It’s hard not to laugh, cry or be frightened at this display of Greenlandic cultural inheritance, which was and still is a unique social gathering point and a dive into Greenlandic myths and rituals.
If you enjoy seeing local culture close up, drum and mask dance is a completely unique experience that you will never forget. Its traditions have their roots in social, cultural and spiritual rituals which date back thousands of years. Drum and mask dance combine two different traditions but blend social dynamics and Greenlandic cultural history. The dances give us an insight into a Greenland that was and remains embedded in spending time with family and friends, thrills and smiles, and myths and mysticism.
Mask dance is a tradition dating back approx. 4,000 years and which has been used in Greenland over the years to provide entertainment on long and cold winter nights. The dancers were typically widows or orphans, who entertained the town or the village’s inhabitants in return for something to eat. When Greenland was colonised, mask dance was forbidden by Christianity. But the tradition was maintained in secret in the far north and in western Greenland.
There can be one or several dancers in each mask dance. Dancers paint their face, sometimes put things in their mouth or cord around their head so that they are not recognised. The dancers may also use objects from animals such as bones, claws or shrivelled-up parts of dead animals to accentuate a scary effect. The most common colours used in face painting are black, white and red. The colours can be interpreted as different symbols. Black can be construed as symbolising the spiritual world, the spirits of both forefathers and dead animals. It’s a mystical and magical world that we are unable to see and explain, and which is also represented in amulets, for example. Red may symbolise blood, love and temperament, and white may be a symbol of purity or respect for forefathers. Our forefathers are present with the dancer and can provide help and support. White is also symbolic of our forefathers’ struggle for the right to live here, and the fact that, without them, we would not be here.
The painted masks similarly have a broad symbolism. If a lot of red is used, for example red cheeks, this can have sexual connotations. This symbolism is linked to the idea of reproduction and the reasoning that if we don’t reproduce, we wouldn’t exist.
There are many different ways of performing the dance, and the dance varies from dancer to dancer and between different areas of Greenland. But in general the dancers make their way through the audience, making movements with their bodies which conjure up physical images that can be funny, grotesque, distorted or bestial. The dancer seeks people out and can also utter animal-like or high-pitch sounds. Mask dance is associated with three emotions: amusement, fright and courtship. Social rituals can be found in these emotions: mask dance reflects sexual drive and humour as well as fright. Children and adults alike take delight in the scariness of it and smile at the absurd movements and the grotesque appearances.
“Mask dance has an educational function: the dance is scary, so children can learn how to react to the challenges they encounter in life. You shouldn’t ‘freeze’ when you find yourself in a dangerous situation. Some examples (especially from the past) are, if you come across a polar bear you shouldn’t just stand there and allow yourself to be attacked, or if your kayak has overturned you need to be able to keep calm in order to think clearly and not panic and drown. These days you can use the scary part of the dance as a preparation for the problems that arise later in life, so that you are able to resolve them.”
– Connie Kristoffersen, Greenlandic actress and mask dancer
See a mask dancer paint their face here.
How can you see a mask dance?
Nowadays, mask dance is used in Greenland as entertainment and a cultural ritual on numerous occasions. Mask dance is often performed in towns and villages during celebrations of the shortest day of the year and the return of the sun in December and January. Check with your destination’s cultural centre, e.g. Katuaq in Nuuk or Taseralik in Sisimiut, to find out about events.
Like mask dance, drum dance has enjoyed social, religious and cultural significance. Drum dance is performed with a frame drum (qilaat) – the dancer beats the frame of the drum, dances and sings. The songs are passed on from generation to generation. Some songs are myths and stories about animals and people. Drum dance may also contain elements of dressing up. In some cases, drum dancers may change their appearance, as in mask dance, by putting a stick in their mouth lengthways, so that their cheeks are distended and their voice changes.
Drum dance was used in its time for many different purposes; during spiritual ceremonies, for entertainment and in social contexts, such as sangkampe (“song battles”). These were used as a tool for resolving conflicts. Enemies were given the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with each other through song. In some cases, there was a violent dimension to the battle, involving head butts or break-dancing, but the basic idea was to make fun of the counterpart in front of the spectators. The social purpose was to clear the air, but in some cases the battle was so humiliating that a loser would decide to move to another village to live.
As with mask dance, drum dance was disapproved of by Christian missionaries, who regarded the dance as a heathen ritual. This meant that drum dance was under threat and came close to disappearing altogether. Christianity first came to the west coast, and only later to northern and eastern Greenland, and this is the reason why many songs and drum dances today originate in the north and east, where the tradition was maintained over long periods of time.
“Drum dance gives you a feeling of being connected with a kind of primordial force – a force I believe we all have within us. If you devote yourself to its rhythm and power, you can fall into a sort of trance, which feels like a huge lift in your inner energy.”
– Mads Lumholt, Greenlandic musician and dancer
drum dance in modern-day Greenland
A lot of people are currently trying to revive the tradition of drum dance. Drum dance is of particular importance for Greenlandic culture, and for this reason attempts have been made to include it in UNESCO’s world heritage list. Drum dance is performed throughout Greenland during national celebrations, at cultural events and on solemn occasions. Thus, it is also performed at the start of self-government sessions.
Experience drum dance
There are good opportunities to experience drum dances, for example, on Greenland’s National Day. You could also be fortunate enough to be made welcome by a drum dancer in the harbour of several towns and villages during cruise stopovers. On some occasions, you can also participate in presentations and displays of drum dances. You can find out about such events at, for example, the National Theatre of Greenland or in cultural centres and museums in larger towns. At the National Museum you can also discover traditional costumes and drums.
Listen to drum dance
In this video you can listen to drum dancer Nuka Alice talking about the Greenlandic tradition of celebrating the shortest day of the year, and at the end of the video you can listen to a drum dance.
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Anna Maria Jakobsen is a former Nuummioq (Nuuk citizen) and Greenland enthusiast. With a background and profession in cultural communication, she loves telling the story of the Arctic and does so from an insider's perspective.
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