Dance may be a form of stress relief, a pastime or as an exercise routine for some. Nevertheless, in Africa, dancing takes on a form of art, ritual or as a way to induce a particular outcome. Dance in Africa can also take on the form of social recreation, prayer, and devotion or sometimes has no clear indication of a particular purpose other than entertainment and merriment.
In Ethiopia, the Eskista, which is one of its most iconic dances, is not only a popular form of entertainment but also tells different stories while teaching various life lessons. As All Around This World writes, some Eskista moves “simulate body movements Ethiopians make in the course of a day, others the motion of animals, more even the slithering bobs of a snake.”
And for imitating the movements made by a snake, Eskista has come to be known by many as the snake dance. Eskista, which means “dancing shoulders” in Amharic, is a traditional Ethiopian dance, native to the Amhara region. It is performed by men, women and children usually in a group. Dancers of Eskista usually form rows or line up in groups, engaging everyone present with their shoulder shakes and shimmies.
Eskista derived its name from the intense shoulder movements associated with the dance. Those shoulder movements make the dance unique, setting it apart from many African dances that often emphasize the feet and legs. Those same shoulder movements can also be seen with the shim-shim dance of the Tigrinya people in neighboring Eritrea. The Luhya people in western Kenya also perform a similar dance called “amabegha khu mabekha”, which means ‘shoulders to shoulders’.
What’s more, Eskista may appear similar to Ethiopia’s other popular dance, Tigrigna, but Music In Africa explains that Tigrigna is not as static when it comes to the use of the hands and feet.
So how is Eskista performed?
The Ethiopian snake dance involves rolling the shoulder blades, bouncing the shoulders and tilting the chest. Dancers move beautifully and effortlessly thanks to the gabi cloth which is made out of cotton and painted with different colors depending on the gender of the performer.
Eskista is generally performed with traditional Ethiopian music along with traditional instruments such as the flute, drums and masinqo as well as krar, which is a five or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre. A very technical dance, performers of Eskista must move their head, neck, shoulders and chest in a particular manner in tune with the traditional Ethiopian music that is being played. At weddings, holiday parties and other social events, it is not uncommon to find money being placed on the head of an Eskista performer who is dancing amazingly well.
There are varieties of Eskista, with each having its own history. Music In Africa writes that the nature of the dance varies depending on themes such as love, work, war, hunting, or religion.
Today, even though Eskista is usually performed with traditional music, modern musicians have started to merge it with dub to make it more appealing to younger people while connecting them to their roots.