Competition keeps traditional riel dancing alive

The annual ATKV Riel Dance Competition kicks off this weekend with regional heats. It has grown substantially over the past 12 years, from just seven groups at the first competition to more than 800 dancers this year.

riel Betjies Kwarteltjies
The riel dance is born out of traditional Khoi and San ceremonial dances. Through their movements, dancers tell stories, while showing off striking footwork in the dust. Pictured is Betjies Kwarteltjies, a riel dance group from Elizabethfontein (outside Calvinia) that is participating in the 2017 ATKV Riel Dance Competition. (Image supplied)

Melissa Javan
The riel dance — or rieldans in Afrikaans — is not only a popular dance form, but it is also a great topic to discuss in the classroom, says Benjamin Bock.

Bock is the project manager of the ATKV Riel Dance Competition, a heritage project of the ATKV, the Afrikaans Taal en Kultuur Vereniging (the Afrikaans language and culture association).


First held in 2006 at the foot of Paarl Mountain, 2017 marks the 12th iteration of the competition. Only seven teams took part that first year, hailing from the Cederberg, Matzikama, Hardeveld, Namaqualand and Hantam.

It has grown somewhat since those early days, and so far this year, 800 participants will compete, according to Bock. “One would not have imagined that it would grow to such an extent that inter-regional competitions should be organised.” These groups are from the Western Cape and Northern Cape.

Bock says learners use riel dance as a topic for schoolwork, especially in projects.

RooiRots Riel Dancers
The RooiRots Riel Dancers are from Elizabethfontein.

The background

It is born out of traditional Khoi and San ceremonial dances around a fire, Bock explains. “Celebrating the success of a good hunt or harvest has been practised for hundreds of years by descendants of the indigenous cultures [of the Khoi and San].

“Most of them were sheep shearers and farm workers who played a ramkie [tin guitar] during leisure,” he explains.

“Today, the riel dance can be recognised as one of the oldest cultural heritage expressions in Southern Africa. It includes courtship rituals, mimicking typical animal antics such as the meerkat or snake, along with lots of bravado, showmanship and foot stomping in traditional outfits.”


It is not clear from where the name Riel dance derives, says Bok, but “in Afrikaans the dance became the riel as a result of the strong resemblance it has with the Scottish Reel”. In the Nama language it is known as !Khapara. “The word ‘Khapas’ means hat and one realises easily why it relates, too.

“The hat plays an important role in winning a woman’s hand or interest, where the San used to use a bow and small arrow to shoot at a woman,” he says. It is an integral part of the men’s dance costumes.

“One of the most well-known characteristics of the riel is the agility of the dancers. During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the riel was ‘high fashion’ but due to urbanisation and the trend of American hip hop culture, it was on the verge of extinction.”

However, now the ATKV is approached by schools and teachers or community leaders who are interested in starting a riel dance group and want to participate in the competition, Bock says. “We have put material together to take to the schools.

“We then show it, give background on the riel dance and start to train the groups.”

In July 2015, Die Bushmans Kloof Nuwe Graskoue Trappers took part in their first international competition at the 19th Annual World Championships of Performing Arts in Los Angeles.

This riel dance group from Wupperthal in the Western Cape brought home three gold medals and a silver from the United States. In 2014, they qualified for the international competition at the national ATKV riel dance competition.

riel Benjamin Bock atkv
Benjamin Bock.

Benjamin Bock spoke to journalist Melissa Javan about the ATKV riel dance competition:

Melissa Javan: About 800 dancers are taking part this year. How many took part last year and in 2015?
Benjamin Bock: Last year we had 88 groups of eight each, totalling 704. In 2015 there were 85 groups of eight each.

MJ: Where are the participants from?
BB: Kranshoek, Pacaltsdorp, Swellendam, Albertinia, Barrydale, Uitsig, Ravensmead, Paarl, Worcester, Elim, Denau, Touwsrivier, Laingsburg, Prince Albert, Ceres, Kouebokkeveld, and Clanwilliam.

MJ: How do people sign up for the competition?
BB: People contact us and inform us that they are interested. Then we engage, meet with them, set dates for training and do the training.

MJ: Do they take part as a school or a community?
BB: We have three categories: under-14s, under-20s and the senior. [You can take part as a] school or group in the community. It helps if it’s a school, as there is existing administrative support.

MJ: Why do older people take part?
BB: They take part because most of them have been doing this for years. But the numbers of older people are dropping, while there are more younger groups.

MJ: What role do adults play in the younger participants’ journey in this competition?
BB: They play the supporting role, not only coaching but also motivating, assisting administratively and with providing opportunities for performance.

MJ: I’ve heard something along the lines of “the higher the dust, the more points the participants get”. What does this mean?
BB: It’s not really the case, but it has to do with the group enjoying themselves to such an extent that people see it in the dust. The joy on the faces of the dancers is worth eating dust…

MJ: Is the riel dance competition only for people living in rural communities?
BB: This competition is open for anyone.

MJ: What do dancers do where there is no or very little dust, such as in cities?
BB: We bring in the dust! Haha

MJ: What is happening this weekend?
BB: This weekend is our first regionals for the 2017 competition. A total of 27 groups will be participating. They will have six minutes to riel dance while telling us their story. We have 16 under-14 groups, eight under-20 groups and three senior groups. These groups will be adjudicated and the winners will be announced. Afterwards, the best dancers will have a chance to compete against other individuals and the best will be chosen.

MJ: Can people still contact you to enter this year’s competition?
BB: They can contact us, but we can only let them participate once we have had a chance to look at their dance skills and whether it is indeed riel or not.

MJ: How important is storytelling in this dance?
BB: It is very important; this is built into the criteria of the adjudication. This takes the audience on a journey.

MJ: Do people share what their story is about?
BB: They give us their story and we assist with the final touches of the story ensuring that they deliver quality and also a story that people can relate to or just enjoy.

MJ: What prizes are to be won?
BB: The prizes consist of trophies and the best will be forwarded to the next rounds. We have trophies for the best in the three categories, best musician and best song.

MJ: Who chooses the group names, which include names such as the Boesmanland Bitterbesies and the Griekwa Hienas?
BB: The group themselves.

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