Gilbert Douglas

Gilbert Douglas. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I've never really seen African dance"

Gilbert Douglas was born in 1968 in Mbare township in Harare. He is a dancer with the Tumbuka Dance Company for modern dance, which was founded by Neville Campbell in Harare in 1992. He has participated in tours to Senegal, France, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, German , Angola, South America, Belgium, and Denmark. Gilbert Douglas was appointed Artistic Director of the Tumbuka Dance Company in April 2004.

Tell me how you became the dancer you are now.
Already as a young boy, I used to love dancing. Right next to my home lived a woman who did traditional dancing and who was always dancing with kids. However, there was a belief that if kids danced with her, they would be possessed or become evil and a lot of parents did not like their children to take part. My parents did not allow us to dance but I used to sneak out and do it without their permission. That's how I grew up and I really liked dancing.

When reggae break dancing came to Zimbabwe , we started doing break dancing reggae. I had a really big interest in dancing but there was no formal training, so I had to leave it and start doing stuff to earn a living. As I had a passion for arts, I took up drama.

While we were rehearsing, Vivienne and Chris Hamblin from the National Ballet of Zimbabwe were doing outreach work in outer city areas (high density), which I joined in. They invited people who were interested to come and do an initial workshop so that they could choose people who were talented in dancing. When I came to the National Ballet I was among those selected for a dance audition. We did a three–year dance course with the National Ballet Center . Right at the end Neville Campbell, who is British, came to Zimbabwe to do a workshop. He is the one who suggested that there was potential for a dance company, the Tumbuka Dance Company. We started at the end of 1992. I was lucky to be part of the beginning of Tumbuka and it's been a really wonderful experience. I started to see things differently and learned a lot and I enjoyed that time with Tumbuka.

This negative attitude towards dancing that your parents had, was it really traditional or is it something that was picked up from the missionaries?
For me it is something that was picked up as a result of the missionaries coming to Zimbabwe . Before the missionaries came into our country, we had our way of praying to our Gods and the way we praised and worshipped our Gods was not evil for us. The missionaries brought the mentality that if you play mbira you are evil, if you play drums you are evil, and people stopped playing, probably because everything that was white looked pure, whereas nothing—whatever you called your spirits—was anything really nice. Most of the people in Zimbabwe did not want to live in the black area, nor in the white area, so they created a grey area where you lived safely; if somebody said: "oh, you're doing the Christian thing," you just went: "oh no, I'm not really doing the Christian thing, I still do mbira for my grandfather." And when they were told: “oh, but mbira is evil," they would reply: "no, no, I go to church every day." Now people are starting to look at the way they used to live and for me traditional is not evil.

Traditional is traditional, that is the way we were when we were a people, that's the way we were before we started adopting other types of cultures by putting them into our system, our way of living.

To me it seems as if anything you did could have been done by a Swede in a Swedish company in Stockholm , but I'm sure there is something more to it.
What we learned when learning to dance, we mostly learned from somebody who came from England . They taught us contemporary dancing but they knew that we also learned some traditional dancing during the course because we had a mixed background of traditional dancing. A lot of Zimbabweans who were in the National Ballet Company of Zimbabwe taught traditional dancing and Neville taught more contemporary and very Eurocentric kinds of dance, but he also taught us how to fuse our own traditional dance into whatever we were doing. We respect Neville in a lot of ways, but at the same time we are starting to have our own way of creating dance. What we are trying to create is a different culture of dance, a different way of looking at dance. There are a lot of very good traditional dance schools in Zimbabwe and they are much better than us, but we would like to create a culture where people can see variety , and pick what they like.

Now if you are described from outside as a dancer with one label, that's your name, how do you like to relate to the label, African dancers, Zimbabwean dancers, and Shona dancers?
For me, if you say to someone that's an African dancer, I'm not sure what people are meaning when they say African dancer because they view an African dancer as someone who dances African but I don't know what African dance is, I'm not sure, I've never really seen African dance. I've always seen people doing Zimbabwean traditional dance. Even in Zimbabwe , if you say this is a Zimbabwean traditional dance, that's just putting an umbrella on it. I know about ten dances from different places in Zimbabwe . So if only in Zimbabwe I'm able to launch ten different dances. What about Africa , which is a really vast continent? So for me an African dancer is something that I don't really know of, I prefer people to say someone is a Zulu Dancer or a Wolof dancer or a Masai dancer. When you go to Europe people say, "Oh that's a ballet dancer." They don't say: ‘Oh that's a European dancer'.

[Interview at the National Ballet studio in Harare , 6 November 2002]

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