Dances of the Acholi

I have always been fascinated by the different dances of the Acholi people. Even as a child I could see the joy with which my late father broke into one of these dances at random around the house. He always had his traditional spear and shield at the ready. That was when you knew that he was truly having a good day.

It does not matter what occasion the Acholi are having, there is a dance for everything. Listening to the chants that the dancers sing as they dance reveals amazing poems that date as far as the colonial times when the white man was trying to take our lands. One of the chants that I heard more recently is this one…


Iyee Miringole the enemy

Miringole wants to get rich with people

Heee, Get rich with people

Iyee get rich with people

Iyee Miringole the enemy

Iyee get rich with people

Iyee Aliker says the white man has no sins

Acileng stands on the anti hill and yet he says the white man has no sins

Iyee he just opens the shield

Now he will spear the white man

Iyee ayije

Ogwok, now he will spear the white man 

iyee ayije iyee ayije

He just opens the shield

Ogwok, now he will spear the white man

People of Palabek

Look here is the spear I used to kill Uboni

This is the spear

See Oketa restarts old enmity

Lutony Moi, he pokes and finds

He killed Arumu

Oketa restarts old enmity

The enmity of the Payira people

He killed Arumu yee

Our enemy runs away from our warrior-Otara

They ran frantically saying we have no spears

They ran away from our spears

Ayige yee they ran away from our warrior

The spear is a person

You see, the Acholi have a wealth of glamorous traditional dances, the only significant remnants that provide them with the vital link of their old time picturesque lost past.

It was at the Oling dance, commonly known by its other names Moko or Orak that the Acholi youths used to pick on their possible future partners. This was a delightful expression to the piquancy of youth. The intensity of a feeling was most effectively put across during the dance; for joys of new lovers and sorrows of broken loves, or the sorrow of not being able to marry a loved one are here translated in words, action, and rhythm. Boys form rings around their female counterparts. The song is called awere. The chorus is immediately and adeptly picked up. Nothing is intoned in prosaic and lifeless manner. Throbbing with vitality, the mother and lesser drums set the pace. The calabashes collaborate, the tinkling bells lend support. And the demons in the youths are let loose. The sons and daughters from good wombs twist and wriggle away. They shake and wobble in perfect rhythm and competitively. The dance calls for a great deal of stamina, vigor and youthful energy.

Then there is the Otole, a war-like display of the enduring, fighting spirit of the Acholi. The look of chivalry, the hardihood of the men and their female folk are put to rigorous test here. With shields and spears, dancing to the rhythm of a set of drums, the men occasionally burst into wild gallops, wielding their shields and chanting their symbolic titles. The climax is struck in the attack and defense mock duel mimicked so elaborately. To a foreigner it may look frightening but to the Acholi this pantomime of war duel, jocosely gone through, is only a source of entertainment.

Myel lyel, the funeral dance is solemn. It shows the pathos, the sense of emptiness created in the hearts of humane tribe at the loss of a soul from amongst their midst. The steps are a gentle dragging of the feet forward and backwards with occasional up and down jumps both gathering tempo gradually in a mood of rising emotion. The heavy funeral songs have a penetrating effect. They intelligibly interpret the sorrows nibbling at people’s hearts. Thus, death is muffled and dissipated by the gruesome solemnity.

For gaiety and colorful performance, style and splendor the Bwola, or traditional royal dance. This one I dare say is probably unrivaled in Africa. The men and women wear crowns of colorful feathers, tie soft skins of wild beasts around their waists, whilst on their arms are bands of whisks and on their ankles jingle beads of bells. Each man carries a small drum which he strikes, when required with a piece of stick the size of an orchestra conductor’s baton. Women wear short skirts and various ornaments on their necks, waists and arms. Singing in poetic rhymes, saturated with the noblest sentiments, the dancers form a circle and dance with eloquent movements. This is a treasure of an innate civilization rarely failing to thrill even traditional enemies of the Acholi.

Myel jok, a ritual dance to the gods, brings you nearer the realm of super naturalism. The dancer looks like he has been possessed by the spirits of the dead to perfect his steps and make the performance a success. Of a singular character and rich in variety, the music is in keeping with metal objects and shouting to stir the spirits. A witch doctor directs the show, whilst making pleas to the gods. It is so dramatic that the inner urges of the dancer literally oozes out of him before the beholder.

It’s not by accident that the strong, stoutly built, millet eating women of Acholi should seek relaxation and recreation through the Apiti dance. Dressed in colorful short skirts and brassieres, with jingling bells on their feet, the women dance, moving in circles to the tune of a song whose verses are repeated in rapid successions. The movements of the feet are precise, brisk but not rigid. They all work together to a stunning effect.

But when you come to the Dingi dingi, it is at once the melody of the flutes and drums that leaves you spell bound if you resist the excitation produced. Agile girls, wearing pleated bellowing skirts, spread out in straight lines. As the music plays, a signal is whistled and the dancers stump their feet on the ground, twist, wheel around fast, then beat time. They roll their necks like venomous cobras, spit a song and throw their fore limbs like Indian folk dancers. This adds color and gaiety. The men on the one hand bend low blowing on their flutes that sends a deafening shrill of music. The music and dance are synchronized perfectly well. But it is the various combinations of postures assumed from time to time by the dancers that endow this animated dance with exquisite rare bliss.

The Nanga dance occupies a pride of place in the recreation of this Northern folk. Nanga dance music is rich in tunes and pre-eminent amongst the music of the Negro nations for its high sensitiveness. Usually Played by elderly men, the melodic content is either an out pouring of gay spirit or a strange fitfulness of lamentations. The nanga instrument is sacred to the Acholi.

Like the Dingi dingi, Lukeme dance is another hub of cultural activities for youthful Acholi. Here only one type of instrument is played resting on king-size calabashes. The Lukeme dance differs from the dingi dingi dance in the complicatedly timed footwork. In style there is little to choose between the two dances.

I absolutely love watching Acholi dances. Acholi dancers I feel offer a living image of our people. With a dance for each and every occasion and mood, words are spoken with the gaiety of dance. I just love it.


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