The Nama Riel is the main attraction at the Williston Winter Festival in the last week of August. Here’s what you need to know…
Story and Images by Chris Marais
The Nama Riel is an ancient Khoi and Bushman dance that has its origins in deep history and has resurfaced on the farmsteads and in townships all around the Northern Cape.
It takes on many forms from region to region and, like wine connoisseurs, Riel experts eventually get to know the difference between the Brakbos Riel of Middelpos, the Platriem Riel, the Vastrap Riel and many others – most accompanied by a simple paraffin tin guitar.
Some mimic the movements of the plains animals, even the herds of elephant that once roamed the Karoo. The traditional Riel dancers wear Bushman-type outfits of buckskin and other dance groups wear formal suits, the young girls bedecked in what looks like Voortrekker kappies. In fact, most women used to wear that kind of headgear back in the old days because it effectively kept the harsh sunlight off their faces.
The little town of Williston in the Northern Cape has helped to revive the Nama Riel as a cultural icon by staging their annual Winter Festival with any number of dance teams arriving from all over the Northern and Western Cape to show off their moves.
For months before the festival, the groups of youngsters gather at a central point in their neighbourhood and, under the tutelage of a Riel instructor, dance away in the dust for hours on most weekday afternoons once school is out.
Everyone in the rural Karoo communities supports the Nama Riel, either with some form of financial support for the dancers or by simply showing up at festivals like this and being part of the enthusiastic crowd.
In fact, audience members have been encouraged to join in the dance sessions at various stages of the demonstrations and so they, too, have a chance to get down in the dust and boogie on.