Ethiopian Eskista Shoulder Dance Is From the Heart

Eskista Examples

Eskista is Ethiopian shoulder dance. It is a challenging dance style, yet Ethiopians never laugh when I mess it up. Straight from the heart, it feels great to do, but looks best on Ethiopian dancers. There are about 86 Ethiopian cultural groups, all with their own dances or way of doing a major regional dance style. Amazingly, most people do some moves from all the major dances. Amateurs can be virtuoso dancers.

Shoulder dance was invented by the people of Amhara. They come from several regions. These include Agew, Gojjam, Gondar, Shewa, Welega and Wello – in the north or centre of Ethiopia. Here is the link to a map of Ethiopian regions. [1] Ethiopians prefer not to emphasise where they are from. They are Ethiopians first. People from all regions are found everywhere.

Follow these links to view dance videos. The first 3 are classic Amhara dance: eskista. Other Amhara and people of Oromo, Tigray and Wolayita incorporate eskista with their dance genres.

Gojjam Eskista

A Traditional Art Form Full of Contemporary Meaning

Visit a theatre or cultural restaurant in Ethiopia, such as Soramba (in our featured image) or Yod Abyssinia. There, you may see dances performed traditionally and as contemporary crossovers. In 2020, one group dance for men was a hip-hop and eskista cross-over. Eskista is disciplined: movements only seem freely flowing. This is because dancers relax the parts of their body not being exerted. However, the shoulders-shaking can be stopped and poses or gestures held. With musical accents, dancers’ shoulders or chests pop and lock as in American hip-hop. The effect is dramatic. It moves the viewer to tears. So would the song lyrics in resource [5]: Na Monani by Mastewal Admasu. She sings in Agew Hebrew. Here is their message:

The eye is not bright; it does not see. The heart is bright; it sees. Someone who sees with their heart sees clearly and with balance… Walking, we see children starving and sleeping on the street. We don’t see clearly. Millions see them with their eyes. We will only help them when a true heart sees… Hatred will bankrupt you.

Translated by Mesfin Tadesse.

These words are relevant to the current plight of innocent Ethiopians in Amhara, Afar and Tigray.

Go to Bahir Dar in Gojjam, near Lake Tana – the source of the Blue Nile River. Esksista dance is a prelude to a mini-drama of patriotism, inspired by warrior Belay Zelaq. Click or tap here for a book extract about him. A unique dance move is enkitkit: both shoulders vibrate rapidly. It can be seen in the People to People video: resource [4]. The dancers perform it near the start of this cultural journey that represents the whole of Ethiopia.

People to People was a National Theatre production directed by Mulatu Astatke, Ethio jazz exponent. To listen to his music, click or tap here. [11] African musicians and singers are often good dancers.

Please Try This At Home
1. Push 1 shoulder forward, then the other. Increase the speed. Bravo! You have performed a beledi dance (Oriental dance) shimmy. This is occasionally performed in eskista.
2. Push both shoulders forward and then backwards – together. Keep the rest of your body quite still. Concentrate. Gradually increase the speed. You will look like the rapids of the Blue Nile River or a small bird drying her chest feathers – shaking them all at once. Now, you are master of Amhara enkitkit.

There is nothing abandoned or out-of-control in Ethiopian dance. Isolations are the most sophisticated of dance moves. To perform eskista, isolate the shoulder joints. A mobile spine is healthiest. Enkitkit began during the building of the pyramid and tunnels at Lake Zuay, more than 3,000 years BCE. Click or tap here, to read our post on Ethiopian pyramids. Workers felt stiff after carrying sedimentary rock. Enkitkit relieved this. It is healing. I have never met a dancer injured while performing any eskista movement.

This photo shows me learning Guraginya moves involving strength and coordination. I am hilariously danced-off by an expert.

Guraginya Dance-off

I have attempted various international dance genres. These ranged from classical ballet, jazz ballet and West African dance to contemporary barefoot dance, Spanish flamenco and French & Eastern European folk dance. Never have I seen enkitkit outside Ethiopia. Ethiopian footwork—especially the 3-step (triple-time step)—has made it to Europe, but not her tricky shoulder and head movements. Those are too challenging.

Eskista makes you happy. Listen to current news report. You will be sad. Shake your shoulders—mostly together—and try some Tigray head gestures as in resource [9]. It will be impossible to remain blue. Welayita in resource [10] is sassy and joyous. Moving any part of the torso is liberating: we cannot exist without our heart and other organs and they register our emotions. Dance movements that are propelled from the chest must be good for our hearts.

Suspension

Gurage people perform a miracle of dance: Guraginya, as in resource [6]. When the men are aloft, it is as though they are suspended mid-air. I used to dream of dancing in the air, descending leisurely to touch the ground for fun before levitating. Those dancers remind me of that exhilarating sensation. The earth buoys them. It is similar with all African jumps and leaps. Masai men jump, straight and light. Oromo men jump repeatedly, knees lifted as though leaping onto a bare horseback. Guraginya dancers make asymmetrical, off-centre shapes while transferring aerially from 1 foot to the other. Their bodies form a strong angle to the ground. You could try this in a swimming pool!

Oh, those casual Guraginya dancers: why do they not fall?

They are grounded. Mother Ethiopia will not let them down.

Ethiopian shoe design is ingenious, but many people wear ill-fitting slides or simple shoes that are broken or unfastened, not by choice. They still dance fast. None trip because their foot muscles are toned. Gurage is home to the jelly shoe or sandal, made from old tyres. In 1958, I owned a toddler’s pair. They were from Ethiopia, which made more money from exports of the sandals than from coffee. Recycled shoes were melted to repair cracked water containers.

Classical ballet dancers are trained to use all 20 muscles of the underside of their feet. This enables them to power the leading foot along the floor for lift-off into leaps that pierce space – like missiles. They have a different relationship with mother earth and move the torso very little.

African dancers master foreign art forms. South African Dada Masilo retells the story of the Western classical ballet Giselle. She refers to original dance passages using contemporary dance style. Then she develops them with the torso-centred moves of Botswana dance – banned by colonisers. Read about it in this review. [12]

In the National Theatre of Ethiopia, there is a bas-relief wall panel that shows a girl dancing on the tips of her toes like a ballet dancer. She would have come from Kaffa in Ethiopia’s south-west, home to coffee. The dance is called Ye Jimma. Shoes are stitched from grass. Feet are padded with rabbit fur. Dances can last 5 hours.

Ethiopians from all over perform a dance originating in Shewa, home to Menelik II: minjar. High step-hops and 3-steps precede 6 gallops in a squat. Women do 3-steps on the spot, arms crossed over the chest with hands to armpits; they pretend to hide Yehuda tattoos. This is a comment upon anti-Semitism. At a workshop given by Danza Viva in Perth, Western Australia, I had learned this as a dance of northern Spain – to the rattle of castanets. How much dance has Ethiopia given the world?

In Gojjam, I went home at 1 am, falling asleep to music from a tej bet (honey-wine bar). Dancers there were warming up. One had just performed a solo. She spun cotton while shaking her shoulders and smoothly travelling anti-clockwise in a deep squat. This combination did not make it abroad, nor did the following.

Oromo women perform the head spin (resource 8). The move is not to be tried by most people. It requires the strongest of centres, or cores, with no tension in the neck muscles. The other Oromo dance video with men (resource 7) shows their subtle head movement combined with foot prances. The headdress is hair from gelada baboons that have died.

Ethiopian Gelada

Heartfelt Wordless Conversations

Eskista dances may or may not be choreographed. That is, they do not always have set moves in a sequence. African music supports improvisation. As in Iberia (Spain & Portugal), the Middle East and West African countries, Ethiopian musicians use the hemiola technique. The hemiola is 2 groups of musical beats that last the same amount of time. The accented beats change, then change back again. This is fun to dance to. Movements seem playful and spontaneous or like question-and-answer.

This is a representation of hemiola. The numbers are counted beats.

1,2,3  1,2,3 (A)

1,1,2 1,2 (B)

To (A), you could do 2 waltzes or swings. For (B), perform 3 step-hops or bounces. You can use similar movement patterns with the torso.

This article explains the musical technique. [13]

Tigray dance is not accompanied by the same kind of musical hemiola. Group dances start out as decorous. Since antiquity, they have moved anti-clockwise in a large circle. Dancers break off to form smaller circles. Music builds gradually in intensity. The rhythms of a drum worn on the musician’s body urge dancers and the drummer to jump. Heads glide and shoulders bounce with a masterful popping action that is hypnotic to observe.

Everybody in Amhara communities does similar moves, with variations for men and women. By maintaining eye contact, they hold a wordless conversation. It is centred on the torso; limbs follow or coordinate.

Gojjam dancers perform a 2-step (back, front or “right, left”) on the spot while moving their shoulders faster in triple time (counted in 3s). Try this, sitting down to begin with. The coordination is beneficial for the brain – like playing the piano.

Accompaniment to eskista is by singers and musicians. Traditionally, they play the Ethiopian lyre or kra and the mazenko or fiddle. The large harp or begena is also traditional. Sylvia Pankhurst describes them in her book [14]. The mazenko’s bow is shaped like a crescent moon: the Islamic symbol of divine guidance. With the sound-box, it forms a cross, which is the Christian crucifix. Religious harmony is built into Ethiopian culture.

Begena Sculpture in the National Theatre of Ethiopia

Eskista Dance Elements

Famous dance forms have limited movement vocabularies: a few basic steps or moves. In classical ballet, there are about 5 positions for feet and 6 for the arms. The rest is infinite variation. In eskista, look for the following:

  • shouldering: to & fro together or separately, up & down, rolling backwards separately or together
  • chest & ribcage: curving humbly or extending with pride, shifting side-to-side
  • hips: responding to chest with side-to-side motion or rolling with a flicking motion inwards – sometimes called “bottom eskista” for fun
  • head: shifting sideways, turning a little, looking up to the rain or sky, tilting, circling
  • hair: swinging, bobbing
  • whole torso: tilted forward or diagonally, occasionally bent backwards
  • arms: light and natural, responding to torso movements or complementing feet – swinging, making figure 8s
  • legs: marking time on spot, jumping, balancing, gliding like a river, squatting low

Combine These Elements of Eskista Dance
Travel sideways using a smooth 2-step, one movement by musical beat: “step-together, step-together…”
Now, shake the shoulders.
Add a simple head movement.
Then, invent your own combinations from the list above.

The smallest alteration in body language is significant. If a dancer bends forward, and their head is straight, they are respectful. Turn & tilt the head a little at the same time to beguile. Ethiopian dancers become adept at reading emotion and responding with wit and humour. Many dance moves are small and subtle, yet have a strong effect.

Initiated in the chest, eskista movements are all heart. If they must, Ethiopians will defend their country and each other with honour and courage. The French word for heart is “coeur”. This is the root of “courage” in both French and English.

Unfettered Femininity

Between 1886 and 1903, my Australian great-grandmother gave my great-grandfather 6 sons and a daughter. Previously, she had suffered 5 still births. One son died aged 4 weeks of bronchitis. A pianist, Effie also told stories. She wrote a novel. My great-grandfather stood over her as she ripped up pages and threw them into the fire. “No wife of mine writes books.” Effie was also forbidden dance. Women wore corsets that prevented them from breathing deeply or eating heartily. Nobody’s torso moved by itself.

In 1915, Australian men went to war including Effie’s sons. My grandmother ran the family farm. Gossips said, “She should be ashamed of wearing men’s trousers.” By then, women could vote in Australia, but had no power at home. They lost their property and custody of children if they left an abusive husband. Ethiopian women were more secure. In 1896, some had fought at the Battle of Adwa.

Farmers in our area held country dances. We did simple British social dances: the Barn Dance and Pride of Erin. Our bodies were upright, unmoving. In 1965, there were no corsets, but only our arms, legs and head moved freely. Australian women and children were still being attacked in homes and workplaces and on the street. Sometimes, we barely dared to breathe. Beware of communities where people rarely dance and move rigidly when they do.

In the 1970s, my Ethiopian friend learned Harari dance. Click or tap here to view some. [15] She performs it today like the queen of womanhood. Clothed from head to toe, she is unfettered by any garment too tight or designer shoes that cripple the feet. Dance moves are initiated discreetly from her centre.

The 5th video in this post is of Agew dance. It shows another Amhara way of using the torso to propel dance. Women isolate muscles in their bellies to produce popping actions. Simultaneously, they twirl folding pampas-grass umbrellas – an Agew invention. Built into those are perfume vials that can be squirted during dance: men get sweaty after hours of dancing. This skilled and ancient dance is tough to imitate, but fun. Oriental dance also uses the belly move.

Under the Derg in the 1980s, Hungarian dance anthropologists wanted to preserve this dance form. “What if the Agew Yehuda die out?” The Agew sent them away. Why preserve a dance style rather than the dancers?

This article argues for the preservation of Ethiopian eskista dances as Intangible Cultural Heritage. [16] Cultural preservation needs to be entrusted to the people who created the art form. It extends to all Ethiopian art forms. Each is complex. This is illustrated in an article about Afar dance for various occasions. Click or tap here to read it. [17]

This Is No Time For Dance

I ought not to publish this post. With millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed, now is the time to mourn. People do not dance after bereavements. Our spiritual father, Abun Habte Giorgis Tekle Haymanot Hailu of Debre Libanos Monastery, shelters 20,000 children from war.

One Ethiopian friend here in Australia does not know the fate of his sister’s children, the wife of one of them and their 2 children. Apprehended by a splinter group on the way to Addis Ababa, they cannot be contacted. Diaspora in Australia cannot telephone their loved ones in the north, including Mekele in Tigray.

Lalibela in Wello is no more. TPLF murdered hundreds in Kombolcha, Wello. The world’s largest textile factory there was dismantled by Caucasian mercenaries. TPLF stood guard. Mercenaries from the richest nations fight alongside TPLF, to take over Dessie, the capital of Wello. They killed 152 young people just for fun. Welega, Gondar, Tigray, Wello and Afar have suffered displacement, death and destruction.

Australian politicians do not answer my letter about talking to US President Biden. The popular topic of dance might get the world’s attention. Why endanger those who dance, sing and play music like Ethiopians? Eskista shoulder dance is a cultural marvel. Those belonging to that culture are still more precious.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the November War, begun by the TPLF and fanned by the West. The US—and partners in the grotesque ballet that is the UN cohort—has no business trying to return the TPLF to power. Ethiopia suffered them from 1991 to 2018 and they pillaged, robbed and terrorised the country – in the service of foreigners.

November War Anniversary Items

Resources

Photos:

Guraginya Dance-Off At Soramba Cultural Restaurant © Mesfin Tadesse, 2021

Begena Sculpture in the National Theatre of Ethiopia © Mesfin Tadesse, 2021

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