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The Great Dance and Bushmen Ways of Knowing

April 19, 2018 Written by Athena Gam

the great dance

“Tracking is like dancing. This is the great dance.” – !Nqate Xqamxebe

To the San Bushmen people of Southern Africa, the Great Dance is the vast, interconnected movement of all life, the movement of all of nature— the plants, the animals, the elements, the seasons— all interacting in the cycles and rhythms of life and death. It would be reductionist to say that the Bushmen speak of dancing a metaphor for existence. Dr. Bradford Keeney expresses it best in his book, Way of the Bushman as Told by the Tribal Elders: Spiritual Teachings and Practices of the Kalahari Ju|hoansi,

“The Bushmen’s most valuable form of experience, knowledge and teaching is somatically held; the movements and sensations of the body in relationship and interaction with others constitute their way of knowing and being. They are a dancing culture. They know through dance, and they dance their ideas, emotions, and laughter as well as their bodies. Their world moves, like the changing seasons, and they move with it, valuing the constant movement and change more than any one static moment.”

This way of knowing is integral to the Bushmen’s traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle which allowed humans to thrive for millennia. In the Bushmen’s practice of hunting for instance, their highly skilled ability to track animals draws not only on their in-depth knowledge of nature that allows them to read the signs all around them, but in their embodied understanding of the animals and the landscape in which they live. The highly nuanced way of Bushmen tracking and hunting can be seen in the beautiful award-winning Foster Brothers documentary film, The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story.

The film is told through the eyes of a !Nqate and his fellow Bushmen hunters Karoha, and Xlhoase, who take part in the “chasing hunt” as their ancestors have for thousands of years. This persistence hunt involves endurance running over a long distance until the animal being pursued reaches the point of exhaustion.

In an article about the incredible story of the making of The Great Dance, director Craig Foster describes the Bushmen way of knowing, “Through their eyes we perceive a world invisible to outsiders. The subtlest signs are imperceptible to the untrained eye, but they are enough to lead !Nqate to his prey. Tracks in the sand are only the beginning— the skills of the San hunter are virtually a sixth sense, a complex bond between man and animal.”

“When you track an animal, you must become the animal. Tracking is like dancing, because your body is happy. It is telling you the hunting will be good. You feel it in the dance. It tells you. When you are doing these things, you are talking with God.”- !Nqate Xqamxebe

Seeing these Bushmen hunters in action gives us a glimpse into the extraordinary capacity of the human body-mind, not only in terms of physical endurance, but to the extent that our perception, awareness and empathy can be fine tuned by our relationship with the natural world. From this perspective, consider the abilities that lie dormant within us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on every day. As we have become distant from nature, it seems we have forgotten how to dance.

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