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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Dancing the Stories of the Orishas

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Callejon de Hamel

In Cuban Santeria (also known as La Regla Ocha and La Regla Lucumi), orishas are revered deities who rule over different earthly elements. They are called through dance and drum rituals to interact with humans.

Oshun, for example, is an orisha associated with fresh water. She represents female sensuality and beauty. Oshun’s movement is fluid and coquettish, which is what you’d expect from a goddess of beauty. Her signature color is yellow and she typically carries a fan with her, which she sometimes wields as a weapon. When Oshun laughs, she’s preparing to punish someone. It’s only when she cries that she’s truly happy.

This summer, I realized a decades-old dream of traveling to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, specifically the dances of the orishas. Before the trip, I understood the dances as reflections of the orisha’s personality. But Alfredo O’Farril Pacheco (pictured below, in red shirt), a master dance instructor based in Havana, says that the orisha dances also tell a story. When you know the story, it changes how you embody the dance.

In the case of Oshun, one dance movement pantomimes the orisha splashing water on her body. You can see this in the video at about 53 seconds. Oshun is bathing in a river, preparing to seduce the warrior Ogun.

At the time, Ogun was ”ranking off a lot of people’s heads,” as O’Farril Pacheco explains in Spanish. The other orishas knew they couldn’t stop Ogun by force, so Oshun was recruited to seduce him out of the forest and stop him from killing. Before she could begin her temptation, Oshun first needed to clean herself after menstruating; so she washes herself in the river, splashing water over her back during the process.

I learned this Oshun movement years ago, but never knew the story. Before I would scoop my arms forward, towards my heart. O’Farril Pacheco offered the image of the river and the story of the seduction and I started lifting my hands higher, above my heart, and “tossing the water” over my back.

Dance teachers Alfredo O'Farril Pacheco and Barbara GutierrezHe also taught us to think about the environment the orishas inhabit when we’re dancing. Some of the orishas live in the forest. When you walk in the forest you have to pay attention and pick up your feet. There’s also a difference between owning the forest and living in it. When you live in a place but don’t own it, you tread with alertness and caution. These narrative elements aren’t extraneous. They convey rich layers of meaning through movement.

Another dancer I met on my trip, who is initiated into Santeria, told me that an enduring theme of Oshun’s narrative is that people constantly underestimate her. In a parallel way, I underestimated the narrative richness of the orisha dances. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface and have so much more to learn. Oh what a gift to learn these stories, and dance these stories anew. 

About the lead image: Callejon de Hamel. (photo: Amy Goodman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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