2007 Keep the Dance Alive . Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD color, 50 minutes
Reviewed 5 Dec 2009 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Himba (African people)
Himba (African people) - Rites and ceremonies
Kunene (Namibia) - Social life and customs
ABSTRACT: The film features a loosely life-stage-based approach to Ovahimba dance but does not provide quite enough analysis of the dances nor of the relativism of ‘dance’ as a cultural category nor of its holistic relation to other aspects of culture.
In the 1960s, Guy Debord (1967) wrote of the ‘society of the spectacle,’ a modern condition in which life is essentially nothing but an immense and continuous parade of spectacles; as with his countryman Jean Baudrillard, the spectacle, the representation, had supplanted reality and lived life which could (probably) never be recovered or directly experienced. Anthropology suffered from a bit of the spectacle-syndrome early in its existence, collecting curiosities rather than searching for the real life underneath. Sometimes we refer to this attitude as ‘exoticism,’ and it survives in many corners still.
“Keep the Dance Alive” is part of Rina Sherman’s The Ovahimba Years Project (http://www.ovahimba.info/), along with “When Visitors Come” previously reviewed on this site. The film distributor’s website describes the movie as “a unique voyage through the music, dance and spirit possession practices of the Ovahimba people of north-western Namibia and south-western Angola” (http://www.der.org/films/keep-the-dance-alive.html). The word ‘dance’ in the title is therefore slightly misleading, as it is not exclusively about dance nor can dance be separated in concept or in practice from these other aspects of society. At the same time, the film comes near to the danger of indulging in spectacle and of exoticizing people who are obviously living rich and complex lives.
The production opens with a series of increasingly pinpoint maps of the territory under investigation, a welcome addition and one of which I would have appreciated more. On the border of Angola and Namibia, Sherman intends to depict “how [the Ovahimba] integrate music and dance into the everyday lives” including such occasions as initiation of infants, transmission of culture to children, interaction with ancestral spirits, and “the final homage to the deceased.” This statement represents the basic and loose narrative arc of the video, which roughly starts with children and ends (almost) with funerals.
One of the best scenes occurs early, when infants and young children are shown in the company of women dancers (by the way, the film deals predominantly with women’s music and dance; it is unclear whether this accurately represents the society—that is, that dance is more women’s prerogative than men’s in Ovahimba—or whether it is a directorial choice). These little ones are clearly acquiring the dance habits, and the trance habits, of their elders: as Sherman narrates, in observation and imitation they “learn to master the gestures” of their culture. This is a pregnant point that could use significant elaboration; for one source, consult Noland and Ness Migrations of Gesture (2008), also reviewed on this site.
Young women are portrayed next, engaged in a singing game and in imitation/parody of the adults in the society; dance, it seems, has its serious and whimsical sides among the Ovahimba. During work too, like mining the red ochre with which the women appear to be constantly covered, women sing. An elder male is briefly shown singing songs of the ancestors and the cattle, and singing is illustrated while women construct a hut (for the anthropologist, as it turns out).
The next major scene opens at a pan-tribal cattle auction, where men and women share the dance (the only time we see this). The young women’s dance game is included again, before all of the attendees head back to their home villages. The next step in the life-stage narrative brings us to a woman who has recently suffered a miscarriage; now the viewer is introduced to the more therapeutic, even shamanic, aspects of dance. The adult women drum and dance (if we can now use that term) for the unfortunate woman, who is under some ill spiritual effect. The singer-dancers try valiantly to induce a trance in the woman, but Sherman insists that she is young and has not been exposed to the trance tradition as the old women have. Despite multiple and long attempts, she does not trance. On the other hand, women around her do fall into trance, which is apparently a common and desired state in Ovahimba. One woman is possessed with a bird spirit, while two others are possessed by the lion.
The film takes several more steps, all opportunities to feature segments of dance again. The headman’s wife becomes sick, which calls for a dance. The viewer is transported to a mixed-tribe village for more dancing. We then travel to a coastal city, with yet more dancing. The circle is completed as we join a troupe of women in mourning and a pair of funerals (where men seem to predominate). As if perhaps to suggest that life goes on, the final scene is a social gathering and dance.
“Keep the Dance Alive” contains a lot of dancing. It also tends simultaneously to essentialize dance and to conflate dance. It is never considered that ‘dance’ may be a Western category which does not entirely apply to the Ovahimba case. Surely some things they do are ‘dance’ in the familiar sense, and others are not. The category ‘dance’ is thus also conflated with categories like ‘ritual’ or ‘cure’ or ‘possession.’ The film is not particularly helpful, for instance, in specifying the type and meaning of dances shown. At the same time, too many tribal names of very similar sound are given, so the viewer is not always entirely sure which group is being referred to. (Some differences in dress and accessory style are noticeable between groups.) It does not help that, when Sherman does narrate or explain things, her voice is a bit of a monotone.
Undergraduate and public audiences will probably get antsy sitting through 50 minutes of Ovahimba dance. On the other hand, judiciously used, and supplemented with discussions of the cultural relativism and cultural holism of dance, the film could be quite valuable. It is, unarguably, a remarkable and important ethnographic document. As instruction or entertainment, it would just require selective showing and additional discussion.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of dance/arts, anthropology of religion, and Southwest African studies, as well as general audiences.
Debord, Guy. 1995 . The Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. Brooklyn NY: Zone Books.
Noland, Carrie and Sally Ann Ness, eds. 2008. Migrations of Gesture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
Eller, Jack David
2009 Review of Keep the Dance Alive . Anthropology Review Database December 5, 2009. http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/cgi/showme.cgi?keycode=3505, accessed May 20, 2013.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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(available online: http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/)