English: Poetry Commentary Haven’t I Danced the Big Dance? By Jack Mapanje

English: Poetry Commentary Haven’t I Danced the Big Dance? By Jack Mapanje

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English: Poetry Commentary Haven’t I Danced the Big Dance? By Jack Mapanje

The poem ‘Haven’t I danced the big dance?’ by Jack Mapanje concerns
the traditional rain dance of a proud tribesman. The modern
representation of his dance that he sees today provokes this nostalgic
and emotional response.

The speaker, a formal tribal rain dancer, is thinking back to the time
when he used to dance this traditional dance, and looking at the new
generation, dancing only for show, with sadness. The poem is divided
into three stanzas, the two first ones being dedicated to the past,
when he was a dancer, and the last one to the present. The first
stanza talks about the way he used to dance this traditional rain
dance, in a circle around the drums, with amulets, anklets and snakes.
The second stanza is insisting on the energy he put into this dance,
on how good he was. The third stanza brings us to the present time,
now that his daughters are doing the dance, more as an attraction for
tourists than as a real tradition, and the speaker is not able to show
them the real meaning of the dance.

This rain dance is part of the speaker’s traditions, and he seems to
be very attached to it. He remembers the way they danced it in the
arena to the sound of the big drums. They used to wear special clothes
and use specific accessories, ‘Skins wriggled with amulets

Rattled with anklets’

to make the dance seem real and magical, at the same time. It had a
real value for the speaker. However, this dance, in which he had put
so much energy into when he was younger,

‘How I quaked the earth

How my skin trembled

How my neck peaked’

had not kept the same value. He talks about the way the new
generation, his daughters’ generation, dances the dance now, and
emphasised the lack of authenticity it has. He says they just wear
‘babble-idea-men-masks’, to make it look like a traditional rain dance
to tourists, while it is not really. He compares the ‘mystic drums’ he
used to dance to, with the ‘slack drums’ his daughters dance to now.
Finally, he lets us understand he would like to show the new
generation how the big dance is supposed to be danced, what its
original value.

However, this helplessness is not the only emotion felt in this poem.
At the beginning, the speaker reminisces on the old days, his glory
days, both with happiness and excitement and with sadness and regret.
As he describes the different characteristics of the dance and the way

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they danced it,

‘With spears in these hands

Then enticed them back

With flywhisk’s magic?’

we can feel a certain kind of excitement rising in his voice.

And at the same time, he only uses questions, and repeats the phrase
Haven’t I?’ at the end of the stanza, which shows that he is sad this
time seems to be so far away and that it is not like that anymore. In
the second stanza, the speaker keeps talking about the time he used to
be a dancer. In this stanza, the speaker insists on how good he was,
and we can feel some pride in his words.

‘How my neck peaked

Above all dancers

How my voice throbbed

Like the father-drum’

Even if I think this is a way to express his nostalgia, I also think
he feels somewhat sad this old good time is over. As he sued to be a
good dancer, he is looking for satisfaction. Again, he finishes the
stanza by ‘Haven’t I?’. In the last stanza, he is very sad that the
tradition had changed; he is disappointed the rain dance does not have
the traditional value it once had. He is embarrassed his daughters now
use ‘babble-idea-men-masks. Also, he feels guilty he cannot show them
how to dance it the way it should be danced.

The emotions are also expressed through the rhythm and structure of
the poem. First of all, the poem is made of eight questions only

‘Why does my speech choke

Like I have not danced

Before? Haven’t I

Danced the bigger dance?

Haven’t I?’

showing his uncertainty about the change of the dance and whether he
has to keep dancing it the traditional way or not. Eight questions and
forty lines, with only question marks and few comas. This lack of
punctuation gives a quick and unstructured rhythm, just like the
rhythm of the dance really is. This continuous flow of motion is also
shown by examples of enjambements (run-on lines with no end-stops):

‘Skins wriggled with amulets

Rattled with anklets

Scattered nervous women

With snakes around my neck

With spears in these hands’

The last way used to express this motion is the choice of the verbs:
‘stampede’, ‘wriggled’, ‘enticed’, ‘moved’, ‘dancing’, ‘quaked’,
‘trembled’, ‘peaked’, throbbed’, ‘ululate’, stand up’ are all verbs of
précised action, to represent the dance, quick and with a lot of

The contrast between the past (1st and 2nd stanza) and the present (3rd
stanza) clearly shows his nostalgia of the old times: the vocabulary
used is much more positive at the beginning than at the end:
‘flywhisk’s magic’, ‘mystic drums’, ‘songs of praise, of glory’, in
the first two stanzas and ‘cheating abstract’, ‘slack drums’,
‘babble-idea-men-masks’, ‘choke’ in the last stanza. This also
expresses his disappointment.

His confusion is also shown by another type of contrast: the length o
the line. The general pattern is that in each stanza, the lines get
shorter and shorter:

‘Haven’t my wives at mortars sang

Me songs of praise, of glory,

How I quaked the earth

How my skin trembled

How my neck peaked

Above all dancers’

The speaker keeps trying to justify himself about all the things he
did in the past, in order to get some satisfaction and comfort.

The look for comfort is essentially expressed at the end, where we
have four questions in four lines, especially with the rhetorical
question ‘Haven’t I?’. Indeed, his questions get shorter and shorter
in the end, just as if he expected us to answer ‘Yes, you have’. He
insists with this idea throughout the whole poem, with the ‘Haven’t
I?’ question at the end of each stanza.

Another important repetition is the one of the word ‘dance’, written
ten times in total. This simply shows his attachment to that rain
dance, how important it is, or at least used to be, in his culture.

I think the speaker has clearly shown his regrets of the old times and
frustration and disappointment now that he sees the modern
representations of it. I also think it is very interesting to use only
eight questions to write the poem to try to transcribe the rhythm of
the dance into the poem itself. The numerous verbs of action make the
poem very active and moving: when he describes the dance, it almost
feels like we are there, watching them dancing.
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