21 Days/21 Poems: The Dancer by Gcina Mhlope

A praise song for today’s 21 Days/21 Poems.

THE DANCER

Mama,
they tell me you were a dancer
they tell me you had long
beautiful legs to carry your graceful body
they tell me you were a dancer

Mama,
they tell me you sang beautiful solos
they tell me you closed your eyes
always when the feeling of the song
was right, and lifted your face up to the sky
they tell me you were an enchanting dancer

Mama,
they tell me you were always so gentle
they talk of a willow tree
swaying lovingly over clear running water
in early Spring when they talk of you
they tell me you were a slow dancer

Mama,
they tell me you were a wedding dancer
they tell me you smiled and closed your eyes
your arms curving outward just a little
and your feet shuffling in the sand;
tshi tshi tshitshitshitha, tshitshi tshishitshitha
O hee! How I wish I was there to see you
they tell me you were a pleasure to watch

Mama,
they tell me I am a dancer too
but I don’t know . . .
I don’t know for sure what a wedding dancer is
there are no more weddings
but many, many funerals
where we sing and dance
running fast with the coffin
of a would-be bride or a would-be groom
strange smiles have replaced our tears
our eyes are full of vengeance, Mama

Dear, dear Mama,
they tell me I am a funeral dancer

Source: Poetry International Web

Praise songs are an intergral part of Africa’s oral traditions. These songs celebrate the life or work of a named individual and often include genealogy, totem and, personal attributes etc.  The speaker of this poem is praising her mother, her mother’s beauty and her skills as a dancer.  But it’s also not a typical praise song in that it ends on a sad note.  The speaker would have preferred to compare herself favorably with her mother.  But the times have changed and she dances at funerals.

Gcina Mhlophe (born in 1959) is a South African freedom fighter, poet, writer and songwriter.

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8 comments

  1. Another good, simple and straight foward poem by Gcina Mhlophe. Her work inspires lots of people in my community and I like the fact she’s still more of a tribalist though she has been influenced by the world thruogh her travelling

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    • Thanks. There is a lot of loss in the poem. Obviously, times have changed or the memory of her mother’s ability as a dancer and indeed the era that her mother lived come off better because time has passed.

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  2. The ending was unexpected. It hit me. Was smiling throughout, then ‘bam’ a sharp turn. Her comparison of herself as a funeral dancer with her mother as a wedding dancer stood out mainly because of this turn.

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  3. Another Fantastic poem choice . My knowledge of African poetry is not great could you give me a few names to point me in the right direction
    Thanks.

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