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...'

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