Monday, November 30, 2015

Information About Dancing And Waving White Handkerchiefs In Ewe Cultures Of Ghana & Togo And The Igbo Culture Of Nigeria

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is Part I of a four part pancocojams series on Ghanaian, Togolese, and Nigerian customs of waving or twirling white handkerchiefs while dancing or while worshipping in church.

This post presents information about those traditional customs in the Ewe cultures of Ghana, West Africa and Toga, West Africa, as well as information about the Igbos (Nigeria) traditional custom of dancing with white handkerchiefs.

This post also explores some reasons that have been given for the customs of waving white handkerchiefs or dancing white handkerchiefs in those cultures as well as my speculations about the meanings of those customs.

Click for Part II. Part II showcases videos of the Borborbor (Akpesse) dances of the Ewe people of Ghana, West Africa and of Togo, West Africa. Women traditionally perform those dances holding white handkerchiefs in both hands.

Click for Part III of this series. Part III of this series showcases the custom of waving white handkerchiefs in some Ghanaian churches.

Click for Part IV of this series. Part IV showcases videos of the custom of dancing with white handkerchief customs among the Igbo people of Nigeria, West Africa and among the Igbo people living outside of Nigeria.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

I believe that the customs of waving white handkerchiefs in New Orleans, Louisiana or elsewhere in the United States while marching in second line wedding parades have their sources in the traditional customs of waving or dancing with white handkerchiefs in the Ewe cultures of Ghana, West Africa and Togo, West Africa, and the Igbo culture of Nigeria, West Africa.

Click for a pancocojams post about those customs that associated with New Orleans second line parades.

"Borborbor is Ghanaian and Togolese traditional dance performed by the Ewes from mid Volta region of Ghana. The dance is specially performed during the festival of the chiefs and peoples of communities."

"Borborbor is the most popular style of recreational music in the Volta Region [of Ghana]. It links traditional drumming rhythms with proverbial lyrics that frequently include Christian themes. It is the ultimate blend of old and new. Borborbor is often played at celebrations and funerals. Borborbor drummers weave moderate beats while women dancers and singers revolve around them. Women singers carry two white handkerchiefs that they twirl in the air at the end of a drumming period. A bugle may be used to add spice to the music. There is usually one song leader who will sing the first line of a song and lead the people from one song to the next by combining the meanings of different songs in unique ways to evoke the spirit of the particular occasion. Everyone in the community may participate in these performances which usually begin at dusk and can continue well into the night and even until dawn. Borborbor dance is very suggestive and many boy-girl liaisons develop during these events."

[Excerpt from a comment about the use of colored handkerchiefs for borborbor]
"I have seen a [borborbor] group use black and red handkerchiefs. That is ugly. It is an abomination that will be sternly frowned upon by the borborbor aficionados. Anything other than white handkerchiefs detracts from the purity of the dance."...
The tradition of only dancing Borborbor with two white handkerchiefs might be weakening. For example, a woman dressed in brown in a 2007 video of Borborbor from Tema, Ghana dances with one brown handkerchief. Also, in a 2012 video of Borborbor dancing at a funeral, women dressed in red dance with red handkerchiefs. (Note: Red and black are funeral colors in Ghana.). And another Ghanaian video shows a woman wearing a black dress dancing with a black handkerchief and some women dancing Borborbor with no handkerchiefs at all

In the Togolese videos that I've watched on YouTube, white handkerchiefs held by the dancers are smaller and thinner. From the few videos that I've seen, it appears to me that there is more emphasis on the twirling motions in the Togolese form of Borborbor than in the Ghanaian form of that dance. I've not found any information online about the meaning of these dances.

I've not been able to find any information online about the name or names of the Igbo (Nigerian) traditional dances that women performed and still perform with white handkerchiefs. However, the information that I found points to what I think is the real reasons for the use of white handkerchiefs in Igbo dance (and, I believe also provides the real reasons for the use of white handkerchiefs in Ewe dance. Those reasons are given in #4 and #5 of the "Why..." section below.

Google books
Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City by Mark R. Gornik, Andrew Walls, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Jul 22, 2011 - p. 89
Solemnly and slowly the leaders and choir of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana in Harlem [New York City] process down the aisle. First in line is the Church Choir, dressed in its pressed black and white uniforms, followed by Rev. Asiedu, and a presiding elder. After a selection of hymns and liturgical prayers in Twi from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana – from hymnals the members brought with them-the service dramatically shifts gears. The Church band has the congregation out of its pews and in the aisles dancing, marching, and waving white handkerchiefs to the High-life infected rhythms and choruses of Ghanaian Gospel music with its propelling baselines, multiple drums and percussion sounds, and cool saxophone notes”.
Videos of Ghanaian church services that include waving white handkerchiefs are included in Part II of this pancocojams series. However, YouTube videos document that waving white handkerchiefs isn't done in every Ghanaian denomination (and probably not every church service for particular denominations).

Note: I've assigned numbers to these quotes for referencing purposes only.

1. From Atta Boafo - Double Double (Blessings)*
sisteryaime, 2012
"can anyone please tell me the meaning behind the lttle cloths all african always be swinging around while praising God in church? thxs"

2. From Atta Boafo - Double Double (Blessings)*
callmeblessings, 2012
in reply to sisteryaime
@sisteryaime lol it doesn't really have a meaning as far as I know. Its just people in africa have these little scarves or cloth because of the heat. For some reason they started using it in church as an extra to praise God. It looks nice too when the whole church does it I think lol."
The comment that people wave white handkerchiefs in church because of the heat is echoed in discussion threads about why people wave white handkerchiefs during New Orleans wedding second line parades. I think that reason is much too simplistic. That said, I agree that Borborbor dancers, Igbo dancers, people waving handkerchiefs while dancing in church, or just waving handkerchiefs in church could also use those handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat of their face. But there's more too the custom then just heat and sweat- as that blogger indicates in the rest of his or her comment.
This video is featured in Part II of this pancocojams series. Also, click for a pancocojams post about the song "Double Double" which includes the lyrics for that song.

3. From Google book
Riddle and Bash: African Performance and Literature Reviews
By Chinenye Ce African Books Collective, 2010
p. 60
[describing Igbo women dancers]
"A white handkerchief can be seen on their hands with which they which wave in rhythm to their dancing and wipe the sweat off their faces. As custodians of virtue, they must be bare footed so that their feet are fully on earth. Waist movements are measured and controlled, hand gestures are also prominent."

4. From Reply to Jimjack-The Politics of Oil: Ikwere Search for Cultural Identity
Paul Oranika, Jul 23, 2007
"Dear JimJack:
..."You also need to understand that white handkerchiefs are not just used for sweat purposes only, black, yellow, green purple and other color handkerchiefs could do the same job as well. JimJack the major cultural angle of the white handkerchiefs used by Igbo women in dancing serves a major purpose of dance and movement synchronization.
It seems to me that any one color could serve the purpose of dance and movement synchronization. Also, any one color could help emphasize the movements of the hands (which I think is one purpose for the handkerchiefs). But I think that the reason why the color white was (is?) chosen for this dance (the Igbo dances and also the Ewe dances) is because of the cultural meaning of the color "white" in those cultures.

5. From
Groundwork of Igbo history - Page 754
Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo - 1992 - [‎Snippet view]
"Because the Ogbaru people associated the white colour with deities, the dance was first performed with costumes made of white cloth under the priestess, the dance had a religious character... However, white handkerchief was introduced to accentuate the white symbolism."
Although this comment refers to Igbo traditional dancing, it may also apply to the Ewe dancing that are the focus of this post.
I believe these customs also have an aesthetic value, i.e. they look good.

While waving and twirling white handkerchiefs in the traditional dances may have emphasized the movement of the dancers' hands and helped show group synchronicity, it seems to me that the main reason why people wave handkerchiefs in church is that it's a way of joyfully praising God. The Borborbor dance is probably the source of that custom for Ghanaian Christians although that dance isn't traditional for all Ghanaians.

Note these comments from the discussion thread for the video of the Gospel song "Double Double" whose link is given above:
tallandstately, 2011
"Who said you can't have fun while praising God! Wow, GOD IS GOOD!!"

"deborah king, 2013
"love it make a joyful noise unto the LORD"

phio luv, 2013
"we shall enter His gates with thanks giving....oh i love that"

KrisJSR, 2013
"this song puts me in such a great mood for worship for dancing!!!i love it! my God is Good O!!"
The color white denotes purity and therefore fits in Christian theological beliefs. In addition, notice in the videos of these church worship services (that are found in Part II of this series) that men and women raise their handkerchiefs high and not low. That also fits in the theological belief in God being above (Heaven).
I'm interested in your opinions about why white handkerchiefs are used for these dances and worship services.

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Hi Azizi, just linked to this interesting post from a Wikipedia article on handkerchiefs.

    Did you know traditional English 'Morris' dancing, which today is very sedate, has also got this use of handkerchiefs? Apparently although Morris-dancing is now a folk tradition it began in the 15th c. as a court craze for a style of African dance derived via Spain (literally "Moorish" dancing). So the West African tradition may be a very old one.

    1. Hello, slam2011. Good to "hear" from you.

      Did you mean this Wikipedia article

      Thanks for noting that some Morris dancers dance with white handkerchiefs. I agree with the origin of the term "Moorish dancing" that you shared, but (as that Wikipedia article notes), there are different schools of thought about the origin of that dance style.

      I should have stated in my post that there are other dances worldwide that include handkerchiefs. This post (and the other posts in this series) only focuses on the Ghanaian, Togolese, and Nigerian dances and the New Orleans second liners that I believe ultimately derive from those-and perhaps other- West African handkerchief waving and dancing customs.

      I also failed to mention that other ethnic groups in Ghana have traditions that include waving white handkerchiefs. The last post in this series showcases four videos of Ashanti festivals. Throughout those videos people-mostly women- can be seen waving white handkerchiefs.