San Dance Ethnography
Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek, German ethnographers who lived in Cape Town, were the first people to systematically write down Khoisan folklore, beliefs, and customs. They did their work in the late 19th century, so there is no way to be sure that the traditional way of life described by the informants was the same as that lived by the Khoisan in the previous centuries. Nevertheless, we know from many sources that the communal dance was an important part of Khoisan culture. The extract that follows is a firsthand account of the experience by a participant, |Han‡kass’o, also known as Klein Jantje, who was about 30 years old at the time he spoke with Bleek and Lloyd. He came from the northern Cape colony and stayed in the Bleek home for nearly two years before returning to his people. In his storytelling, he often notes who first told him the story, and this is frequently his mother. He emphasizes the celebratory aspects of the dance. Dance was used to release communal tensions, or it could take on ritual meaning, when dancers sought to reach “boiling point,” or a trance state, where they became one with the spirit world. Note the different roles suggested for men and women in the piece below.
[The speaker first explains that one of the reasons the San people beat the drum called the !gõïn!gõïn is so that the bees may flourish and produce a lot of honey.]
“And the people take honey to the women at home. For, the women are dying of hunger, at home. Therefore, the men take honey to the women at home; that the women may go to eat, for they feel that the women have been hungry at home; while they wish that the women may make a drum for them, so that they may dance when the women are satisfied with food. For they do not frolic when they are hungry.
And they dance, when the women have made the drum for them. Therefore, the women make a drum for them; they dance. The men are those who dance, while the women sit down, because they clap their hands for the men when the men are those who dance; while one woman is the one who beats the drum; while many women are those who clap their hands for the men; because they feel that many men are dancing.
Then, the sun rises, while they are dancing there, while they feel that they are satisfied with food.”
Bleek, Wlihelm H. I., and Lucy C. Lloyd, eds. “The use of the !gõïn!gõïn, followed by an account of a Busman dance.” In Specimens of Bushman Folklore. London: George Allen & Co., Ltd., 1911.