Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers bring Riel Dancing to the Baxter Theatre Dance Festival

One of the oldest dance forms in South Africa is making a comeback. Troupe manager and dance coach Floris Smith shares more.

What is Riel dancing?

The Riel a rural dance created by the workers of the greater Cape Colony of old, including the Winelands, Garden Route, Kalahari, and Karoo. It has its roots in the storytelling dances of the Khoi and San.

How has it changed over the years?

The music has come a long way. It’s tied with the ‘vastrap’ music style, and involves a syncopated feel with an emphasis on the second beat of the bar of four pulses. The music is rhythmic, fast, and fun. You just want to dance when you hear it!

Why do you think the dance is still popular today?

The Riel is mainly danced in communities with rural backgrounds in the Northern and Western Cape. The ATKV took the initiative in launching the project and hosting a championship. This inspired communities to take part, as there is not much else for youth to do in these remote rural areas. Lots of workshops and training sessions also created interest at schools and other communities. The opportunities attached in becoming champions are also inspirational to the kids and dancers.

Image: Werner Le Roux

How do you balance time for coaching and for your other duties?

I work as Executive Chef and Deputy General Manager at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat in the Cederberg. All my spare time is dedicated to the project! Bushmans Kloof is proud of what our Riel troupe has achieved and what it has meant to the local community, and they are accommodating when I need to travel with the group for dance competitions and performances.

What is the cultural significance of the Riel?

The revival of the Riel in this area is also important from a historical point of view and complements our philosophy at Bushmans Kloof where we provide a sanctuary for the San heritage and their ancient culture, including the priceless rock art that we protect here in the reserve.

What difficulties has the troupe experienced so far?

These communities are self-sustained and kids will spend their time with livestock or in the vegetable gardens, on the Roooibos tea lands, or gathering wood after school or over weekends. Access to sport clubs is almost non-existent. But the most challenging aspect sustaining the project is of financial nature, as with any projects. Because the dancers are based at villages around Wupperthal, getting them all at a central point for training and rehearsals is sometimes challenging due to the transport and road constraints (rough gravel roads, mainly handmade).

How have you overcome these difficulties?

We make use of a few bakkie owners in these communities to transport dancers to and from these training sessions (at small fee). We also host a lot of fundraiser events. We are grateful to all the sponsors and donors that make this project possible, including Bushmans Kloof, Rooibos, Reagola IT Management and the local Municipality. We also run a lot of raffles in and around the community.

Image: Werner Le Roux

How did it feel to perform at the World Championships of Performing Arts?

Winning awards has opened so many doors to the project and especially for Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers. They get to perform at so many festivals, functions, and special events as the dance has become so popular over the years. The Riel is part of the culture that the kids grow up with; they know the steps and the rhythms by heart. It is owned by these communities. Children learn to do it in schools, and it is being celebrated as a heritage worth appreciating.

And how did it feel to win the awards?

This is the ultimate reward for all the hard work we’ve put in over the past three years and all the sacrifices we’ve made. We can hold our heads up high now knowing that we have shown the world that we are among the best of the best. Our Gold and Silver medals belong not only to us but to the community of Wupperthal, to Bushmans Kloof and its owners the Tollman family, and to all the people of South Africa who believed in us and supported us. Thank you. You gave us the wings to fly.

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Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers perform at opening night of the annual Baxter Theatre Dance Festival, which runs from 8 to 17 October 2015 (bookings at Computicket). For the latest updates, follow Die NuweGraskoue Trappers and Wupperthal BK Riel Family on Facebook or visit www.bushmanskloof.co.za.