Body language story telling: An exploration of the intangible

By Elizabeth Duve Dziva

Agnes De Mille once said bodies never lie, the truest expression of a people is in dance. Dance symbolises elementary values to our culture, our nation, tradition, spirituality, history and children. It is one of the most authentic and reliable source of history for with it comes an undistorted story. Dance is a strong magic, its telling a story without a voice. Each movement sums up moments and experiences. Cultural dancers are story tellers, they tell a story in every movement and sequence of their dance. Every cultural dance has a story that needs to match the theme of the dance. Literally, there is no cultural dance without a story.

The beauty of dance is that even if you want to know what the dancers are trying to express, you do not need to know a particular spoken language, it is merely body language. It tells us something about people’s beliefs, feelings and ancestry. Dance is not simply body language but has many theoretical definitions. As a matter of fact it is an emotional movement with a strong meaningful moment and signifies a people’s uniqueness.

Cultural dances are so valuable to various societies as they often carry pieces of their history and livelihood that would otherwise be lost. A dance is a common language that unites people at the same level. There are various dances in Zimbabwe which vary according to ethnic diversity; some may have slightly changed due to the dynamics of time. Among them are vast traditional dances which are very powerful and meaningful. These include the Mbira dance which is accompanied by a thumb piano (mbira instrument).

It is religious in nature and is meant to summon ancestral spirits to come through mediums. There is the Dinhe dance which carries a lot of war movements and also has to do with inviting ancestors and agricultural fertility. Mbakumba dance is performed after harvest and Muchongoyo was performed by the Ndebele men in preparation for war or after war.

Jerusarema (mbende) dance which goes along with drums and rattles was traditionally a symbol of fertility, sexuality and family but today can be performed at various gatherings. Mhande dance is usually performed at kurova guva ceremony bringing back a deceased person’s sprit and is usually done by the Shona people. Isitshikitsha is a Ndebele dance which was traditionally performed for the king’s pleasure and was also performed at Njelele for rainmaking ceremonies during droughts. Among the vast dances are shangara, jiti-chinungu, zihwere, chimutare, ingwenyama, mmabhiza, ingquza, chinyobera, ngungu among many traditional dances which vary according to ethnic groups.

Today, there are new dances like museve, bum jive, gwara gwara, house dance and break dancing among many contemporary dances which are emanating. Apparently, they carry no known connotative meaning than mere entertainment. Nonetheless our generation should do nothing but to embrace them and try to pass them over generations. Societal growth is inevitable and with growth comes change and such aspects like new dances are unavoidable.

There is need to preserve cultural dances for they connect us directly from the present to the past. The onus is upon us to preserve the joyful body movements we have inherited from our ancestors and those that we are inventing and pass them to our successors as they were passed to us.

Elizabeth Duve Dziva is an Archaeological and cultural heritage practitioner, the views and opinions expressed in this article are purely the author’s in her own capacity unless stated otherwise. They do not necessarily represent the views of any organization. Email: