances that include the rumba, salsa or cha-cha, intore is just one of the many dances in Rwanda; others include Ikinimba, Umushayayo and Ibihozo, among others.

Clotilde Umubyeyi, a historian, says the Intore traditional dance is unique, and that is in the way they dress and dance.

“It is amazing and its individuality makes it incomparable. You can’t get bored watching them dance,” she says.

“It’s not ‘blowing one’s trumpet’, it is the truth; the dance is just pure elegance.”

Intore dancers. Rwandans use dance as a way of expressing themselves. Net photo

Dance and the Rwandan culture  

Rugano Kalisa, an author and historian, says dancing is a language the whole world understands.

Rwandans used dance as a way of expressing themselves; they danced when they were happy or sad. It was also a way of creating unity in society, he explains.

“Rwandans danced when they had a good harvest, when a child was born, when they had victory in a war, when they were defeated, and there were different kinds of dances to express all of this,” he says.

“The soldiers would also dance for the King when they went to present their ideas to him, and when they went back home from the war, their wives and children would dance for them and thank God for helping them survive the war,” he adds.

Rwanda’s anatomy was the basis of the choreography in its traditional dance; it portrays the structure of the hills in Rwanda, Kalisa says.

He adds that dancing was a form of identity. This was depicted in the forms of dance where people from various locations in Rwanda danced based on who they were or what their occupation was.

“People from the East dance like the nature of their area, they sway and roll and also dance with spears and bows because they are cattle keepers and farmers. The dance is called gushagirira or gushayaya,” Kalisa says.

He explains that in the hills of Kibuye, Western Province, people use a lot of energy just like the energy they use to climb the hills; their dance is called inshongore y’abahungu.

In northwest Rwanda, their dance is ikinimba where people also have a strong presence, a reflection of the grand Virunga Mountains in their area.

Umubyeyi says that a long time ago, women got married at the ages of 16 to 20, and because they were still young and naïve, the transition was hard, so people had to sing and dance for them as a way of comforting them. This dance was calledibihozo.

Umubyeyi also says that on the day of umuganura (now also known as Thanksgiving Day or National Harvest Day), specific dances were exhibited because it was one of the biggest days of the year.

Umuganura was a day of feasting, and giving thanks to God and the ancestors, not only for the harvest, but also for all the good things in life. The festival was also an occasion to bring together Rwandans from all social ranks in a bid to cement the social fabric of Rwandan society.

A young Intore dancer in Kigali City traditional troupe Indatirwabahizi. File photo

Instilling values

Francis Wasswa, a traditionalist, says aside from the fact that the Rwandan traditional dance conveys important messages and flaunts the beauty of the country, the dances also help instil cultural values in society.

“They would teach the young how to be people of integrity. They were groomed to be courageous and ambitious, to be a true Rwandan,” he says.

Children would come together and learn a lot through dance, Umubyeyi says.

Through Itorero, a cultural school where Rwandans would learn language, patriotism, social relations, sports, dancing, songs and defence, boys were groomed into men. They were also trained to be warriors; they would learn how to shoot and fight using spears and clubs. In the evenings when they were done with the lessons, they would dance.

Girls, on the other hand, were trained through urubohero, where they were taught to be good wives, and how to sow and make handicrafts. Lessons were accompanied by songs and dances.

“Dancing was a big deal in the past, it reflected proper upbringing and also created harmony in society,” Umubyeyi says.

Rwanda National Ballet, Urukerereza, dancing intore style. File

How can the youth relate?

Kalisa says the youth are faced with many challenges, which include not fully understanding their culture. He blames colonialists who tampered with Rwanda’s culture.

“When they came, what they did was to take away our culture; the first thing they did was to remove Itorero yet it is where people learnt their culture from. That’s how they taught people new dances and songs and our culture got mixed up,” he says.

“Someone who takes away your culture is akin to one who kills you, for without culture, you’re as good as dead. Our Government is doing a lot to revive our culture, this is why there isindangamirwa (a programme designed to instil values and qualities of good leadership in the youth).”

Dr Jacques Nzabonimpa, the director of culture at Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture, says the fact that Rwanda’s culture was not recorded in past years posed a risk of conveying the wrong message to future generations.

Back then, cultural norms and values were passed on by word of mouth.

He is, however, of the view that there is need to find creative ways to have more youth engage in cultural activities.

“We need to do this collectively; the first way is through families; parents need to instil a sense of culture in their children. There are various Government initiated programmes at the village level, for example, umugoroba wa babyeyi, (an evening with parents), where lessons on culture are passed on,” he says.

In schools, the Ministry of Sports and Culture in partnership with Ministry of Youth introduced a programme called ‘Culture in Schools’ which helps the youth learn more about culture, and historical poems, songs and dances.

Nzabonimpa points out that preserving and promoting culture is at the forefront of the responsible stakeholders’ agenda and this is why a number of initiatives are in place.

“What we are doing is to write books; a number of books have been published about Rwandan culture. We take them to schools and it’s one way of teaching culture to the young generation,” he says.

He applauds the Rwanda Development Board and Arsenal deal, saying that it is one of the best ways to promote Rwandan culture around the world.

“That was a good move because Arsenal has many viewers and followers all over the world. Millions of people have watched that video and we have received feedback. We have so many people writing to us asking about the Rwandan dance and the people. People all over the world want to know who we are. It is evident that it is going to boost tourism in Rwanda.”


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