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The International Encyclopedia of Dance

Veit Erlmann

Hausa Dance. 

A people of northern Nigeria and southern Niger, the Hausa adopted Islam from Muslim traders in the fourteenth century. Traditionally agriculturalists and craftspeople, they are the largest ethnic group of the region. Dancing (rawa) among the Hausa is a performance category distinct from ki'da (drumming, playing a stringed instrument, playing an idiophone, or playing instrumental music), busa (playing a wind instrument), yaba (praise shouting), and wak'a (singing). Although a great many other specialized performance categories are used by the Hausa, any event involving rawa also calls for some type of musical or vocal accompaniment.

The social significance and structure of Hausa dance have been strongly influenced by both Islam and the West. In pre-Islamic Hausa culture, dance was organized around a lineage's social and ritual life. Births, weddings, and other important events were marked by dancing, and each lineage had its own dances, praise epithets, and musical instruments. With the holy war (jihad) of 1804–1808, the Islamic reform movement of the Fulani leader ʿUthmān ibn Fūdī (Usuman Dan Fodio) banned girls' dancing and bòorii dances. Rooted in ancestor spirit worship, the bòorii is a complex dance drama combining and reflecting all facets of Hausa social, political, religious, and artistic life. ʿUthmān's tract Nur al-ʿalbab (Light of the Hearts) specifically forbade men and women from dancing and singing together. Strict clerics still disapprove of dancing, but in practice most dancing is now tolerated by Islam.

Although dancing is not considered a craft (sanaʿa), professional entertainers such as comedians and strongmen include dance in their performances. Most dancing, however, is done by nonprofessionals. Nowadays the traditional dance genres can be divided into two categories—social dances and ceremonial bòorii dances.

Social dances vary regionally, but general patterns of organization and style are discernible. Dancing by married men, women, and members of the older generation is considered shameful. Apart from children's dance games such as gaʿda, social dancing is most frequently engaged in by young men and women. Dances are separated by gender, with boys primarily dancing rawan Gane (Gane is the third month of the Muslim calendar) and girls dancing rawan ʿyan mata (“dancing of girls”).

Dancing rawan Gane allows boys to criticize deviant behavior within their peer group. Like some dances popular among followers of the anne ancestor religion, rawan Gane dances, such as taka, are circle dances. Rawan ʿyan mata takes place at night throughout the year. The dance is organized by the youth at designated dancing places (filin rawa) and provides opportunities for courtship. Young women dance to various rhythms provided by a band of drummers who are hired by the dancers. The young women usually form lines and perform dances marked by strong pelvic movements. Young men, who usually are spectators, express their interest in a girl by paying “praise shouters” to encourage her to dance.

The bòorii spirit-possession cult epitomizes Hausa dance. Adepts of the cult (ʿyan bòorii) are described as horses (godiya) that spirits (iskoki) ride (hawa). Trance is induced by means of drugs and is accompanied by passive listening to special praise tunes (ki ʿdin take or ki ʿdan zuwan aljannu), intensive dancing, or fast instrumental pieces (cashiya). Once possessed by a spirit, adepts perform elaborate movement patterns to symbolize characteristic activities of the particular spirit. Because the Hausa believe that spirits are fond of music and dancing, cult adepts possessed by a spirit not only act out the spirit's behavior but also dance. This phase is accompanied by special dance music for spirits (ki ʿdin rawa). The spirits' dances are solos and display intricate, rapid footwork.

Modern Hausa dance features the imitation of Western practices, including mixed couples dances and dances such as the tuwis (Twist). Other dances, including the rawan banjo, are believed to have originated in the city of Jos and are performed by dance teams of young men and women hired by political parties. The teams travel throughout northern Nigeria, competing with one another in outdoor courtyards and at hotels. In Niger, the national youth organization Samaryaa runs cultural centers where dances are held, and Samaryaa dance teams appear on national television to popularize the ideals of self-reliance, industry, and national development.

See also West Africa.


Ames, David W., and Anthony V. King. Glossary of Hausa Music and Its Social Contexts Evanston, Ill., 1971.Find This Resource

Besmer, Fremont E. Horses, Musicians, and Gods: The Hausa Cult of Possession-Trance Zaria, Nigeria, 1983.Find This Resource

Erlmann, Veit. Trance and Music in the Hausa Bòorii Spirit Possession Cult in Niger. Ethnomusicology 26 (January 1982): 49–58.Find This Resource

Veit Erlmann

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