Cultural Shows & The Hokey Cokey

For a lot of people travelling is about experiencing new cultures. We like to try local dishes, some choose to do a home stay, others adopt some form of local dress for their trip.

One of the most popular ways of experiencing traditions and past times first hand that I’ve come across, (and this seems to be common whether it’s a low budget traveller in Vietnam or at a resort in the Caribbean) seems to be the ‘Cultural Show’. In other words, a performance of usually singing and dancing, sometimes with instruments performed by local people.

Over the years I’ve seem some incredible performances. Recently in Ladakh I got to watch a show put on by 4 local women who dressed in fantastically ornate traditional wear and performed 2 dances that told a story about the region’s rich cultural history.  For these women, putting on shows is one of the only ways they can make some extra money in an area that is closed off to the rest of the world for all but 3 months a year.

One of the performances that stands out the most in mind however is when I was in Botswana midway through an African overland trip. As a group we were heading into the Okavango Delta which entails 3 hours of rowing in a wooden canoe into the depths of the Delta before pitching our tents unnervingly close to the sound of Hippos.

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When it got to nightfall the local guides built a fire and after dinner they all joined together and did an impromptu dance and song. It was powerful and energetic, a dance somewhat choreographed but with allowances for personalisation and with individuals taking it turns to lead the group in rallying cries and echoes.

When the performance was over we all cheered enthusiastically until the local guides gestured that it was our turn. Four of our group sang an enthusiastic rendition of Jerusalem but the guides looked rather unimpressed and repeatedly requested that we repay them with a dance of our own.  The problem was; what song and dance do a group of Brits & Aussies, a handful of Kiwis & Americans and two Italians know well enough to perform impromptu in public.

I’ve experienced similar dilemmas before, I once attended an anniversary party for a lovely couple I was filming with in India when I was asked to sing a song to the audience.  I’m not talking about drunken karaoke with lyrics and a loud backing tracks. I’m talking about a capella with a loud microphone and a silent and expectant audience. In a panic I stood up and did my very best version of Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas to a group of largely confused but very polite West Bengalis.

Anyway, back in Botswana we eventually came upon a song we all knew the moves to and could perform as a group.

The Hokey Cokey, or Pokey if you’re Australian.

You know…left arm in, left arm out, shake it all about.

It was terrible. We were out of tune, out of time and largely confused about what was happening and what limb was to come next. The song finished and there was silence….Then the local guides erupted into applause and there was a lot of hand shaking and grinning.

Nobody seemed to mind how bad the performance was, we’d made the effort and given them a glimpse into our culture just as they had (a lot more skillfully) given us a glimpse into theirs.

I’m always up for a good cultural show when I travel and I’m sure I’ll see plenty more in the future but I guess for now I better be rehearsing some more Disney songs and perhaps ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.’

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