Monday, September 20, 2010

Adowa: A Ghanaian Funeral Dance

The honoring of the dead is an important part of all cultures, but it is particularly elaborate among the Ghanaians. With a lot of help from the students at Okomfo Anokye, I was able to learn some of the Adowa, or the funeral dance of Ghana. It is said to be from the Ashanti region, but other regions have adopted it so it is a part of funerals in all parts of Ghana today.

The Adowa is a dance of dignified walking motions and graceful gestures. Mercy, one of the Form 1 students, told me that it is supposed to be imitating the movements of an antelope. She also told me that they perform this dance at Ye Goro Bra, a celebration for young girls when they are going through puberty rites.

What I really liked about this dance was that it involves the entire community. Unlike other ceremonies, the whole community is invited to a funeral. This dance not only provides an outlet of emotion to bereave the death, but it also provides an opportunity to display cultural identity and to show sympathy for the close family and friends. Music making is important traditionally as well as today to show honor to the dead in Ghana.

Adowa is all about communication between the main drummer and the dancer. The dancer is expected to move his or her body to the movement of the melody. Sometimes the drummer will test the dancer to see if he or she will keep in rhythm, making it fun for the audience. There is an unspoken language between the two, and a good dancer is thought to know this language well and to follow any rhythm that the drummer plays.

In order to do this dance, women must not wear any western jewelry or makeup. Her hair must be pulled back, and having short hair is a sign of respect. Boys do not have any regulations other than having extra yards of fabric tied in a different way to allow flexibility to dance. Everyone also must wear appropriate funeral attire (black and/or red colors) and shoes to perform.

Adowa begins and ends with motions on the right foot. Your weight is supposed to be balanced forward while you dance, and you are supposed to have a sad look in your eye. Before he or she begins, the dancer must address the drummer and then turn to the audience. The audience will either clap or imitate the gesture to show if they like what the dancer is doing. You must also greet the elders and the chief by motioning towards them. The chief and Queen Mother can also dance, and they too must address their audience. Their movements are supposed to be more exaggerated than the average dancer.

Every motion in the dance means something, but here are just a few I picked up on:

A fist pounding action that stays constant with the drums and then a finger slap means that you are one and loved.

The motion of clenching your fists over your stomach with your arms crossed says, “I am an orphan” because no one is there to provide for you anymore.

Putting your arms out and then pointing to yourself means that everything is yours, possibility is still there, and that you will get through this time.

A handclasp behind the back says, “I am lonely,” or “I have lost a loved one.” Tapping and swinging your hands also signifies the pain the dancer is expressing.

There is also a movement where you put your hands on your head. It is supposed to look like the dancer is crying.

At the end of the dance the girls were teaching me a butt-shaking move with chicken arms. I was humiliated, and I still don’t know if they were just pulling my leg, but everything else felt really authentic. You know, I could do a whole field study to examine this dance, but from what I gathered these are some of the foundational steps for the Adowa.

Unfortunately I do not have my own video of this dance, but here is one I found that gives a little bit of justice to what it actually looks like.


(Field Notes:62.27, 62.33)

More information I found on this dance can be found here.


  1. Hello Rachel,
    My name is Yaw. My wife and I currently line in TN. I ran across your blog while trying to find so information on Adowa. I really appreciate your post. You have a keen sense of my people and culture.

    I was born in Ghana but I’ve lived in the America since the age of 5. I grew up going to many funerals but I never fully understood the meaning of the Adowa dance. Thanks for sharing. Your blog is a very helpful site.

    I hope you enjoy you time in Ghana. We will be there next year.

  2. Hello Yaw,

    I am so glad you found my post useful! If I ever get back to Ghana I would like to do more research on this dance. What a beautiful piece of the rich Ghanaian culture!

  3. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for your post, I'm doing some research for a class project I'm doing and found this to be really helpful. I found this video of some people performing the dance and towards the end (if you start it around 5:20) they are performing a "butt shaking move" with arms/elbows back (sort of like a chicken.) I wondered if this is what they were trying to teach you!

  4. Thanks a lot it helped my children to know how adowa is danced and what to wear when dancing