All the Dogon dances 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. At least that’s how it was explained to me, but I suspect there are variations on this depending on which village you’re in.
Nowhere is any of this written down in a manner that would translate easily into a text that we could read. The Dogon storytelling tradition is oral, so to is Dogon tourist information. Don’t be surprised if you hear more than one version of a story or explanation about something; your guide was not wrong, he was simply telling the story the way he heard it. In some cases there is more than one story or explanation behind something and the guides are happy to give you all the versions. It’s slightly different with the dance however, and those villages where dances des masques are held for tourists all seem to present a bog-standard creation story involving animals. It wasn’t until I thought about it later that I realised I’d probably watched a dance ritual performed only for tourists.
While I was watching the dance, I had wondered a bit about the baggy indigo blue trousers the dancers were wearing under their skirts. They didn’t look out of place, but they just didn’t seem to sit very well with the striking colours and design of the rest of the costume. I could be wrong, but I just like the idea that the Dogon are only letting us see what they want us to see. Having heard the drumming on the cliffs at night, I’m also inclined to think that Dogon dances are usually a bit less staid than the danses des masques performed for tourists. Having said all that, I really enjoyed the performance and admired the skill of the stilt walkers. The dance takes place in a flattened-earth, open public space surrounded by thatched granaries and traditional mud houses. Apart from the tourists, the audience consists of the village elders, wearing dark blue indigo outfits and sitting in the shade, and hundreds of children sitting on walls and low roofs. It is a colourful and photogenic scene, and well worth watching.