Traditionally carved drums add an important artistic dimension to Ghanaian culture.

Dressed in traditional clothing for their ceremonial dances, students from all over western Ghana fill a dimly lit gym. While drummers create a beat, young women carrying woven baskets do a dance representing traditional family values. As the group finishes, the spectators shake their hands in the air to salute the incredible dance-and-drum performance they have just witnessed. The dance is already beautiful, but it is made even more beautiful by knowing that each of the dancers is deaf and that in order to stay with the beat, all of the dancers have to watch the rhythm of the drummers’ hands as they perform.

These students in the gym tonight are just a few of many students throughout Ghana who come together to celebrate Ghana’s traditional culture through high school dance competitions. But though the students are competing, they are highly supportive of each other as they perform—everyone is cheering each group on.

This sense of community is particularly poignant for Nicole Burgess, a Utah Valley University college student who interned in Ghana for a semester as a sign-language teacher. Burgess and her deaf students had to work extra hard together to prepare for their dance routine. All the students in the gym were very supportive of the deaf students’ efforts to learn and perform these traditional dances. “The most moving thing for me, besides the dances and how awesome they are,” Burgess recalls, “was that when it was time for our school, everyone put their hands in the air and clapped for them in sign language. There were many people packed in the auditorium, and yet they all respected the deaf students and immediately switched to their way of communication in such a simple way. I loved it.”

A young girl waits to perform in the dance competition.
Photo by George Perfect CC

The respect that the audience showed to the deaf students demonstrates one of many values that are important to the Ghanaian people—in this case, the importance of family and community. The dances themselves also highlight the Ghanaian people’s focus on passing down and adapting their culture from one generation to the next.

In these dance competitions, each group is given a particular Ghanaian folk dance to choreograph. Each dance represents a different aspect of Ghanaian culture that is passed down through generations. And each generation of dancers adds their own voices to the culture as well by contributing original choreography, style, and flair to the traditional dances.

“These dances have stories that go along with them,” Burgess explains. “The dances are passed down and changed a little bit over time. But they are recognizable, and they tell the story through dance and music. It is something I will never forget.”

—Megan Horrocks