The following is the story of my visit to see the famous stilt dancers of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). It was easily one of the best experiences I had in all of my time in West Africa so far. It was just such a special experience – no words or photos can properly describe it. But, I’ll try.
I hope you like the story. I give you, the stilt dancers of Cote d’Ivoire:
The Stilt Dancers of Cote d’Ivoire
I sit uncomfortably with my legs somehow squeezed between my chest and the seat in front of me. My feet stand atop of a large bag of chili peppers I try my best not to squish. An old lady sits beside me to my left, not afraid to stare at the odd sight of seeing a white man in a public bus in North-West Cote d’Ivoire; her eyes rarely wander from my face.
Through the window to my right a scene of villages occasionally spot the red-earthed landscape. Huts of mud and thatched roofs dot the flat-lands occasionally back-dropped by green mountains.
The mini-bus stops after a couple hours of travel and I am ushered out of the vehicle. My guide tells me we have about 6 kilometers to walk until we reach the village where the famous stilt dancers of Cote d’Ivoire will preform.
I feel worlds away from normal, a feeling that I always seem to enjoy.
As we approach the village, my legs are still aching from yesterday’s 32 km hike of one of West Africa’s highest peaks. The presence of children is the first thing I notice; and they notice me. Each of the buildings we pass, children’s peering eyes gaze out at us. They play a game of “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” as they hide behind the walls of round buildings and giant pottery. They are curious and shy; but their shyness doesn’t last very long. I am soon surrounded by children holding my hand and trying to climb onto my back.
Unfortunately, at the first village we arrive, there has been a death the night before. The stilt dance has been cancelled in the wake, and we are told to go down the road another 5km where they will be waiting for us.
As we arrive in the second village, I am swarmed by children.
They have learned the magic of the camera and the fun that is the group picture. They have learned that after each time the camera goes click they’ll get to see a new image on the back screen.
A scene soon develops of dozens of children pushing and shoving their way to view the LCD of my camera laughing hysterically as they do. I take a couple hundred photos, not even ones I would use myself, just to amuse the children.
Their laughter is priceless.
Soon, a group of elders makes their way out and with a simple shout of a word or two the children all scatter off leaving me and my camera alone.
The rhythm of drums beating soon begins to fill the air and a mood of excitement stretches across the faces of the kids. A couple drummers walk into view and stop, leaving behind a trail of dust in the air. Old men begin walk into the open area as children race over to place a wooden chair behind them. They light up a cigarette, a sign of wealth in the rural villages, and cross their legs in patience.
The stilt dance is about to start.
Young women dressed in white begin to funnel into the scene from different directions and begin to encircle the drummers in a slow trance-like dance. Their beautiful voices carry a song of happiness into the air like a morning dove in the spring after a gentle rain. The party is slow to develop, but what it lacks in speed it earns in dramatics.
What started slowly has now developed to an all out festival in theatrics.
Men with tassels made of thatches and animal fur wrapped around their arms and waste take over the middle of the dance floor whirling and stepping to the beat. They pass each of the elders, dancing especially for them. They are followed by women dotted with white paint. They too seem to sense the trance. Their eyes stay half-closed as they weave from foot to foot carrying the notes of the music with them. They occasionally look up, a pause from their captured state, and smile.
The dance culminates in a spectacular fashion as the famous stilt dancers of Cote d’Ivoire have their moment in the sun.
Hopping his way into the scene, the stilt dance looks both arrogant and brash. He stops in the middle, raises his arms to his side and lets out an animalistic cry to the gods.
The stilt dancer twirls on one leg before plopping down and letting out another call. It really is like seeing something from another world. The stilt dancers are taught to take non-human form in their dance, and it is evident. I can’t help by stand in awe as I look upon the scene.
The stilt dancer is so mysterious, so powerful, and so intimidating,
At the end of the show, the stilt dancer grabs my hand and pulls me in to the center of the scene, leading me like a father his son.
Surrounded by the eyes and laughter of a hundred Ivorian villagers, I dance.
It’s an experience you can garner at home. Like love, it’s a feeling that you can’t explain to those who have never felt it. It’s a sensation that just doesn’t have meaning to anyone else but you.
At the end of the day, watching the famous stilt dancers in Cote d’Ivoire was one of the best days not only in my travels but of my entire life. It’s a memory I’ll keep with me forever, and an experience no one can ever take away from me. I feel blessed to have experienced it, and I feel even more privilege to share the experience with you.