If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a dusty arena, surrounded by jiving, jinking and gyrating Nama Riel dancers in the throes of an ancient courtship ritual, you have been privileged to be part of a special cultural event that has been revived throughout the Kalahari and the Karoo.

It’s a dry winter’s day in the Karoo village of Williston in the Northern Cape. Everyone should be huddled in front of a fire sipping something warm but no, most of them are out at the local fairground waiting for something special to happen.

Suddenly the public address system blares out the local hit, Asseblief Ant Katriena Die Honde Byt My ('Please, Aunt Katrina, the dogs are biting me') by Boeta Gammie from the nearby town of Calvinia, and a thousand feet begin to tap...

A line of women of all ages, wearing old frontier bonnets, comes snaking out onto the soft-sand dance arena. The men follow, dressed in waistcoats and wearing cowboy hats adorned with feathers.

They all dance in a compelling, energetic way and soon the air is thick with dust. The spellbinding movements of the dancers are almost impossible to resist, so the crowd begins to join in.

The women dance with each other, twirling around joyously and flipping their skirts in a mock-flirty fashion. The men take turns in flinging their hats onto the ground and dancing around them, and then holding little ‘dance-offs’ amongst themselves in an effort to impress the lady folk.

Welcome to the Nama Riel dance, which is undergoing a massive revival in the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces. It’s a dance-descendant of the old Khoi and San fireside rituals and it became the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ of sheep shearers and farm workers across the Kalahari and Great Karoo over many generations.

Nowadays, many schools in the Western Cape offer Riel dancing training to their pupils. And there are festivals all over the provinces where they can strut their stuff and compete against Riel dancers from other areas.

Johanna Jooste, a staunch member of the dancing group called Die Calvinia Sitstappers ('The Calvinia sit-walkers'), is considered to be one of the best Riel dancers in the Northern Cape.

‘As soon as I hear that guitar, I have to dance,’ she says. ‘The Nama Riel dance is all about a man courting a girl. And remember: a good Riel dance kicks up a lot of dust...'

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Williston Winter Festival
Tel: +27 (0)72 018 7288 (Pieter Naude)

How to get here

Williston is 420km (a five or six-hour drive) from Cape Town. Take the N7 north and turn east at Van Rhyn’s Dorp on the R27, passing Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia en route. Carnarvon, which also stages Riel dance competitions, lies 130km east of Williston. Franschhoek lies approx. 55km east of Cape Town. Take the N1 out of Cape Town and turn off onto the R45 before you reach the Huguenot Plaza. Worcester is about 100km east of Cape Town. It lies just off the N1 highway.

Best time to visit

The best time to see the Nama Riel dancers in action is during competitions and festivals in the towns of Williston, Carnarvon, Franschhoek and Worcester.

Around the area

When in Worcester and Franschhoek, take in the winelands. If you’re up in the Karoo highlands for the Williston Winter Festival, go on a tour of the local corbelled houses and legendary Tombstone Route.

Tours to do

Check the Karoo Highland website for tour options in the Williston–Carnarvon area.

Get around

It is advisable to hire a car from Cape Town International and drive to these destinations.

What will it cost

The various festivals have differing entry fees. See the listed websites for details.

Length of stay

One-day visits and perhaps overnight stays in the more distant towns are recommended.

What to pack

If you’re visiting in winter (June to September), pack warm, especially for the chilly nights and mornings. For the rest of the year, pack light but throw in a fleece in case the weather turns suddenly. And don’t forget your cameras.

Where to stay

You have a vast array of accommodation options in the towns where Riel dancing is done – check the listed websites for details.

What to eat

Wherever possible, you should indulge in the local cuisine. The festivals will offer up all kinds of meat preparations.

What's happening

You can see Riel dancing at the Riel Dance Festival held at the Worcester Museum in May. The dance also features in a long cultural line-up at the Franschhoek Harvest Festival, held in late March. Riel dancing is also the main event in the heart of Nama country at the Williston Winter Festival at the end of August.

Best buys

The music of Boeta Gammie – ask for his CDs at any leading South African music store.