For Kenya’s Massai warriors, ritual is key. An adolescent rite of passage used to be pretty standard: Spend three months in the forest, learn how to herd cows, kill a predator.
“Some years back, for you to become a chief, you had to kill a lion. But conservationists came in and stopped the killing,” explains Mtaine David Swakei, a Maasai leader.
Now, chiefs are determined by the “adumu”, or “jumping dance”.
“The one who jumps the highest is chosen as chief of the group,” says Swakei.
The competition isn’t random. Jumping, notes Swakei, is an invaluable skill.
“The warrior who jumps high is very strong. When they raid cows from other tribes, they can easily jump the fence and get the cows,” he says.
While the type of dance the tribe practices has remained the same throughout the generations, the younger wave of Maasai warriors have introduced other changes.
“Every generation, when they come up, has their own songs,” says Swakei. Once upon a time, boys would get their first tattoo and ear piercings once they turned ten. Swakei says that no longer is the case.
“The generation today, they don’t do that. No removing of teeth, no piercing of ears. Only the dances remain the same.”
A modern twist
In recent years, Maasai dance moves have found modern expression in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Founded in 2001, the Sarakasi Dance Company is one troupe that has found inspiration in the adumu, and other ancient dance rituals.
“We try to pick a lot of movements from different places and create our own style,” says Edu Ooro, a choreographer with the Sarakasi Trust.
In developing their style, Sarakasi has orchestrated cultural exchanges with their dancers throughout the continent and beyond. Ooru says that it helps connect Kenya’s youth to their roots.
“The only thing we do is modernize (ancient dance) so that it can cut across today to the younger generation,” he says.