Dance in Ethiopia: Traditionality and Contemporariness

  • Hui Wilcox
  • Melaku Belay
Keywords: Ethiopian dance, contemporary dance, traditional dance, multiple modernities, decolonizing dance

Abstract

Dance practices in Ethiopia remained vibrant, albeit transformed, as the
country transitioned from feudalism to socialism (1974), and then to neoliberal
capitalism (1991). For centuries, a vast array of movement traditions has been
essential to religious and communal rituals in Ethiopia. Today, traditional
Ethiopian dance is most visible in tourist restaurants or YouTube videos. The
trajectory of dance from ritualised practices to commercialised performances
presents a seeming paradox: traditional Ethiopian dance as we know it today is,
in fact, a modernised performance genre serving multiple functions: memory
transmission, ideological dissemination, and profit generation, among others.
In the 1980s, the socialist state harvested dances from around the country to
produce “modernised” performances on the stages of government theatres,
propagating the ideology of national unity amidst border wars and internal
oppression. In the 1990s, as Ethiopia opened to the West, these dances continued
to be performed on restaurant stages, not so much to propagandise for the
state as to generate profit for the industry. The modernisation of traditional
dance continues in Ethiopia, under the auspices of neoliberal privatisation,
which has also led to the westernisation of youth culture. Since the late 1990s,
a group of young Ethiopians have devoted themselves to contemporary
dance by adopting Western aesthetics and distinguishing their practice from
traditional dance. Recently, they have grappled with the imperative to infuse
Ethiopian dance traditions in their work in order to be recognised in the global
dance field. Through dance ethnography, oral histories, and video archives,
this paper illuminates both traditionality and contemporariness as historical
constructs – categories of differential powers used to organise the current
dance field in Ethiopia.

Keywords: Ethiopian dance, contemporary dance, traditional dance, multiple modernities, decolonizing dance

Published
2021-02-10

Journal Identifiers


eISSN: 0376-8902