A few months ago, when I was reading Ted Shawn’s dance travel book from the 1920s, I was very intrigued by his descriptions of the dances of the Adivasi group, the Santals, and also by his mention of the Oraons, a tribe whom a colleague of his had written about. As I mentioned in my blog post where I discussed this book, Gods Who Dance, Shawn had been disappointed in the dances that he’d found by the famed “Nautch girls” but then became completely captivated by these Adivasi dances, which he discovered while taking a break from the main part of his tour. In fact, his response to these dancers was positively euphoric, and because he was a good writer, it is a euphoria that readers can easily catch from him.
Of course, after reading Shawn’s description, I had to look at some Santali dances (and then some dhimsa dances, which I’ll get back to in a little while), and I also was instantly captivated.
One thing that struck me about the Santali dances that I didn’t expect at first was that, while the men – who were mainly the musicians, too – did a relatively free-form kind of dancing (sometimes accompanied by acrobatics), the women did a dance of a very distinct and recognizable kind that I had seen many times before. Of course, if I had paid closer attention to the details of Shawn’s description (rather than just catching his enthusiasm), I would have realized what I would find:
The women lined up according to height, with hands linked and forearms laid against each other. The remained in this closed formation, the steps advancing and retreating, with a continuous progression to the left, and a marked pulse throughout the whole body which proceeded from the knees – not a hip movement or a shoulder movement, as one would first analyze it, but the movement of the body as a whole . . . .
All this time the women kept up their advancing and retreating steps with their arms joined, and by progressing always to the left, described a huge circumference around the dancing field. At times they bent low and made rhythmic motions as of gathering something from the ground.
The kind of dance that Shawn described – and that I recognized – is what’s known as a chain dance or circle dance. I had seen these dances performed mainly by Arabs from the Middle East and also by certain tribes in Turkey, most notably the Kurds.
Wikipedia contains a pretty good description of the chain dance/circle dance and its history:
Circle dance, or chain dance, is a style of dance done in a circle or semicircle to musical accompaniment, such as rhythm instruments and singing. Circle dancing is probably the oldest known dance formation and was part of community life from when people first started to dance.
Dancing in a circle is an ancient tradition common to many cultures for marking special occasions, rituals, strengthening community and encouraging togetherness. The dance can also be enjoyed as an uplifting group experience or as part of a meditation. Circle dances are choreographed to many different styles of music and rhythms.
Unlike line dancing, circle dancers are in physical contact with each other; the connection is made by hand-to-hand, finger-to-finger or hands-on-shoulders. It is a type of dance where anyone can join in without the need of partners. Generally, the participants follow a leader around the dance floor while holding the hand of the dancers beside them. The dance can be gentle or energetic.
For a couple of the reasons described above, I find the circle/chain dances to be refreshingly different from most dances that I have known. I appreciate that they are dances that do not require people to select partners, do not focus on one-to-one romances, and are open to everyone (or everyone of one or another gender, depending on the group that is dancing, etc.). Moreover, though they often have a leader, the circle/chain dances do not have individuals taking the proverbial spotlight more than anyone else. At the same time, there is a constant physical contact between all the dancers, but it is not the kind of contact associated with two people in a romance or anyone having an exclusive connection with each other; it is all-inclusive and community-oriented (but, at the same time, I think, very warm).
The Wikipedia entry goes on to describe many places where circle dances and chain dances can be found, but, unless I’m missing something, it does not mention India. I guess that a lot of people don’t know that there are native tribes in India that take part in ancient chain dances, and it wasn’t something that I was aware of before, either. But after looking at some Indian chain dances, I am convinced that the Adivasis do this best.
As I mentioned several paragraphs ago, in addition to dances labeled as Santali, I discovered a group of dances called dhimsa. The Oraons do dhimsa dancing, but so do several other tribes. And judging by the videos that I have seen, the dhimsa dances are even better – livelier and more varied, but still always kept within very tight chains or circles.
Below is a small selection of both Santali dances and dhimsa dances (alternating). I do not know if any of these scenes are particularly prominent or well known; they are just live dances put on YouTube that I saw and liked. And, of course, I hope the people who are reading this will like them a lot, too.