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Riel Dancers – Lords of the Dance

Riel Dancers – Lords of the Dance

Fiona McIntosh travels to the northern Cederberg to watch our world champion riel dancers kick up the dust…

Pictures: Shaen Adey

11 Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey“Marcelino is our number one meerkat,” explains Floris Smith, as his agile pupil mimics an alert suricate on its hind legs.

Only a year ago, when Marcelino Farao joined Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers, a group of riel dancers from Wuppertal, he was so shy.

“I couldn’t get a word out of him,” says Floris, the group’s tireless manager and trainer. “But the dancing has given him confidence. He’s now one of the most outgoing and charismatic members of the troupe.”

Born out of traditional Khoi and San ceremonial dances, the riel has been danced by descendants of these indigenous people for many years. “It’s in their genes,” says Floris. “See Darren Swart over there? He was dancing in his nappies when he was only eight months old. An absolute natural, he’s now in the Under 12 troupe.”

Taking its name from Nuwe Plaas, Grasvlei and Koueberg, local villages where the young dancers live, the troupe hit the headlines in July 2015 when they took top honours at the World Championships of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. Since then they have been in hot demand.

Back-to-back performances in Cape Town and in the Winelands mean the troupe is not short of practice. So today’s rehearsal at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, where Floris is executive chef and assistant lodge manager, is more or less an uninterrupted run-through; a chance for ‘Chef’, as Floris is affectionately known, to tweak the routines and for us to enjoy the show in the spectacular natural setting of the rugged Cederberg mountains.

With courtship rituals at its core, the riel is fast and flirtatious. Dressed in traditional farm-worker outfits – the girls in aprons and kopdoeke (headscarves) and the boys in handmade red veldskoene from Strassberger Shoes in Clanwilliam, and felt hats that they dof to their womenfolk – the youngsters twirl each other around and kick up the dust in a wonderful display of foot stomping and showmanship. The smiles are genuine. Their eyes sparkle. They’re having fun.

1i Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey

While traditional dance is an important part of the culture of villagers in the Cederberg area, it’s Floris’ skill as a choreographer that has raised the bar. And it comes as no surprise that he was trained in classical ballet at the Performing Arts Centre of the Orange Free State, and has been dancing all his life.

The nature of the competition determines the routines. At the ATKV Riel Dance Championships, marks are awarded for animal imitations. “This lends itself to self-expression; the dancers can be themselves and develop their own unique styles,” explains Floris, as Denzil Farmer drops to the ground and slithers along like a snake. Manfred Zimri follows with a highly entertaining take of an ostrich. At the world championships, however, the emphasis is on entertainment value, footwork, synchronisation, rhythm and music.

4a Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey

Floris is clearly a shrewd judge of what it takes. As part of Team South Africa, his Trappers scooped four gold medals in Los Angeles – in the Ethnic Folk Dance, Open Dance and Tap Dance categories and in the Production Line Challenge. They received a silver for their gumboot routine in the Open Dance category. With various other medals for the band – including a silver and a bronze medal for guitarist Efraum Kotze – the troupe has put South Africa’s oldest indigenous folk dance firmly on the global map.

The biggest and most surprising success was in Riel Tap. The youngsters are not trained in classical tap technique, they simply riel dance in tap shoes, effectively creating a new dance genre. “They’d only been in tap shoes for five months before LA so it was quite intimidating,” says Floris. “And with contestants from more than 60 countries taking part, the competition was stiff, so the podium finishes were particularly rewarding.”

5 Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey

The story of the group’s success is a real tearjerker. Hailing from rural, impoverished villages, few of the youngsters had been out of the Cederberg, never mind to a city or out of the country, before they started performing with the troupe. Their journey has been a long one, full of challenges. “We had to find nearly R1 million in funding but the real mission was dealing with all the red tape in sending 17 teenage dancers and the band to the States,” says Floris. Fortunately Bushmans Kloof and its owners, the Tollman Family, were hugely supportive, while other major sponsors include Rooibos Limited, WESGRO and Reagola IT Management.

It was an unforgettable trip for the dancers. “I didn’t want to go to America,” says Charné Jansen, voted the best female dancer at the ATKV Championships. “I was very sad beforehand but then I didn’t want to come back.” Many missed the good old kos back home, like Marcelino Farao. “The food was terrible. There was no braaivleis and the bread was like air; you had to eat a whole loaf to fill you up.”

But all agreed wholeheartedly that what they enjoyed most in their time off was, “Hollywood!” And equally unanimous was the feeling that the stretches of high-rise skylines and eight-lane highways packed with cars were nothing short of “crazy”. Must have been quite a shock, coming from a remote village where people still ride in donkey carts.

15a Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey

Jerobian Fortuin smiles happily and says, “Being in the troupe also has given us opportunities to go places that we haven’t been.” The previous week, for example, while performing in Cape Town, the troupe made quite the impression on Mayor Patricia de Lille. Discovering that they had never been up Table Mountain, she organised free passes in the cable car.

And it’s also a really good outlet for the children in the Cederberg, as Chanel Ockhuis’ mother, Sorita will testify. Chanel was spotted at Elizabethfontein Primary School, where Floris coached gumboot dancing. Just 13, she had been with the group for only a year before the world champs.

“It’s good for Chanel to be in the Trappers,” said Sorita. “Many of the kids in the group are less fortunate than her, but they all have to mix in together. My son is in the Under 12 troupe. After the group’s success all the kids want to join. If they’re too young they go to watch the practices and dance along on the sidelines.”

3c Riel Dance, copyright Shaen Adey

Floris picks up on this. “I was quite emotional after the world championships. Several of these kids returned to homes where there is no electricity or running water. That’s hard for me. Many suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome; others haven’t had the opportunity to complete their schooling. I’m so proud of them. The cherry on the cake was when three of the tap dancers – Jobry Swart, Boltvin Tamboer and Zarion Samson – were awarded scholarships to return to Los Angeles to train at the Millennium Dance Complex for a month in 2016. But now we have to find the funding for their flights. With all this I’m busier than ever,” he continues. “For the last three years I’ve juggled work and the troupe but now I’ve resigned from my job. I can’t do both properly; the dancing cuts into my work time and work means that I’m unable to devote as much time as I’d like to the kids. Now it’s their time. We’re riding the wave of success and if we don’t seize the day it could be a lost opportunity for them. I want to take riel tap to a new level, to create Lord of the Riel, a production with 20 to 25 tappers on stage. It’s exciting. The bottom line is that I need to create opportunities that encourage children to work hard and to strive for better.”

As we leave, Floris emphasises that it’s been a team effort. “So many people believed in us and supported us; not just the community of Wuppertal and the sponsors, but people from all walks of life. They have given us wings and now we must fly.”

Watch Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers in action on YouTube. You’ll be blown away…

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