West African Notes

West Africa’s Notable Dances

As it is common to cultures of Africa, traditional dances in West Africa are usually organized during the dry season, funerals, birth celebrations and other traditional ceremonies. Here are a few that many tourists keep talking about.



All the Dogon dances in Mopti, Mali relate in some way to the creation stories of their belief system. Each dance tells a particular episode of the story, and each dance has a different number of dancers. The dancers always wear masks, and there are over 80 different styles of mask depending on what is being celebrated. Some dances take place on a daily basis, while others only happen after months or even years have passed between performances. There are seasonal dances, and dances for birth and death. There are three types of masks; animals (monkeys, rabbits, crocodiles), people (hunters, blacksmiths, thieves), and the Kanaga Mask, representing the creation story. A new Kanaga Mask is carved once every 60 years for each Sigi celebration taking place in the area. But there are variations on this depending on which village visited.


Local Atakpamé folklore has it that long ago a hunter went into the bush to hunt, only to find one-arm, one-legged magical creatures jumping and dancing on stilts. He threw some burning embers into the air to draw their attention, but they fled in fear without their stilts. He brought the stilts to the voodoo spiritual leader to have him explain their mysterious powers. After that experience, he made some similar stilts and tried them himself. From that beginning, stilts have become part of the local culture. They are traditionally used now for various joyous occasions, like the end of the harvest.


 Regarded as the national dance of the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria, it is a vigorous dance which literally means “Is this magic?” It combines elements of gymnastics with foot-stomping rhythms and brilliant costume colors. Atilogwu is fast-paced and energy-driven; it is done with acrobatic displays. It is a dance of youths in the society who undergo rigorous training before presenting the dance in public. Once approved, the dance is performed during important festivals and great social occasions. The dance is also not complete without wiggling, a common characteristic of a typical Nigerian dance. Atilogwu dance has been elevated to a dazzling art form, becoming a celebrated signature of Nigerian culture performed around the world.


It’s a contemporary version of the Ewe traditional war dance. Atamga – Great (ga), Oath (atam) – is in reference to the oaths taken by the ancestral Ewe speaking people before proceeding into battle; the movements of the present day version of this dance, mostly in platoon formation. Occasionally solo and small group dancing is performed toward the end of each presentation reminiscent of the battlefield. Reconnaissance, surprise attack and hand to hand combat are the stylized forms of the modern version of this dance. The main dance is fast paced and draws upon battle maneuvers for certain episodes, such as planning the attack, advancing and retreating. The modern version of Atsiagbekor is performed for entertainment at social gatherings and at cultural presentations.

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