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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 153-170

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National Erotica
The Politics of "Traditional" Dance in Tanzania

Laura Edmondson



The stubborn persistence of the "primitive" and "erotic" African stereotype provides rich terrain for ongoing explorations and interrogations. "[T]he stereotype," Homi K. Bhabha declares, "is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always 'in place,' already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated" (1994:66). Bhabha's concept has proven immensely useful as a means of excavating the anxiety that underlies the perpetuation of the "duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African" (66). This postcolonial framework, however, does not account for the proliferation of cultural stereotypes in the domain of African popular culture, where the colonial gaze presumably does not need to be affirmed. In my first encounter with Tanzanian "traditional" dance in 1996, I was immediately faced with such stereotypes, even though I was exploring urban popular culture in Dar es Salaam instead of tourist performance "on safari" in the Serengeti plains. Despite my own anxiety to question and deconstruct these initial images, the stereotypes seemed at first impervious to theoretical tools.

This encounter occurred in a bar called Vijana Social Hall located in Dar es Salaam, the commercial center of this East African country (5 October 1996). Like countless other bars throughout this city of approximately three million people, Vijana Social Hall doubles as a performance venue for local theatre groups and bands. Mandela Cultural Troupe, which was the group performing that particular night, adhered to the usual vaudeville format that characterizes Tanzanian popular theatre, intermingling a dizzying variety of dances, music, plays, and acrobatics in the course of the four-hour performance. This night, Mandela opened with a version of sindimba, the most famous--and notorious--"traditional" dance (ngoma) in Tanzania. 1

As a newly arrived researcher on constructions of gender and national identity in popular theatre, I tried to suppress my unease as I watched the women of Mandela Cultural Troupe dance in a circle, swaying their hips in a sexually inviting way. Meanwhile, the men of the troupe approached them from behind and "tried out" each in turn. A male dancer with an especially youthful appearance approached one of the older female dancers and ground his hips [End Page 153] into hers, eliciting shouts of laughter from the audience: "She can be your mother! Mind your manners!" The women steadfastly danced in their circle, smiling all the while. I dutifully watched as Western stereotypes of the "bestial sexual license of the African" and the passive African woman were gleefully played out before my discomfited gaze.

In the course of my fieldwork, I saw sindimba performed time and time again, in addition to several other ngoma that accentuated the women's erotic movement of the hips and pelvis. In contrast, the male dancers vigorously stamped their feet, turned cartwheels, and improvised comic routines around their pursuit of the ever-smiling, hip-swaying women. I learned that this hip-swaying movement, called kukata kiuno (to cut the waist), had become virtually [End Page 154] synonymous with the concept of ngoma in the cultural imagination. The ubiquity of this image could be explained as an inevitable result of urban commodification in which African traditional dances are appropriated and "de-popularized." Gaurav Desai describes this process as a means of "entertain[ing] the urban elite and reassur[ing] the developing nation that it has not ignored its national culture" (1990:68). It could be argued that a similar process enshrined Tanzanian ngoma as a cultural stereotype of African "tradition"; concomitantly, the female body was appropriated and contained by this repetitive, rotating motion.

This containment, however, occurred through a complex process of inventing, counterinventing, and reinventing tradition. In the course of this article, I examine the state's appropriation of ngoma as a national symbol, the transformation of this symbol in the domain of popular culture, and its recent incarnation as a tourist attraction. Through an interrogation of the smiling, hip-swaying women in sindimba, the following...


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