Dancing and Dreaming

Wuppertal Riel dancers talk about their heritage and future

As the world observes International Day of Rural Women on 15 October, The Journalist zooms in on two phenomenal young women from Wuppertal, a small rural town in the Cederberg Mountains of the Western Cape.

Chanelle Ockhuis and Litichia van Rooy are part of Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers riel dancer group that scooped gold at the recent World Championship of Performing Arts (WCOPA) in Los Angeles.

While their age mates are perfecting the whip and nae nae or twerking, Chanelle Ockhuis and Litichia van Rooy bring to life the traditional Riel Dance which is the oldest dance form in South Africa.

The two exceptional dancers formed part of the main cast of the group’s first ever production which opened at the 11th Baxter Dance Festival.

Born out of traditional Khoi and San ceremonial dances around the fire, the Riel Dance has been practised by descendants of these indigenous cultures for thousands of years.

A sweet escape

Litichia had the audience in awe when she traded her apron and red shoes for an overall and a pair of gumboots – the only girl in the group.

“I’m the only girl who managed to learn the moves easily. I love it because it’s exciting and I enjoy doing it,” she said.

For Chanelle, the group is a sweet escape from “wrong things” and a platform which offers her the opportunity to make new friends.

“It’s also something to look forward to. You keep away from the streets and when we don’t have anything to do we practise during the weekend,” she said.

Her grandparents ignited her passion for the Riel and she was also part of the group who went to America.

“It was very funny and I was just excited because I had never been overseas before. I enjoyed meeting new people and walking around Los Angeles but the food, oh no,” she said.

In our blood

Litichia, 14, who comes from a family where everyone can dance the Riel, has an older sister in the group, Cindy.
I ask who taught her how to dance and her answer astonishes me.

“It’s like it’s in your blood,” she said. “ It’s like one of your senses. Nobody teaches you how to do it. You don’t learn it.”

Litichia cements her point by sharing the importance of this dance form within her rural community.

“In our community this is a very important dance,” she said. “ You see, it’s one of the oldest dances and the Khoi and the San used to dance the Riel when they celebrate something. They used to dance around the fire. You see when we go around in circles when we dance, that is to symbolise the fires that they used to dance around.”

Acknowledged as a form of cultural expression, the Riel was very popular in the forties, fifties and sixties, but has been grossly neglected in recent decades. What drives van Rooy is her passion and goal “to show other people what is our culture and how we do it,” through this dance style.

Popular Riel dances include courtship rituals and this aspect of the genre fascinates her.

“My favourite part of the dance is when the man and the woman go forward and they play out the courting,” she said.

Her quick feet and talent allowed her to master some of the complicated tap dance moves and have her featured as the only girl.

Jenny from the block

While they are both fascinated by newly acclaimed stardom and international experiences, my conversations with Chanelle and Litichia remind me of a Jennifer Lopez track, Jenny from the block. The track talks about a girl who comes from a very small community and makes it big internationally while remaining the same local girl.

Chanelle, who loves Maths, English and Afrikaans, has ambitions of continuing her journey as a dancer. Litichia, on the other hand, would like to become a medical doctor, a model or a hairdresser when she is older.

The Baxter Dance Festival runs until 17 October.