Dance is crucial to understand Orisha in Yorùbáland and the diaspora. For centuries the body was a place of Black resistance in the colonies. Knowledge is not just expressed in language, words or thoughts – it is also written into our bodies. By practicing Orisha dance this information gets into our our minds, hearts and souls.
Today every Cuban is used to watch sacred Yorùbá dances, that in the past were known only to a marginalized part of the society: Black Afro-Cubans. In the setting of a ritual, created by a community of people, the Yorùbá deities called Orisha are invited to mount their initiates’ bodies. The human personality disappears and gives way to the divine. Gods and goddesses join the human beings, borrow the device of a body and bring blessings from another dimension.
"The trance creatively reassures the vitality of death. One ritually dies into the god, so as to apotheosize the Earth and our life on it. [...] The human body becomes a shrine-room with two entrances: Earth takes possession of it so as to transmute itself into Heaven; and Heaven descends so as to submit to Earth." Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger
The standard repertoire of Afro-Cuban Yorùbá Orisha dances went through a process of folklorization, initiated by the Communist Revolution. The African heritage on the island was studied and reshaped to be displayed on stage and integrated into the education system. A detailed article on this story is published in the blogpost Communism and Yorùbá Culture. This is one of the reasons why sacred Orisha dances exist outside of their ritual context today. Since decades the beautiful Yorùbá traditions have been developed on the Arts Universities and in state-run dance companies by professional Modern “bailarines”. Orisha dance is part of everyday life in Cuba, from nationwide TV-show entertainment to local performances of school groups, honoring Yorùbá culture - known as “Lukumí” - as part of the cultural heritage.
With the success of the island’s music, Cuban dance styles spread around the world. In every major city worldwide, from Accra to Zagreb, passionate Latin dancers are learning Salsa, Son and Rumba. Popular Cuban dance is deeply rooted in African cultures and especially Salsa dance also quotes styles from other genres, like Rumba or Orisha dance. It is through their physical experience that many people enter the folkloric Afro-Cuban world. The body leads, the heart and mind may follow. I want to give here an introduction to the Afro-Cuban Orisha dance, an overview for the ones who are new to this “genre”. It introduces the reader to some aspects of the Cuban Orisha and interprets some of the stories they tell. As I have seen many dancers taking Orisha classes without knowing about the context, I thought it might be helpful writing a few words on it. To really understand it on a spiritual and energetic level, I believe it has to be danced (in a ritual setting). It’s a beautiful and creative world full of magic moments. Enjoy your upcoming Yorùbá dance lessons!
Orisha who “rule over the head” of the initiates are danced in trance when they mount their devotees and come to visit the physical world. The standard Yorùbá dances today, as taught by the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba, include the following Orisha: Elegba, Ogun, Oshosi, Shango, Obatala, Yemaya, Oshun, Oya, Babalu Aye and the rarely danced Aganju Shola. These Orisha have their individual dance steps, which originally were performed in a ritual setting. Characteristics, which became contemporary choreographies, are described in detail below.
Other Orisha occasionally mount the bodies of their children in rituals and might have certain danced expressions, but they are not taught in folkloric dance education. The mask dance of Orisha Olokun e.g. is not performed anymore in Cuba. The last Olokun mask dancer was Eworio Rodriguez “Tata Gaitan” and died in 1944, with him vanished the knowledge of these rituals. Olokun is today close to Yemaya, like Aganju Shola to Shango, they share aspects in worship and dance performance. Many more Orisha exist in Cuba, like Orunmila, Osanyin, Orisha Oko, Oba, Yewa, Erinle, Oshumare, Nana Buruku, Oro and Dada, just to mention a few of them, but they are rarely experienced in a state of trance or do not at all “come down” in ceremonies. For ritual celebrations held in honor of them, basic generic dance steps are used. This text focuses on the popular Orisha dances mentioned above and aspects of their public performances, basic and common knowledge without getting into ritual details.
With the transatlantic slave trade, traditions from different areas of Yorùbáland came to the colonial Cuba. The African culture was adopted to the new environment and incorporated European customs and styles, mixed with influences from other African or indigenous Taíno people. The most important danced Orisha are categorized into two groups in the Cuban system. One group is the "royal category" of the palace, with Shango, Oshun, Yemaya, Obatala, Oya and Aganju Shola. Their costumes are highly adorned with cowry shells, embroidery and iconographic appliqués. On their heads they wear European-style crowns, sometimes adorned with red parrot feathers or accompanied by other traditional Yorùbá regalia, like Yor. “ìrùkẹ̀”, horse-tail whisks.
The other category is the archetypal forest “guerrero”, the warrior-type, also called Yor. “Òrìṣà ọdẹ” with Elegba, Ogun and Oshosi. They live outside of town, their abode is mother nature. They wear skirts made of split palm fronds called Yor. “màrìwò” and carry insignia of agricultural work. Their headgear identifies them mostly as peasants. Babaluaye with his clothes made of jute fiber looks even like a beggar. Cuban Orisha costumes resemble cuts and fashion ideals of colonial 18th to 19th century or sometimes integrate details from Catholic imagery. Preferred fabric today is the colorful shiny satin. Female Orisha wear a dress with short puffed sleeves, wide double skirts, long underpants, broad, decorated belts and creole headscarves. Male Orisha wear “bombachas”, knickerbockers, dating back to the colonial outfit of Spanish soldiers, and sleeveless vests or a shirt and a short jacket. All Orisha wear Yor. “ìlẹ̀kẹ̀”, beaded necklaces, according to their preferred ritual colors.
The music involved is complex. Its rhythms are highly syncopated, often applying a binary against a triple meter, or somewhat in between, with the most stressed sounds of the solo bass drum in a playful opposition to the main beat. Isolated body movements make use of these different meters, working creatively with the dense layers of rhythms and exposing the bodily experience to this shifting in time and meters, which finally lifts the dancer onto another energetic level and leads into trance. Especially for a Western audience, not trained in African polyrhythms, it can get tricky finding the beat of the music. Additionally, an interwoven layer of Yorùbá melodic speech can be found in the solo parts of the bàtá – they belong to a group called "talking drums". Consecrated double-headed bàtá drums play for all Orisha in Cuba. Modern tumbadoras, peg drums or Luk. “agbes”, gourd rattles (possibly Yor. “agbè”, from “akèngbè”, type of calabash), can be used. This depends on the type of ceremony and Yor. “ilé”, the involved temple’s tradition. The solo singer has to know hundreds of songs in Lukumí, the remains of Yorùbá language, and should be able to lead and improvise. The choir is usually sung by all the people present, the structure is call-and-response. Songs are connected to certain rhythms and sung partly in a liturgical order. The drummers, initiated into the Orisha of drums called Yor. Àyàn (Luk. Añá) follow the lead singer, who has to support the ritual set and setting and know what the present Orisha or the community needs.
Some rhythms are generic and played for many songs and deities, like the versatile and fast rhythm “shashalopafun” (Luk. "chachalokpafun”) or the slower “nyongo” (Luk. “ñongo”). Its basic dance steps are the same for every Orisha, but the upper body’s movements and the emotional character vary a lot, according to the deity represented. Other drum rhythms are connected just to one song and one dance step for a specific Orisha, like “tui-tui” for Oya. It can get very confusing, as there is no fixed nomenclature. People may name a dance step after a popular line taken from a song which usually accompanies it, but at the same time maybe more than one bàtá rhythm could be played for this specific song. Drummers may refer to a dance step using the name of a rhythm, here maybe they use a name from another popular song to name it. Some rhythms are played “seco”, without singing, where the rhythms might simply be named after the Orisha they are played for, and later accompany a song for another Orisha. And then there are dance steps, like the steps to the rhythm “Latopa” for Elegba, that are also danced for Yemaya, Oshun or Shango, but for them with a rhythm known as “Yakota”. Ask your Afro-Cuban dance teacher to get these details or read through our blog-post The Orisha Drummer's Reading List!
The people present at the public part of the ritual are usually dancing directed towards the drummers. It is a joyful party and everyone moves freely in the basic dance steps. The ones going into or already in the state of trance are dressed in their Orisha’s ceremonial outfit and dance expressively. Everyone is free to join. The details depend on the purpose of the celebration, referred to as Luk. “bembé, güemilere, tambor, güiro, toque” or “fiesta de Santo”. Once the Orisha is present, the initiates’ body is gendered by the divine force. Men wear the female Orisha Yemaya’s skirt or women vice versa dance the virile Shango. They are no longer linked to their human identity, until the Orisha leaves their body again.
Most of the Orisha dances share common features, like the semi-plié (bent knees) posture with the torso bent forward and free-moving arms, the undulation movement or spinal ripple from the pelvis to the head, the isolation of the rib-cage, twists of the head and neck, with shoulder movements linked to the torso. Every Orisha dance step has its own detailed requirements, you really get to know your body once you start learning them! Let’s start with a small description of the Orisha and the basic meaning of some of their movements.
The embedded videos here are from staged Orisha performances, most of them from the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba. Out of respect I am not using recordings of people in state of trance, although Youtube is full of them today. Before you start, get an impression from the energy of a real ceremony in this first video here below. There is no Orisha yet present, but the ritual and the drumming start getting dense. It's quite a difference to the staged Orisha dances and you get a feeling of the community involved and the energy of Cuban Orisha drumming.
(Lukumí: Echú, Elegguá, Eleguá, Elewa, Elegbara. Yorùbá: Èṣù, Ẹlẹ́gbára, Ẹlẹ́gbáa. Nagô: Exú, Legba, Elegba)
Eshu-Elegba plays the keyrole to the world of the Orisha, he is the messenger and delivers all the sacrifices made to the deities. He is always addressed first in a ritual as he opens up the way for communication with the spiritual realm and is called Yor. “onilé orita”, the one inhabiting the crossroad. This is the place where we feel Elegba’s energy – when we get confused which direction to take in our life. His home is where different energies meet, which he redirects, mixes or disconnects through his power. He is the one who is holding the Yor. “àṣẹ” (Luk. “aché”), the enabling power of Olodumare, a God-like principle, in his hands. Eshu works closely with Orunmila, the Orisha of divination and is the ruler over any potency of life, the possibility of creating something new, that needs a motive stimulus. The Cuban bàtá drummers start a “fiesta” always with his rhythm “latopa”. Elegba is known as a trickster deity, constantly re-calibrating the world beyond the limits of the categories “good and bad”. He is an agitator, challenging, provocative and immoral, he unites opposing forces like prayer and curse. What brings happiness into the life of one person, might at the same time bring disaster into the life of another. Success or failure, Elegba is both, they are the same to him, in a non-judgmental way. He is unpredictable and exists to teach humanity that there is always more than one side of any issue.
In the translation of the bible into Yorùbá language Eshu’s name was used for Satan, the devil. Many people are afraid of him, but Eshu is not Satan! He turns things upside down, he is incalculable, but he is not a fallen Christian arcangel. Eshu and Elegba in Cuba stand for different categories of the same Orisha with different “caminos”, paths or avatars. Some are closer to the human world and benevolent, called Elegba, others more demanding or mischievous, the Eshus. The orisha’s place is at the door steps, he is too temperamental to be let into the house. Experienced Olorisha know what he likes and how he has to be appeased. Working with him means to expect the unexpected to happen, but as long as you follow the protocol he is quite manageable and can bring big blessings. And there is simply no other way than to work with and through him! Proverbs often speak about his ambiguity; if he stands up inside the house, he is so small to fit under the rug, but as soon as he sits down his head reaches up to the ceiling. If he throws a stone today, he kills a bird with it tomorrow. The Yorùbá say “Ẹlẹ́kún n sunkún, Láaróyè n yọ”, meaning “while the mourners are weeping, Eshu is rejoicing”. Elegba is small and big, old and young, male and female. Children represent his playfulness and in Cuba sweets are distributed among them to appease him.
Elegba’s colors are red and black, often with white in combination. The colors are applied to his dress in a style similar to the one of an European Harlekin. He often wears a peasant’s straw hat, has Yor. “màrìwò”, split palm fronds, attached to his outfit, and he is holding a “garabato” in his hand. This is a hooked staff used as a tool in field work all over Middle America, when cutting plants and grass. This is not a shepherd's stick, as I often read in English descriptions. It is a cut branch of a Guayaba tree, turned upside down – a metaphor for the Elegba’s energy. Its shape reminds on the carved dance staffs from Yorùbáland called “ọ̀gọ Ẹlẹ́gbáa”. The Cuban “garabato” is like an abstract form of this carved dance staff with its phallic extension. Typically, one holds a “garabato” in one hand and uses its hook for merging a bundle of plants together to cut it with the cutlass in the other hand. In this sense, Elegba opens up the way through the dense areas. The “garabato” grabs all the things around that are out of reach. Elegba is usually smoking a cigar, always looking for sweets and demanding large amounts of rum. He can act playful like a child, does somersaults, makes fun of other persons and pulls faces. His movements might reflect children’s games, playing with marbles on the floor or jumping in a hopscotch manner. One moment he is laughing, in the other one crying. He comes and goes, moves in and out, rests at the door, sits down and stands up, moves forwards and backwards. In his dances he sometimes stands on one foot only, swinging the other one in the air, or is shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His behavior can be sexually explicit, vulgar, and flirtatious with women. Elegba loves to interact with the people around, sits down on someone’s laps, steals a cap from someone’s head or hides behind people. Famous are his classical starting rhythms “lalubanshe”, where he has a unique dance step, and “latopa”. Ẹlẹ́gbáa Láaróyè!
(Lukumí Ogún, Oggún, Yorùbá Ògún, Nagô Ogúm)
Ogun is the famous hunter’s Orisha. He is the god of war and iron and known as a fierce warrior. All professions who use instruments made of his metal are indebted to him, typically blacksmiths, farmers, soldiers and carpenters, today also drivers, surgeons or mechanics. Iron is part of our technical world and crucial for the development, in this sense Ogun is the force of civilization. Where he shows up with the power of his “machete”, the iron cutlass as his major symbol, the nature around will be changed and remodeled. Grass is cut, soil is plowed, blood spoiled, creatures killed. New forms and orders develop, he accelerates evolution and progress. He is known as a hot-tempered Orisha and works closely together with Oshosi, considered to be his brother in Cuba. While Elegba opens up the way through the dense forestal areas with his “garabato”, Ogun clears the road after him with his “machete” and symbolically helps his devotees to cut through fierce problems in life.
Ogun plays an important role in the creative process. He is present in the instruments of a woodcarver for example. Before a beautiful piece of art can be formed, a tree loses his life and has to be cut down. With the force of the iron tool the artist later can give the piece of wood a new shape. This is Ogun’s energy of transformation: death is the birth of something new, the act of killing is sacred to him. His strength lies not in the intellectual part of the creation, like Obatala, but in the direct act of doing it, straightforward. Living in the bush as a hunter he has knowledge on traditional medicine, plants, spirits and magic charms. He is impulsive, but known to be a honest worker who is very persistent, reliable and never gives up his goals. He hates lies and will punish people not telling the truth.
Ogun’s colors in Cuba are green and black in combination. He wears knickerbockers, often a shirt, a sleeveless vest and usually a scarf on his head. Above his trousers he wears a skirt made of split palm fronds, an important ritual symbol. Depending on personal preferences of the Orisha house, various hunter’s regalia could be added to his outfit, like parts of animal skins, small gourds as containers for medicine, shoulder bags etc. But his most important symbol is an iron cutlass, a “machete”, he holds in one hand. His movements in the dances are those of a blacksmith, who is forming the iron with hammer and anvil. With the blade he cuts the grass on the soil and shows his involvement in agriculture, and he symbolically clears the road from obstacles and cuts his way through the forest. He is keen on fighting and demonstrates the power of his weapon on his own body, sharpening the blade on his arms and chest without getting hurt. He is licking the iron with his tongue, what is the Yorùbá way of swearing an oath – the one who breaks it is going to be killed by Ogun. He looks aggressive, masculine, ready to fight. With his cutlass he is cutting off the heads of his enemies. His movements are artistic and demonstrate his virile power. With force he bursts through the dense forest and attacks, without looking left or right. Ogun is always ready to fight or dedicate himself to arduous labor. Ògún heéyìì!
(Lukumí Ochosi, Yorùbá Ọ̀ṣọ́ọ̀sì, Nagô Oxosi)
Oshosi is the third Cuban warrior and hunter's Orisha. He is the brother of Ogun and usually lives and works together with him. Oshosi’s tools are the precise bow and the arrows. He hunts with concentration, he chooses the direction before he attacks over distance and focuses on his goal, he is trustworthy and truthful. He is more strategic than his brother, who needs him to manage his violent outbursts. Oshosi kind of channels and concentrates the hunter Ogun’s energies. Oshosi is not just hunting with bow and arrow, he is also a pathfinder, a trapper and a tracker. He is the Orisha of persecution and prisons. He helps people who are having troubles with law and justice or authorities. One can imagine that during times of slavery his work was especially important for the resistance against the colonial oppressors. He is the prototype of the hunter, quick, agile, vivid. He is constantly on alert with a sense of curiosity and initiative. He wanders through the bush, looking for challenges, ready to focus on a goal. Chasing prey he is responsible for the wealth of the community, provider of sustenance and plays an important role in society. With his knowledge on traps he helps to work against unjust capture.
The hunter Oshosi is dressed in the color combination blue and yellow and might be carrying a quiver on his back or a hunter’s shoulder bag made of rawhide. When Oshosi is danced in a ceremony people usually form a symbol for bow and arrow crossing the fingers of both hands (see image above). His movements represent him as a hunter, walking carefully through the grass. He is looking for prey, hiding, observing, lying down, sometimes making himself small, not to be seen. He looks at the animals around, up to the birds in the sky and other animals on earth, he is tracing them, and finally shoots them with a fast and straight forward movement of one arm, representing an arrow. He lifts the heavy prey onto his shoulders, carries it around his neck, holding it with both hands and brings it back into the village. He is focused, concentrated and alert. Ọ̀ṣọ́ọ̀sì ọdẹ má ta!
(Lukumí Ochún, Yorùbá Ọ̀ṣun, Nagô Oxúm)
Oshun is the Yorùbá goddess of the Oshun river and in Cuba became to be known as the Orisha of fresh water and all rivers in general. She is the main source of life on earth, the universal vibrant female energy and is associated with kindness, fertility, gentleness, conception, reproduction and the miracle of birth. She refreshes, cools, harmonizes and cures with the transforming and absorbing soft power of pure water. Her metal is Yor. “idẹ”, brass, which stands for wealth, luxury and beauty. She is a famous trading woman and responsible for commerce and material prosperity. Her sensual aspects are emphasized in Cuba, she is happy within herself, a very erotic woman and sexually seductive. Oshun is a powerful woman and rules over the female witchcraft. She is herself a famous diviner in the art of Luk. “diloggun”, the cowry shell oracle, an important tool for communication with the spiritual world. She is usually peaceful and appears to be loving and sweet, like a gentle flowing river, but there is a secret within her. She can appear arrogant and if necessary she fights like a warrior. Then the gentle river turns into an unstoppable flood, especially when she gets offended there is hardly any forgiveness to expect from her. She is aware of her seductive power and respectively uses it. What starts with a small, harmless flirt can ultimately have a huge impact on your life. People say you better don’t turn your back on Oshun. She plays an important role taking care of the bàtá drums and the Orisha Yor. Àyàn residing inside them as well as supporting the divination Orisha Orunmila as so-called Luk. “Apetebi”.
A "mulata" sidenote
Oshun and her qualities play an important role in the Black resistance. In Cuban Orisha prayers she is still called by the Yorùbá title “iyálóde“. An “iyálóde” was an authority in her own right, a female holder of a political office in Yorùbá towns and the chosen popular representative of all women. The “iyálóde” was able to lead, articulate the women's needs and controlled economic resources, as many women were traders. Though she was acknowledged by the male chiefs she was always politically outnumbered by men, the only female in the council of king-makers. Oshun symbolically represented as a spokeswoman the status of women in the colonial society. Oshun is known as a “mulata” in Cuba, a woman of African and European parents with fair skin. This image was created in a racist environment. “Mulatos” had certain “advantages”: compared to black people they were given access to other levels of society and might have gotten some kind of marginal support from their European fathers. They played an important, but difficult role in the exchange between two separated cultural spheres, at once both and neither (compare "Yéyé Cachita" by Joseph M.Murphy in "Ọ̀ṣun Across The Waters", p.87). Last but not least for the racist Europeans in the colonies, many of them young male adventurers, relations to “mulatas” were more acceptable than to African women. “A white one to marry, a black one for the kitchen and a mulata for the bedroom” is an old colonial expression, speaking of an unimaginable racism. These women, struggling for their own and their family’s survival in a slave trading society, often only had left one chance. This might be part of the story how Oshun’s female power of seduction and beauty became related to the “mulata”. Oshun is the Orisha of courtesans and prostitutes. Although “mulato” is a term widely used in Cuba today and not considered to be rude at all, the root of the Spanish word is very likely the Latin “mulus” - the artificial cross-breeding of horses with donkeys: the mule. Who is who, when this term is applied to human beings, does not have to be explained. The outcome is a dead end of evolution, an unfertile creature, neither horse, nor donkey, with the only purpose of serving its owner: the “mulato”, the young mule. But it wouldn’t be Yorùbá culture if there was not also a beautiful story on this incident. It tells us about Oshun and how she got her skin bleached on purpose, namely through the saltwater by Olokun, when she moved to the Caribbean. She wanted to become an Orisha for all the people there, the Africans, their children with Europeans, the indigenous people and the whites. She adopted her appearance in love for her new children far from Yorùbáland, so that she can reflect them in her image and vice versa.
Oshun dances in a yellow dress, that can be adorned with golden embroidery, sunflowers, cowry shells, peacock feathers and “cascabellera”, small bells. She is Yor. “aládé”, of royal descent marked by an European-style crown on her head. Around her wrists she wears Yor. “idẹ”, copper bangles and bracelets, which produce a sweet jingling sound. In her hand Oshun carries a Yor. “abẹ̀bẹ̀”, a ritual fan. In Yorùbáland this is a round plate of brass mounted on a handle. Fans are used to refresh with a flow of air, moving away the heat and helping to evaporate small drops of water. Oshun purifies the air, cools and neutralizes negative content, it shows her softening and soothing power. The “abẹ̀bẹ̀’s” shape is very similar to European hand mirrors. As Oshun is associated with beauty, the mirror and the fan combine well. Folding paper fans can also be used, introduced to Spain from Japan in the 17th century. In the dance Oshun uses the fan like a hand mirror and looks at her beautiful face as if she would apply make-up or arrange her pieces of jewelry. She sinks down into the river as she sits down on the floor, and moves her bent arms up in the air in front of her head. Slow soft and lascivious movements let us think that she is bathing herself or rubbing herself with sweet honey, a popular mythological story how she seduced and captured Orisha Ogun in the forest. She makes her bangles jingle. Pulling her skirt across and around herself she shows the gentle flowing rhythm of the river, moving all parts of her body. Her shoulder, neck and head are bouncing softly by a movement that comes from the torso. She holds the skirt in both hands, bends down as if she was fetching water from a source and spills it over her body while getting up. She is laughing out loudly, often interpreted as the laughter of a furious maniac, but always remains smiling. Sometimes she makes fun of Orisha Oba, who cut off her own ear after being tricked by the jealous Oshun. Then Oshun holds her skirt up to one ear and bursts into laughing. In the song "Ochun Kole" she spreads her arms like the wings of a flying "aura tiñosa", a turkey buzzard, which is her totem animal. When she turns around, her skirt beautifully moves gentle in wave-like motions like water. She loves to be watched and adored for her beauty. Oshun is said to dance to temporally forget her sorrows, like when she lost her twins, the Ibeji. At this point she is touching her head with both hands, like someone who is upset and “poniendose loca”, going crazy. There is also a special dance choreography where she carries a big “canasta”, a straw basket, on her head, very much like an African marketer woman. Oore yèyé òòò Ọ̀ṣun!
(Lukumí Yemayá, Yorùbá Yemọja, Nagô Iemonja, Yemonja)
Yemaya can be translated literally from Yor. “Yemọja, yèyé ọmọ ẹja”, and means “mother, whose children are the fishes”. She is originally a riverine deity, but in the Cuban colony she became the Orisha of the ocean and saltwater. However, she does not rule over the deep sea, where Orisha Olokun resides, whose name means “the owner of the ocean”. Both share their reign, Yemaya owns the upper sunlit layers of the sea, Olokun the unkown and eternally dark depths. Yemaya is the protecting mother of all the Orisha, who nurtures her children, cares for them and gives them what they need, with all the love only a mother is able to give. The ocean symbolizes the big wealth she owns and shares with her children. Fishermen and sailors worship her. Before travelling abroad, which for Cubans always means to cross the ocean, sacrifices are offered to her. Her metal is lead, which is not affected by saltwater. Like the sea, that can arouse in storms and cause catastrophes, she is also feared when she gets angry. And like mothers tend to do sometimes, she can get very demanding, on the other hand offers great protection. Yemaya is known to be just and has like most of the Orisha various “caminos”, paths, which differ in their qualities.
Yemaya’s costume is dominated by the color blue, alternated with white embroidery or embellished with small white sections, like the ocean’s waves. She is Yor. “aláro”, known for the Yorùbá technique of dyeing with indigo. On her skirt she often has white zig-zag lines, which create the image of moving water when the dancer grabs the skirt with the hands and moves it around. What starts very gentle in the rhythm “alaro”, later arises to one of the most spectacular dances. Yemaya spins quickly around her own axis like a “remolino”, a whirlpool. Then she usually dances towards the drums. Her movement reflects a wave that hits a reef resulting in a big splash, throwing her torso up and down. Yemaya wears a headscarf, which is folded differently than that for Oshun, and a crown above it. In some houses she might wear an “ìrùkè” horse whisk or an “abẹ̀bẹ̀” fan while dancing. One of her typical postures, also in the rhythm “alaro” is when she moves like a duck, her totem animal. Everyone knows how it looks like when a duck dives under water and is shaking its body from the head to the tail feathers when it comes back to the surface. Yemaya mimics this, with her torso bent downwards, her arms flanked at her side, hands lying on the back like wings, and a shaking undulation movement, like a wave through the spine, starting from the top of the head down to the tailbone. In the paths of Yemaya Okute, who is related to Orisha Ogun and the forest, she dances with a “machete” in her hands and is showing violent warrior aspects. Here she is using dance steps of Orisha Ogun. There is always a close connection between the movements in dance, the songs, stories and ritual knowledge behind it. Omi òòò Yemọja!
(Lukumí Obatalá, Obbatalá, Yorùbá Ọbàtálá, Nagô Oxalá)
Obatala's name comes from Yor. “ọbà tí álá”, the king of white cloth. He is also called Yor. “Òòṣàálá”, Orisha of white cloth, or Yor. Òòṣànlá, the great Orisha. He is a kind of father to all the Yorùbá deities. Obatala is considered to be the oldest and most complete among them, the supreme Orisha, the other ones are his offsprings. He is the transcendental white light, that is a composition of all the colors of the rainbow. As the deity of peace, harmony, mercy and purity he is kind and benevolent, well-balanced and patient. Obatala is the wisest of all the Orisha, intelligent, concentrated and gentle. He forgives his children easily and is understanding, he is the ethical dimension of Orisha. He rules over Yor. “orí”, the head, with its intellect and seat of the destiny. Obatala is the creative and philosophical mind, that breathes new life into objects or thoughts and brings out new ideas and concepts. Obatala is the prototype of the heavenly artist. He plays a prominent role in the Yorùbá creation myth and was the one who sculptured mankind, as he still does inside the womb. He has male and female aspects, lots of different paths and is known under many names.
Obatala’s dress is always completely white, sometimes with cool, silverish embroidery. He holds a white “ìrùkẹ̀” in one of his hands and uses it in Cuba to cleanse the people. It always depends which path of Obatala is coming down, some of them can be female or represent a younger and more agile Obatala. One of his well-known dances is very gentle, smooth and tranquil, accompanied by a slow bàtá drum rhythm. He walks with his upper body extremely bent down to the ground, like a very old person would do, and speaks in a very low voice. The low posture speaks of humility. The most difficult part here lies in the constant undulation movement of the spine, that never stops, often compared to the slow movement of a snail, which is the animal sacred to him. Its whitish or transparent fluid, often compared to sperm, is sacred to him and cools the hot, red blood. As the boneless snail crawls along and leaves its wet traces it spreads peace and coolness. The contraction and release technique of this dance resembles the mode of movement of the animal. In another dance he is standing erect with arms crossed on his chest, again slowly swinging his torso. He has lost the agility, but stands firm and in a majestic presence. Dances from other Orisha are more spectacular, the difficulty within Obatala’s dance lies in this specific presence he gains with small, but very secure movements. It shows his dignity and the experience of having danced with this body all life long. Obatala has some dances that are faster, here he comes down in his paths of a young Orisha. Like his stories tell us, he also was confronted with lots of obstacles and was more hot-tempered in the past. There he dances as a warrior and is moving his “ìrùkẹ̀” straightforward, in a dance step similar to one from Orisha Oya. Another dance step of him is also used by Elegba and Ogun, jumping one or more times on one foot and kicking or swinging the other lower leg. Heépàà heéyìì Ọbàtálá!
(Lukumí Changó, Yorùbá Ṣàngó, Nagô Xangó)
Shango is the pleasure-loving and passionate Orisha of dance, music and drumming. He owns the bàtá drums and his dynamic performance is beautiful to watch. Shango rules over fire, thunder and lightning, and not surprisingly he is considered to be a hot-tempered Orisha, who quickly gets furious, in sudden violent outbursts. Many Yorùbá slaves came from the kingdom of Oyo, which still is the center of Shango worship. He is a very popular deity and has a strong influence on many rituals in the diaspora. The myths tell us that in one of his past manifestations on earth he was living as the king of Oyo. After bringing disaster to his people he hanged himself on an Àyàn tree and ascended into sky in the form of lightning. His devotees never accepted his death and call him Yor. “ọba kò so”, what literally means “the king did not hang”, because he still cares for his children from the heavenly abode. Shango is proud, energetic, restless, fierce and brave, a warrior in the sense of being a strategic commander over his troupes, rather than a soldier himself like Ogun. He has great knowledge on divination and can be manipulative, he likes to lead and dominate, some call him tyrannical. Quick as lightning he punishes the disobedient ones, but as a king he is known for his sense of truth and justice. What gets struck by lightning is being sentenced by Shango. In Cuba he is especially important as the prototype of the “Latin lover”, a great womanizer, charismatic and seductive, one who won’t miss any party, always celebrating, always dancing and in the center of attention. The Orisha Oba, Oshun and Oya are known as his most-loved wives.
The dress Shango wears is made of the hot color red, alternated with the cool white, often adorned with embroidered zig-zag lines depicting flashes of lightning. He has an European style crown on his head, cut in the form of a battlement like the crown of the Catholic image of Santa Barbara. Around his waist he has, like the Yor. “ẹ̀lẹ́gùn Ṣàngó” in Yorùbáland, a traditional belt with small stripes of fabrics attached, it looks like a skirt. It twirls and moves around, some say like flames of fire, when he dances. In his hand he can be holding a sword or his most famous symbol, the “oshe” (Yor. “oṣé”, Luk. “oché”), a double axe made of wood. It can be interpreted as symbolically uniting two balanced thunderstones, showing his power of judgement and the ability to strike from every direction. The diagonal lines of the “oṣé” symbol are also resembled in his dance, many movements and body postures follow diagonal lines. At the beginning he arrives like a cavalier, it is easy to see that his movements reflect someone sitting on a horseback and holding the rein in both hands. The kingdom of Oyo and its ruler Shango was known for its cavalry, wooden carvings show him often sitting on a horse. His dances have a general leit-motif repeated constantly in his circle of rhythms called “meta”: He stretches his hatchet towards the heaven and in a sudden movement pulls it down to the earth, like lightning from the sky. Many of these arm movements have his pelvis as the end of the sequence, it looks as if he would be loading energy from the sky directly into his genitals. Raising the “oṣé” up and down is the symbol for lightning. In upright and proud positions Shango makes jerky shoulder movements and kicks slightly with his legs in the rhythm “wolenche”. He touches his best parts and shows his virility, moves his waist in circles, his performance gets sexually explicit. The Yorùbá expression “iná l’ẹ́nu, ina l’ójú”, fire in the mouth and eyes, is illustrated. He sticks his tongue out and moves it quickly, mimicking a flame. With his eyes wide open he blows up his cheeks and the air out through his lips, as if smoke would come out of his body. It displays his temper and violent anger. In a special sequence you can see him putting down his axe first. He washes himself, puts on his trousers, carries a huge bowl in front of him and eats his favorite dish, Yor. “àmàlà” (this sequence is in this old video). Today parts of this section are interpreted as arranging his mustache and moving a pestle in his sacred mortar in front of his pelvis, while stretching out his tongue and inflating his cheeks. He finishes this sequence and puts on his crown to continue with a jump into his dance steps or a somersault. Shango makes acrobatic movements, his dance steps are big and require lots of space. His expressions leave no doubt: this Orisha has great social and sexual power and you’d better not mess around with him! His special attention is also dedicated to the bàtá drums, if present, which belong to him. Kàwóò kábíyèsí òòò Ṣàngó!
(Luk. Aggayú Cholá, Argayu Sola, Yor. Aganjú Ṣọlá, Nagô Aganju)
In Cuba Aganju Shola is known as the older brother or sometimes father of Shango. Like him he is from the line of kings in the ancient Yorùbá town of Oyo. His name literally means “straight face makes noble status” and describes him as someone dignified in posture. He is also a hot Orisha, in Cuba he is the patron of earthquakes, the inside of the planet earth, volcanoes and the desert. Aganju is known as a ferryman guiding people through the rivers and their life.
Aganju Shola's dance
His color is a dark red and like Shango he is carrying a big thunder axe with him, but a doubled one, with two double-heads, or one side just having a kind of anchor-like appearance. Like Orisha Oya he can wear multi-colored fabrics attached to a belt around his waist. He has just a small repertoire of individual dance steps and his expression is very close to the performance of Shango. He makes large steps, as if he was moving through water, lifting up his feet very high. It looks as if he was carrying lots of weight on his shoulders. One or more children are said to be sitting there and are being carried by him through the river, or symbolically the obstacles of life. When he comes down in a ritual he might grab some of the children around and lift them on top of his shoulders.
(Lukumí Oyá, Iansa, Yansa, Yorùbá Ọya, Ìyánsán, Nagô Oiá, Oyá, Iansâ, Yansâ)
The Yorùbá name “Ọya Ìyánsán” means literally “Oya mother of nine (children)”. Oya is the goddess in charge of wind, tornado, torrential rain and hurricans and beloved wife of Orisha Shango, who is often only called by his name Yor. “ọkọ Ọya”, husband of Oya. Like wind and thunderstorm they cannot be separated one from another. Oya was Ogun’s wife, but left him for Shango. She is also hot-tempered and energetic. In Yorùbáland Oya is the Orisha of the river Niger. In Cuba she resides at the entrance to the cemetery, where she leads the dead ones and hands them over to the female Orisha Oba and Yewa, who live inside these walls. Walking on the boundary between life and death Oya is closely related to the Yor. “Eégún”, the dead ancestors. She herself had nine stillborn children she is still protecting. With strong winds she can blow away obstacles and bring new things into the life. Oya stands for the female strength in times of struggle, respected for her strong will and fearless through her connection with the world of the deads. Oya is the female warrior goddess and also known for her strong medicines.
Oya’s color is mostly burgundy or wine-red. Around her waist she wears a belt with nine different colored pieces of clothes attached, symbols for being the mother of nine dead children. Oya can wear all colors, except black. Sometimes palm fibers from the “palma real”, Shango’s tree, are added. She carries an “ìrùkẹ̀” made of a black horsetail. She can hold a “machete” or a “vaina”, a huge painted seed from the flamboyant tree, in her hands. It has the form and almost the size of a “machete” and is used like a rattle to call her. In her dance Oya moves around like a whirlwind or tornado, spins around her axis to the left. She swings her whisk above her head, brings wind and dynamic change, clears and purifies the air. She brings both arms high in the air above her head in mirrored positions and in a sudden powerful movement stretches them downwards to her hips, followed by a wave, a spinal ripple, moving through her body, going from her pelvis up where it twists the head. She is crying out loudly while dancing, looks fierce and strong, aggressive and violent, her movements are impulsive, energetic and characterized by abrupt stops. Some people say one dance of her in the rhythm “shashalokafun” is related to the buffalo, her sacred animal and the steps mimic the gallop of this massive animal. Heépàà heéyìì Ọya Ìyánsán!
(Lukumí Babalú Ayé, San Lazaro, Asojuano, Chakuana, Yor. Ọbalúayé, Ọbalúwayé, Ṣọ̀npọ̀nnọ̀, Nagô Omolú, Obaluaiê, Xapannâ)
Ọbalúayé or Babalúayé are two almost identical Yorùbá names, the first one means “king–”, the second one “father, whose reign is the physical earth”. He is feared and known as the Orisha of infectious diseases, feverish infections and epidemics, from the ancient smallpox to modern HIV. Suffering and death are his transformation principles. He himself has ugly smallpox marks and rashes all over his body, he walks hunchbacked and is a kind of living death. He belongs to the group of hot Orisha, getting easily angry and into rage. He is the sickening hot wind that blows over the earth in dry season and rules over bacteria and viruses. As he brings the sickness, the cure lies within his hands. Babaluaye helps his devotees to fight against social exclusion, helps the ones who have been humiliated or rejected and is the patron of the weak members of society and those affected by his force. He is very strongly associated with the Catholic saint San Lazaro and their names are used interchangeably.
Babaluaye`s dress is showing his poverty and malady. It is made of rough jute fiber, sometimes with holes in it, though adorned with cowry shells, symbol of wealth. Often he wears a purple headscarf adorned with leaves or palm fibers. In his hand he is holding a small broom made of palm fiber, the typical Yorùbá attribute for this Orisha. With this instrument he is cleansing and healing himself and the persons that are present at the ceremony. When he mounts his initiates the performance is heartbreaking. Slowly, with trembling arms and feet, he makes one big step after the other. He is so weak and full of pain that he almost cannot walk and eventually falls down. Then he remains lying on the floor, shaking and shivering due to his high fever. Waving his weak hands in the air he tries to drive away flies and moths that surround him. He is scratching his itching skin. This performance is not a dance in the sense that it is strictly related to time and music in repeated patterns. But when the rhythms and songs change, Babaluaye gathers strength and slowly gets up on his feet and can dance elaborately. Many of the bàtá rhythms and songs used for him are interpretations of the Ewe/Fon repertoire, in Cuba called “Arará”. They share with the Yorùbá the worship of Babaluaye and some of their cultural elements became part of the Lukumí traditions. These dancesteps are closely related to the genre of “Arara” dances in Cuba, short dance steps with cuts and stops and a kind of constant springy movement coming from the knees moving up and down, not so much from the torso like in the other Orisha dances. Heépàà Babalúayé!
"Òrìsà takes possession of the human being láé-láé, in time-space-psychic-depth relativity. In myth the remembered pre-past of the mythic hero's life on earth is also the depth of human existence on which only the symbol can comment." Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger
I hope this article explained some basics about Orisha dance in Cuba. There's a lot more to learn! Look at the bibliography below for interesting books. You can follow us on www.facebook.com/orishaimage and stay connected!
All the Orisha drawings here (and more) are available printed on T-shirts, have a look into the shop near to you!
Ọmọ́fọlábọ̀ S.Àjàyí: Yoruba Dance. The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in a Nigerian Culture. Africa World Press Inc., Eritrea, 1998
Yvonne Daniel: Dancing Wisdom. Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Brazilian Candomblé. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2005.
Suki John: Contemporary Dance in Cuba. Técnica Cubana as Revolutionary Movement. Mc Farland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2012.
Joseph M.Murphy & Mei Mei Sanford (ed.): Ọ̀ṣun Across The Waters. A Yorùbá Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Indiana University Press, 2001.
John Mason: Olóòkun. Owner of Rivers and Seas. Yorùbá Theological Archministry, Brooklyn, 1996.
Susanne Wenger/Gert Chesi: A Life with The Gods In Their Yoruba Homeland. Perlinger Verlag, Wörgl, 1983.
Natalia Bolivar Arostegui: Los Orishas en Cuba. Ediciones Unión, La Habana, 1990.
Bolanle Awe: Gender & Governance. The Iyalode in the Traditional Yoruba Politicl System. In: Andrea Cornwall. Readings in Gender in Africa. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2005
Wande Abimbola, Ivor Miller (ed.): Ifa will mend our broken world. Thoughts on Yoruba Religion and Culture in Africa and the Diaspora. Aim Books, 1997.
David H.Brown: Santería Enthroned. Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Tipos y costumbres de la isla de Cuba, 1881, online at the Open Library
Some photos are licensed under Creative Commons and links to the authors provided below the images.