Zaouli is a traditional mask dance of the Guro ethic group of Côte D’Ivoire that was created in the 1950s. There are various different legends behind the origin of the dance, but the majority of legends agree the inspiration behind the dance was a beautiful girl named Djela Lou Zaouli, daughter of Zaouli.
Although always performed by men, the Zaouli dance represents feminine beauty. In Guro communities, the dance is performed at celebrations, special events, and funerals, and also in inter-village festivals and dance competitions, according to UNESCO.
The dance is considered a unifying force for the villages, and these events ensure the dance remains a major part of the culture that can continue to be passed down and practiced by future generations for years to come.
Traditionally, masks have played an important role in many aspects of Ivorian culture, and Zaouli is no exception. In fact, masking traditions are said to have originated in the West African country.
According to World Trade Press‘s Côte D’Ivoire: Society & Culture, the country is home to the most highly valued masks, the most elaborate masks, and the largest variety of mask types. Masks are integral to the Zaouli dance. There are different types of Zaouli masks used for the dance, and each represents a different legend.
Each Guro village has their own designated Zaouli dancer. According to CNN, it is believed that when one puts on a Zaouli mask, he becomes possessed by the spirit of that mask and that the spirit controls his movements. For this reason, only trained individuals can wear them.
Women are prohibited from doing so.
The process of putting on the mask is considered sacred. Filming is strictly prohibited, and there are certain customs performers must complete in order to wear it. They must observe sexual abstinence before the mask ritual. They must maintain impersonality during the ritual. And there are offerings of sacrifice that must be made to the spirits that the dancer will invoke, according to Côte D’Ivoire: Society & Culture.
The dancer is brought out cloaked and then the cloth is removed to reveal the beautiful mask, which has been carved with precision in a process that can take up to six days.
The Zaouli dance is accompanied by the music of drums, flutes, and other instruments. In the beginning, the dancer signals the tempo of the drum’s beat using pom-pom like objects, according to Ethnic Jewels Magazine.
In their article on Zaouli, they said, “The dance itself is physically demanding, and the dancer undertakes a type of duel with the audience. He must showcase his talent, originality and dexterity, by performing diverse dance steps that must not be repeated. The upper body remains almost still, while the legs and feet create a mesmerizing spectacle.”
Bright-colored, often striped leggings are worn to highlight the leg movements and the upper body is concealed beneath a striped cloak, leaving only the arms and mask to be seen.
“The wrists are swathed with ruffs constructed of raffia as are the ankles…layers of seed pods accentuate the ankles and create a rhythmic sound during the dance,” said Ethnic Jewels Magazine.
As CNN points out, this incredible and unique fast-paced and energetic dance brings together many elements of Ivorian culture in one spectacular event. There is the sculpting involved in the creation of the mask, the textile weaving required to make the costume, the music and instruments being played, and of course, the artistry of the dance itself.