The dance of the desert sands

Swinging away: Polka dancers showing how it's done: PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Swinging away: Polka dancers showing how it's done: PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

GANTSI: It has become the norm that whenever cultural artistic genres are performed such as during national events like President’s Day a strange, rhythmic, classic dance style is showcased.

A string of couples appear on whatever stage is available – often dressed colourfully and immaculately – and within seconds, hands are clasped together in a flowing, well-coordinated dance route, that is as mesmerising as it is captivating. Polka, which dates back to early 19th century Czechoslovakia and Germany, is hugely popular among Batswana in the south and the west in areas such as Tsabong, Bokspits, Gantsi, Vaalhoek, and others.

While the dance has traditionally been performed within these communities, it only appeared in the mainstream a few years ago, being performed at national events and rapidly gaining a strong following.

A huge part of polka’s rise to popularity has been President Ian Khama’s self-professed love for the dance genre. The president has rarely missed an opportunity to display his polka dancing skills and often inspires squeals of joy from audiences at various festivals across the country.

Khama is scheduled to grace this weekend’s Khawa Dune Challenge, where many will eagerly be waiting for him to again show off his polka skills. However, as popular as the dance is becoming, sweeping through the country, its original enthusiasts are unimpressed with the manner in which polka is being compromised in style as it is adopted. 

Some dancers do not know the complete steps and moves or even the correct positions, say polka’s original defenders. The ‘degradation’ or ‘corruption’ of polka is rubbing many up the wrong way.

Group leader and trainer of Langpad Huster, Lydia Rooi says while many groups have ventured into polka, they are doing it the wrong way. She says some groups have infused other traditional dance genres into polka, such as tsutsube.

“This is all wrong and some people are mutilating our traditional dance,” she fumes. “There is no way that either setapa or tsutsube can be mixed with polka dance as is happening of late. According to Rooi, even the way some dancers hold each other while dancing is wrong.

“In polka dance, the man’s hand should always be on the left because he is the one who controls the moves and the woman’s should be on the right,” she explains.

“Even their hands should be held upright, not what we see other groups doing.”

According to Rooi, polka dance has different steps such as waltz, loose step, quickstep and fast step, which should be all performed to completion. Polka dance is not a very fast paced dance and is actually rather slow. Women are supposed to wear flared skirts with either flat shoes or even high-heeled shoes. She also sees other issues with the direction the dance genre is taking.

“Polka dance is our traditional dance which we dance at weddings, parties or when we celebrate special events. We do not use it for monetary gain.”

For Rooi, other tribes in the country are snatching away what was originally theirs.  “Almost every tribe in Botswana has its own cultural activities, but we never try our hand at them. People should leave what is ours to us. 

“We want our children to learn their cultural activities. They need and have to learn the correct way of dancing polka so that they too can be proud of their culture. “We do not want our children to find our culture destroyed when they grow up,” she says. 

While Langpad Huster does participate in the President’s Day celebrations, the idea is for their culture to be recognised and to teach people how polka is danced.

However, Rooi is equally worried about the adjudication on President’s Day as she says the novelty of polka to most judges puts it at a disadvantage. “The adjudicators are music teachers who know polka music but not the dance moves. Others only adjudicate merely because they speak Afrikaans.

“That is why Gantsi groups never win because they perform the right dance moves which however seem strange to a lot of people,” she says.While its original enthusiasts are unhappy, this weekend hundreds will gather in Khawa to witness the growing spectacle that is polka dance.

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