Intore: the ‘richest’ dance in Africa

If the Kinyarwanda culture is legendary the world over for anything, it is for the Intore dance, the one in which striking female dancers fully clad in traditional shawls, almost akin to the Indian sari, bare-chested men strapped across the chest and back, wearing ‘manes’ made from a special tree, doing flying bird-like movements, blissfully, and perhaps appropriately referred to as the traditional ballet. One never gets completely over the delicate leg balancing act of the same kind to wing-flapping bird movements, or even fin-rolling acts of fish, if imagination is allowed to run a little wild.

If the Kinyarwanda culture is legendary the world over for anything, it is for the Intore dance, the one in which striking female dancers fully clad in traditional shawls, almost akin to the Indian sari, bare-chested men strapped across the chest and back, wearing ‘manes’ made from a special tree, doing flying bird-like movements, blissfully, and perhaps appropriately referred to as the traditional ballet.
One never gets completely over the delicate leg balancing act of the same kind to wing-flapping bird movements, or even fin-rolling acts of fish, if imagination is allowed to run a little wild.

The instinctive excitement that seems to run through many Rwandese when the ‘chosen ones’ perform will repeatedly, astoundingly shock you.

Women and men of all shapes and sizes, heights and classes suddenly move their bodies in a fluid-like pattern that has no particular consistency except for the amazing rhythmic correlation.

You will think all Rwandese have been bred and trained in the art of performing this dance from childhood.

When you watch them, you get the feeling they would still do it with their eyes closed and still retain a similar rhythm, as if the moves are deeply engraved in their genetic code.

 It is unique, like any other African dance that puts more emphasis into the representation of real events, be it men going to war or imitating the movement of cows rather than the quality of the singer’s voice, the messages passed in the physical and verbal expression, the rich tunes of traditional musical instruments.

I was pleasantly surprised  to learn that the outstretched arms and the extended skirts simulate the shape of the long curved horns of ‘Ankole’ cattle and the flapping of elephant ears (from a New York Times article of all places).

Rwandans love their cattle, and for a man to tell the woman he fancies that she resembles a cow ''is very, very nice,'' says one Leonia Uwimana. In fact, when you curiously observe the men’s hands movement, they actually take from the movements of the cattle’s front limbs, doing a slow walk before turning awkwardly but beautifully in a different direction just like a bull that has suddenly been jerked away from its peaceful munching of juicy green pasture.

It will then gallop away, the pairs of hind and front legs leaving or landing on the ground concurrently.

It is refreshing for one to decipher all these new interpretations of the dance movements even without understanding the language of song.

If you have gaped at the dance for the few initial times, marveling at the grace of movement, then the realization of some of those eye-opening adaptations of animals are remarkably pleasurable.

The intore dance will appear rather feminine for an African dance, perhaps more like the electrifying Kiganda waist shaking-twisting equivalent, more unlike the jump-up-and-down Karimojong or Maasai one.

When you watch the dance of heroes, of soldiers from war, with spears, their manes completely an enchantingly menacing spectacle, like lions spoiling for a fight, you observe the absence of any femininity.

According to Wikipedia, Ikinimba is probably the most revered musical tradition in Rwanda.

It is a dance that tells the stories of Rwandan heroes and kings, accompanied by instruments like ingoma, ikembe, iningiri, umuduri and inanga.

It is perhaps a plus that what was initially a preserve of the Rwanda Mwami (king) is now for anyone who cares to appreciate.

Such is the wealth of Kinyarwanda and African dance and music at large.
In traditional Africa, music is not a profession for a selected, talented few. There was music for maids who fetched water from the well, warriors going to war, youths going to hunt, mothers sending their children to sleep and music for people to mourn.

According to the history of Africa music, musical games played by African children prepare them to participate in all areas of adult activity - including fishing, hunting, farming, grinding maize, attending weddings and funerals and dances.

Music was an accessory to the trials and tribulations of everyday life, a therapeutic, entertaining and yet educative ingredient of culture.

“It seems logical to conclude that everyone in black Africa must be a musician by definition,” the newspaper said.

The femininity that you perceive of the intore at the beginning, however, actually metamorphoses into a thrilling ensemble to the fullness of life, bead shaking noises closely accentuating the sudden but firm barefoot stumps, loose parts of head gear stuck in motion before abruptly faithfully following the fresh flight paths of their frenzied wearers.

The intore is a tacit reminder of our primitive sentimental reactions to feelings that the easiness of 21st century conveniences of everyday life have almost successfully buried. Its value perhaps is not the admire-primitive-cultures-in-Africa kind that white tourists will travel to our continent yearning for.

It will shock you how; such messages of basic human happiness are decoded in these age-old pieces of art, messages that cut across our individual mother tongues and social biases.

These messages that watching the intore will provoke, remind one that all humans have a basic least denominator that our creator incises in each of us, that is universal, that has the dubious ability of arousing rare, concealed, undiscovered emotions in us.

It is therefore no surprise that the classic ballet prevalent in Europe is crafted to describe a narrative through movements to express character which are basically the same principles of not only the intore but traditional Africa music in many ways.

That music and dance is essentially universally similar or closely linked has been proven by such glaring similarities as this, between classical ballet and the intore dance which even to a naked eye would be crystal clear.

Whether it is so due to similar musical influences spreading all over the earth from one origin through migrations or through some instinctive musical code in people that breeds those similarities is for the musicologists to explore. Must we mention the famous Swazi reed dance through which young bare-chested maids extol their feminine beauty and virtue, so the king can choose his next bride?

Is it in fact a plus that intore dancers do not have to wear the famously torturous ballet slipper to balance on their toes like the modern ballet dancer?

The intrinsic value of the intore lies far much beyond the preservation of traditional culture. In this world of iPods and electronically simulated sounds passing for entertainment, the likes of intore are needed to remind us that all of us are basically human, at heart, and that beyond the comforts that science has enabled us to enjoy, things as invaluable as the simple natural things like the sounds of chirping birds in the wild, the smell of fresh earth or the relaxation of listening to the sound of dried leaves breaking under your bare feet in a perfectly unspoiled natural environment are all ours to savor.

It is therefore deservingly called in many quarters, one of the ‘richest’ dances in Africa.

Ends

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