Words and Photographs by Chris Marais
This is no Five-Step Waltz, no Quadrille and by no means a Cakewalk. It’s more like a Cactus Tango or a Dusty Jitterbug, this Nama Riel dance they do so well out here in the Northern Cape Karoo. It’s Stomp the Yard in Calvinia, Williston, Brandvlei and beyond.
The cheering crowd forms a square over a carefully prepared piece of Dry Country. There must be dust, and heaps of it. The wild, twangy Riel music blares out from somewhere and the groups of dancers enter the arena, flailing their arms and kicking their legs.
“Die stof moet voor jou loop,” they say. The dust must rise before you. That’s just the start of a decent Nama Riel.
Variations of the Riel were performed for centuries by the Khoi and San. Later, farm workers and sheep shearers all over the far-flung outposts of the Northern- and Western Cape danced the Riel. This wild and unique dance lost its lustre for a while and was in danger of being a forgotten cultural relic.
Then an organisation called the ATKV (Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereniging – Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association) began to revive this mystical love dance, staging a number of performances and competitions all through the region. Instrumental in this renaissance was the legendary Elias Nel, a Riel dance expert.
Back to the dusty dance arena. The lines of girl dancers keep to one side while the boys mock-battle their rivals and do their best to charm their chosen darlings with flashy moves and big hats festooned with ostrich feathers. This Nama Love Dance normally ends in peace, triumph and a romantic puff of dust.