Cheek-to-cheek at a Goan dance in Africa


CYPRIAN FERNANDES: A Goan dance

A Goan dance

Here is classic description of a Goan dance in any East African country. It is an excerpt from Peter Nazareth’s “fictional” In a brown mantle. I use the quote marks because the book appears to be thinly disguised as Nazareth’s once temporary homeland Uganda:

A dance in a Goan institute used to be rather formal. The dance usually starts at 9 pm, which means that the band starts playing at around 9:30 pm and couples start drifting in at a quarter-to-ten ( Cyprian: Goans were genetically such awful time keepers that allowed themselves the luxury of naming their own time: Goan time which was usually 60 or 70 minutes after the appointed hour).

The people are semi-formally dressed in attractive dresses or suits. The couples sit on chairs placed around the dance floor or around small tables (In Nairobi, it was just chairs around the dance floor). If they sat around the dance floor, the men usually vanished to the bar. They then hold their drinks and watch from the sidelines until somebody gathers up the nerve to commence dancing.

(Cyprian: Watching from the back of the hall is also another tribe of Goan men, young Goan men. The wannabe Romeos, the love-sick scaredy cats, and the not-so-drunk showing off an imaginary plumage but not girls worthy of respect are likely to engage them. The peacock plumages’ lair at the back is also home to the “tough guy” lovers who only dance the midnight special (usually cheek-to-cheek in the dim light) and last dance which is reserved for that special girl.)

Then the men go up to the ladies of their choice (they dance with their wives first) (Cyprian: a duty dance) and say: “May I have the next dance, please?” The reply is usually “Yes” in which case they go round the floor in varying degrees of happiness.  (Not Fortunato D’Mello, who never took dancing lessons. When I asked him why, he said that he once counted the number of times a couple went round the dance floor. He then estimated the length and breadth of the floor. After which, he calculated that a couple moved 17 miles (27 km) round the floor during that dance. “All that distance and they got nowhere,” he said)

The band plays a set of three pieces – say three quicksteps. Each piece lasts for three or four minutes. The band takes a break and the two return to their seats, the man saying “thank you very much” and “may I get you a drink”.

The next dance starts – a set of three foxtrots.  And the dancing starts.  Three waltzes.  A break.  A set of three rhumbas. Break. Three jive/soul. Break. A mild of set of African dance songs. Break.

There is no eroticism in Goan dances. Rather, whatever eroticism exists is submerged and can only be detected when a wolf-like Joaquim D’Costa is dancing with a long-haired married lady. And there is no break in the civilised behaviour, except for the inevitable fight around the bar, which ends by somebody bringing the warring parties together over a drink or somebody being thrown out.

A lot of my friends loved the Italian Cha Cha Cha which made me chuckle. Some were very special at dancing the waltz, others invented their own version of the dance. There was one guy who took his partner round the hall almost as if he was driving in a Grand Prix. Naturally, everyone kept out of his way. The Swahili international hit,  Malaika (angel) first recorded by its writer Fadhili William was high on the hits list for the Midnight Special or the Last Dance. The Midnight Special was also famous for traditional Goan dances like the mandos  and something British called The Lancets (?), aped from the British in India (I think). We locked arms and sang those ole time ole English favourites ... She'll be coming round the mountain ... and dozens of others. Remember the Hokey Pokey ... you put your left leg in ...? And the Conga Line after rocking in the New Year? We loved everyone ... and,  of course, Auld langsyne to bring in the New Year. As the years went by Rock 'n' Roll, the Twist, African-American soul and West Indian reggae began to dominate. Rowland Rebello was perhaps the finest exponent of the jive and the twist. Goans did not take to the jive too quickly but eventually most people were doing it. The samba and the rumba were a lot of fun. The rumba often lent itself to be a favourite of mine but I loved the jive (rock 'n' roll) and the soul hits the most. 

Then, of course, there was the "tag" or "tap" dance in which the men were allowed to cut in on a couple mid-dance by tapping on the shoulder of the male partner. This dance proved handy if you were shy of actually going up to her and asking her to dance while she sat with her parents. It was also useful to cut out any potential suitors by having your army of friends not allowing more than a step or two for the intruder. The "ladies' special" allowed the girls a chance to ask the man of their choice, sometimes announcing in public who they fancied or who was courting them. Others played it safe by dancing with a brother or father.

The other critical element in the social development of young Goans in East Africa were sports visits  from one city to another. The sports contests were ferocious to say the least but all that tough love on the field sometimes turned to good love on the dance floor as new friendships were made and new loves were found. The sports visit was a high point in the social calendar of both the hosts and the visitors.

The dance, especially at Valentine's (usually a masked ball) in February, Bachelors and Spinsters, Leap Year Ball, Easter, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, as well as the day occasions (the “hops”) played a central role in the social evolution of young Goans. Only the "best" people attended the dances as the ticket prices were reasonably high to keep the "riff-raff"out.

Dress was formal: men wore lounge suits and girls were in dresses. At Christmas or the New Year's Eve Ball, men wore their best suits or black dinner jackets. A few brought their prized  white shark skin tuxedos out of the moth balls. The women wore glorious full-length gowns and were at their stunning best. It was also usual for girls to wear a new dress at every dance which they sewed themselves or a neighbour obliged for a small fee. Some families used the same tailor throughout out his life or their lives.

As the traditional arranged marriage (usually with someone in Goa and later with someone in the African country where you lived) continued to be erased from the Goan ethos, it was left up to the Goan social clubs to cater for the young to take the embryonic steps towards the mating game. It is here the besotted finally got a chance to get real and personal with the girl of their current dreams (but not too close, the eagle-eyed parents kept a sharp look-out and (in the very early days) it was not uncommon for a parent to come on to the dance floor and insist on a more respectable distance between the two dancers. However, it was not long before young Goans were dancing cheek-to-cheek, or the girl resting her head on the boy’s shoulder, sometimes rather awkwardly. That’s it. If you liked the girl so much, you may have had one duty dance with her mother or her sister and then you danced every other dance with her. If you were brave enough, you sat with the family. If you were virtually one step away from the engagement ring, you held sweaty hands for the rest of the night and everyone in the hall knew who was going get married next. The dance was also the scene of many a heart break as a partner was dumped for another or chose to play the field.

The most important dances were midnight special and the last dance. Dancing cheek-to-cheek under very dim lights, or no lights, a special guy saved this dance for a special girl or the best choice for the night. Some of these cheek-to-cheek encounters did result in happy and long-lasting relationships. At the Railway Goan Institute, most couples tried to hog one of the three or four ceiling fans, dumped the tradition dance steps that they had learned from the Bonny Rodrigues School of Dancing and opted for a kind of sweet soul, slow, slow gyration, virtually in the one spot. Heaven, if you were that special girl.

It was also unforgivable for a girl to ask a boy to dance (except, of course, once a night in the ladies special). “Decent girls don’t do things like that”. “Decent girls don’t throw themselves at a boy”. “What will he think of you?” Once in a blue moon, if you were mooning in on other people’s conversations, you might hear: Why did you dance with her (or him). In the case of “her” it was because she was just a friend. In the case of “him” it was because he asked for the dance.

Now and again, the father of the girl (after having his elbow well and twisted by both daughter and wife) would approach the boy say to him: “You should come and visit us sometimes.” The boy would be there the next day, for a little while. If that did not happen he would be circling the house desperately trying to catch a glimpse or miraculously crash into her as she ran an errand for her mother. A few would even have their secret meeting places.

When you were invited to a home, on the rare occasion, you were asked to bring your university degree, your Post Office (on bank) savings book or evidence of your potential as an ideal suitor. Some boys never took up the invitation because the mother or the father frightened the daylights out of them. In later life, some lived to regret that but others dined on the experience as an after-dinner joke.

The progression, of course, (in Nairobi at least) was a date to the movies (20th Century or Kenya Cinema) or faluda and samosas at Keby’s, ice cream at the various joints. Much later into the relationship, it was coffee out at Embakasi Airport or a smooch-in at a friend’s place or in a parked car outside her home or the grounds of the club. No physical sins were committed. Sins of thought are another matter. Then, there were those wonderful picnics in the back of a truck or in a convoy of cars. Lots of games, lots of singing and music and lots of “getting closer to her or him (or the partner for the day)”.

I am sure my readers will decorate this piece with your own wonderful experiences in Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kericho, Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanga, Arusha, Kampala, Jinja, Entebbe, or anywhere else in the world.

I met the girl of my dreams, my late wife, at the Railway Goan Institute.

Like a lot of my contemporary friends, I loved the Goan dances.