Celebrating Nelson Mandela at a Secret Sunrise

Saturday, 6:30 a.m. The alarm rings. The thought of staying in bed crosses my mind instantly. But the desire of being part of a special celebration prevailed. The world had been marking Mandela’s 100th birthday throughout the week, and I was just about to join another party at a Secret Sunrise in Amsterdam.

Published by Carla on 03/09/2018

After summoning up the strength to get out of bed, questions such as “Why don’t they organise secret sunsets instead?” and “What do people wear to these events?” started twirling in my head. Later that day I found out that sunsets are also part of the concept.

The sun was already shinning when I left home. I love these beautiful summer mornings, where everything seems to glisten: the waterlilies in the canal, the bright green of the tree leaves, the smiles on the faces of those who, like me, have consciously (or sort of) chosen to wake up early on a Saturday. By the way, why were they already out so early, I wondered? The sun had risen, but the city was mostly asleep. 

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After a half-hour bike ride, I arrived at the “secret” location, a few minutes shy of the starting time. By then, it was no longer a secret: we were all gathering at Mandelahuisje. Jamill Dors, founder and instructor at Secret Sunrise Amsterdam, was at the entrance, greeting everyone with a broad smile and handing out wireless headphones. They are an essential part of the experience.

As he later told me, “the headphones provide a sense of intimacy because you really get in your own bubble. You hear the music and a voice directly in your ears. Plus, they warrant communication through movement, because you can’t verbally communicate with others”. I would also add that the wireless headphones help to get rid of any kind if inhibitions: they allow participants to express themselves as if nobody were watching. 

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But what is a Secret Sunrise (or Sunset) after all?

Before describing what Jamill calls “an energetic and joyful workout, where people can connect with one another and experience how it is to be a child again”, let’s revisit how this all began. In Jamill’s words, Secret Sunrise started as a project in South Africa. Two friends from Cape Town, who already ran No Danger Diaries, felt they could take a step further to connect people in their city. Since dance is a universal language, they came up with the idea of creating an uplifting form of exercise where people interact through body movements, following the directions of trained instructors.

Secret Sunrise was founded three years ago and quickly grew into a large community of more than 15 thousand followers on Facebook. On the social network, their message is clear: Welcome to the guided dance which celebrates the morning sunrise. Instructors, silent headphones and the most epic way to start a day in the 21st century. The location remains secret until a few days before the event; a week, in the case of Amsterdam. As to Secret Sunrise Amsterdam, it was born last year. With a group of 13 instructors, it holds events to the general public every six weeks. 

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Dance for Madiba: joining a global celebration

This year, Secret Sunrise joined the festivities around the world to mark Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday. London, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Mauritius, Ibiza, Lowveld, Port Elizabeth, Bali and Amsterdam all danced for Madiba on 21st July. Let the party begin at Mandelahuisje!

Starting time: 8:30 a.m.
Instructors: Lieke Tegels, Lisanne Dekker, Stijn Huijsmans
Playlist: Secret Sunrise - Global Mandela Day Celebration by Stijn Huijsmans
Guidelines: Be yourself. Celebrate Mandela. Salute the sun.
Goal: Bring happiness. Go on a musical journey with some instructions.

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Music on. Check the volume. Play.

“Kothbiro” by Ayub Ogada

First instruction: “Phones in flight mode!”. For someone so dependent on her phone, it was like being asked to get undressed. In a certain way, we were: we should strip off any worries, restrictions or inhibitions.

Eyes closed. 

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“Mbira Rain” by Man Gwanani

“Nelson was a man of kindness, of forgiveness. Could you be kind to yourself? Could you forgive yourself?”, says the voice on my headphones. “Nelson Mandela was a man who could love others before himself. So, be kind to yourself. Do you feel the sun on your skin?” Yes! By this time, it was scorching. The Amstel river was calm, surrounding us.

“We’re going to move from Dutch ground to African ground”. Although the voice wasn’t specific about where, I thought it was safe to assume we were about to go on a journey through Mandela’s homeland, South Africa.

“When you look around, what do you see?” I can hear percussion instruments. A xylophone, maybe? “Imagine being fed by nature and grow as a tree. Stretch up. Feel surrounded by African nature”. The instruments start fading. “You can open your eyes again”. 

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“Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba

“We’ve arrived in Johannesburg”. The familiar voice of Miriam Makeba brought a smile to my face, while my hips swung from side to side. Whoo, every Friday and Saturday night it's ‘Pata Pata’ time. And it seems that on Saturday morning too.

“South Africa” by The Opposites                                               

New song, new instruction: “dance in an African style”, whatever that might mean. It’s hard to think of a single dance to represent the whole continent. In this case, stomping the feet, releasing the movement of the hips and raising both arms in the air worked perfectly. I soon realised there’re no right or wrong movements in this “joyful workout”. It’s a secret sunrise, not Dancing with the Stars

“Equality” by Axero

Time for an interlude to celebrate women, who are summoned to take place on higher ground. I hear President Barack Obama’s voice mashed up with electronic music. I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.

At this point, I look around and imagine what this scenario would look like to someone who had just arrived and saw a group dancing wild to an “imaginary” beat. The words “a bunch of loonies” came to mind. Then again, I was one of them, and feeling quite comfortable with my new status.

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“Skokiaan (South African Song)” by Louis Armstrong

Now, the raspy voice of Louis Armstrong and its magic trumpet. “Take your car keys. Imagine a bus tour, and you’re driving. You’re in the middle of the jungle. Tigers. Ducks flying”. Ducks? Well, I guess everything goes in this fantasy world. “Now, you’re entering into a swamp…”.

“I Could Be the One” by Avicii vs Nicky Romero

Men and women form two lines, facing each other. In pairs, they hold the hand of a stranger and go down the hilly terrain cheering and celebrating as if they’ve just gotten married. We party as guests at the ceremony. 

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“On the Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons

We were in such high spirits when Imagine Dragons started playing on our headphones! “On Top of the world”: the title of the song couldn’t be more fitting, especially for what was about to happen. We were divided into groups of four. The instruction was clear: three people should lift the fourth element in the air. “Wait, what?”, I thought.

I felt the eyes of three people on me, with wide smiles on their faces. Without uttering a word, they pretty much decided I was going to be the one being lifted. In one minute, I was in the air, held by strangers. It felt nice. Refreshing. Unexpected. Fleeting thoughts went through my mind: “Do artists still stage dive nowadays? With Instagram, I doubt anybody would put their phones down to catch them. That’d be a killer #Instastory, though ;)”! 

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“Walk to the Ocean” by Frank Kohnert

Next challenge: an alien dance-off. Where do they come up with these ideas? Task: make an alien face, a delicate balance between a quirky and an ugly expression. Basically, we were expected to move as if the Hunchback of Notre Dame were our dancing coach… or E.T., for that matter. The instructors really tried to get the alien out of us, but most people opted for their pretty human face. 

“Mandela Day” by Simple Minds

Time to slow down. In groups of seven, we hold hands and form circles to represent the different continents. Afterwards, we all get together in one big circle, hands held. We let the lyrics of Simple Minds’ “Mandela Day” sink in: Oh oh oh oh Mandela day/Oh oh oh oh Mandela's free.

I think the goal of the exercise was to make us feel free and interconnect with others with an open heart. No judgements and preconceived ideas of any kind. In a circle, you don’t have any options other than to look at the sky, your feet, or at each other. I spotted others studying my facial features and singing the lyrics at the same time. Or probably it was me, and I just assumed everyone was doing the same.

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“Umbrella” from The Voice of Holland - Maame Joses

We formed new groups of three or four. In a highly symbolic gesture, we joined our raised fists. Solidarity, support, an expression of unity, strength, defiance and resistance have long been associated with the representation of a clenched fist. We are paying homage to Mandela and its struggle for equality and justice for all.

“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” – Nina Simone

The deep voice of Nina Simone invites us to enter into a meditative state. I close my eyes. The city is behind us, completely oblivious of our presence here, on the northern shore, and of what has happened in the last hour or hour and a half.

“Can you imagine growing up in a country where you don’t have the freedom to do what you’ve just done here? Not having the freedom to speak? Do you know how privileged we are for growing up here? The colour of your skin does not matter, as long as you can radiate the love in your heart”.

“Power in Peace” by Man Gwanani

Cool-down. Deep breathing. Moment to turn back to reality. I felt empowered with renewed strength: both body and mind were replenished with new human interactions.

“Forgive yourself again. Can you inspire other people? You don’t need to be Nelson Mandela but maybe make a difference. Thank you for today”.


“Relaxing Piano” – Yoga Music

The end. A moment for ourselves, with ourselves. A moment to bask in the sunlight and contemplate everything around us. A moment to be thankful. It is a good feeling. A strange calmness invades my spirit, and I realise that by the end of this secret sunrise it is still morning. Amsterdam has just woken up.

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What a beautiful day! I look around, and everyone’s skin is glowing, like the reflection of the river nearby. 

Secret Sunrise truly delivers what it promises on its websiteWe aim to activate and celebrate spaces in our cities and nature. Each venue inspires, brings magic and people together. Lesson of the day: we only get to know the city we live in if we are open to experience it.

Words by Carla Vicente
Images courtesy to Secret Sunrise Amsterdam

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