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5 Artists Who Bring the Music and Dance of West Africa to U.S. Campuses

Kusika dance ensemble of Williams College performs with the Zambezi Marimba Band. Courtesy of Williams College

People are flocking to West African classes across the country. Students are enticed by the sounds of the drums, exhilarated by the movement and want to come back for more. Each dance has a meaning and function, so they are also learning about the many different cultures within West Africa. In Burkina Faso alone there are more than 60 ethnic groups, each with its own language, instruments and dances. Listening to the music, one may hear sounds that are reminiscent of reggae, salsa, highlife or Afro-beat. This is part of the allure for American students.

To truly embody the style, students should also have an awareness of what life is like in West Africa. As dance professor Zelma Badu-Younge describes being in Ghana: "If you're in a village, a lot of people are not wearing shoes, walking in the dirt. In the city, you might be carrying a younger sibling on your back or you're carrying things on your head, and that changes the way you walk."

Dance Teacher spoke to Badu-Younge and four dancers from West Africa, who teach in American colleges and universities. Each one is also a choreographer, drawing on both traditional and contemporary forms. Common to all five were themes of community, the unity of music and dance and connection to the ground. They also share a holistic approach to their work. As Wilfried Souly says, "I bring my life experience into my teaching. It's part of me. When I'm teaching my classes I don't even think of it as teaching. I think of it as sharing."

Wilfried Souly, from Burkina Faso, teaches in the World Arts and Culture/Dance department of UCLA. He also gives class at Your Neighborhood Studio in Culver City, where he sometimes has eight drummers—the better to whip up a feeling of celebration. He has also studied with French contemporary choreographer Mathilde Monnier and performed with Victoria Marks and Heidi Duckler in Los Angeles.

Photo by Hayley Safonom, courtesy of Souly

  • Souly uses the music to get his students to relax. "They have to not use the body to carry the movement but let the movement take the body where it needs to go," he says. "When you pay attention to the music, you find that it's all connected: The music carries the movement, and the movement carries the music."
  • Getting low to the ground is essential. "Being grounded helps students with the fluidity. If you straighten your knees, you are high, and that doesn't bring enough fluidity in the movement." In Souly's own training, he had to be reminded to stay low. "When I started dancing, my choreographer would say, 'Willy, bend your knees; Willy, get low; Willy, down.'"
  • He notes that attitudes toward gender are evolving. About the traditional initiation dance mendiani, he says, "Nowadays all these dances are genderless. Girls will be doing the same step as the boys, but the emphasis is on the hips, while the boys are putting emphasis on the chest."

Biggest challenge: "They look in the mirror to find out how they look, and that made me stop teaching facing to the mirrors. I don't want them to think about how they look, but I want them to feel it. By feeling it they will do it right."

Souleymane "Solo" Badolo, from Burkina Faso. Growing up, he enjoyed performing a traditional dance called dodo once a year at Ramadan. Later, he studied contemporary dance in France and Italy before founding his own touring troupe, Kongo Ba Téria, which fuses traditional African with Western contemporary dance. When he moved to the U.S. in 2009, he was drawn to African-American choreographers and has worked with Ralph Lemon, Reggie Wilson and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. He has taught at Bennington College, The New School, Denison University and Williams College in Massachusetts.

Photo by Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

  • Badolo extends the tradition of body percussion to the environment. "We use what we have in the space to make music: the body, the props, the walls, the floor, the air. I open the window, and we listen to the rhythms outdoors." If the students resist, he advises them, "You have to be more focused. Go deeper. It's like when you meditate, you have to hear something."
  • Badolo is an award-winning choreographer as well as a teacher. "People ask me, 'Are you teaching Burkina Faso or West African?' I say, 'No, I'm teaching Solo Badolo.' I'm an artist making work for the art universe. I have been in Africa, Europe and America, and I have all those influences in my work."

Biggest challenge: He feels that the Western dance training's focus on line obstructs the learning of African dance, particularly the flexibility of the spine. "Don't try to control anything," he tells his students. "Don't try to make a line. When you're making a line, your spine stays straight. Forget the line. You have to break down everything."

Zelma Badu-Younge was born in Brooklyn, New York, but her father was from Ghana. She trained in Canada, Ghana and in the States, taking classes in ballet and modern dance. She's danced with Philadanco in Philadelphia and the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in New York City, among other groups in North America. She holds a PhD from McGill University in Canada, where her dissertation was on Ewe culture in Ghana.

Photo by Kelly O'Quinn, courtesy of Badu-Younge

  • "When you're in Ghana," Badu-Younge says, "dance and music are all around you. If you're living in the community, you have to partake in some way." In order to replicate that sense of community at Ohio University, where she and her husband, musician Paschal Yao Younge, teach, they've combined music and dance courses. All of Paschal's African Ensemble music students dance, and the dance students learn African music.
  • Badu-Younge feels that the slower dances often get overlooked. "A lot of the beautiful graceful dance forms never get seen," she says, "because everyone is expecting the Mande dance, where the arms are flying and everything is exciting. But I try to teach them different forms so they can see that dances from Africa are not just jumping around, moving your hips and gyrating."

Biggest challenge: "When you're doing Western dance, you have one center, but African dance has many centers and you have to be able to multitask. The war dance, atsiagbekor, is very fast and complex, so it's hard to pick up. Six supporting instruments are playing different rhythms, and then there's the master drum, which is about five feet tall. You have to be able to hear those rhythms among all the other rhythms, to determine what movement you're doing."

Olivier Tarpaga started accompanying his mother to ceremonies in Burkina Faso when he was young. "Dance and music where I grew up is one body," he says. That's why his course at Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts is called Hybrid African Dance. He has also taught at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Ohio State University, Kenyon College, the University of Iowa, UCLA and at The Ailey School. With his wife Esther Baker-Tarpaga, he has performed in more than 45 countries throughout Africa, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia.

Photo by Rosa Chen, courtesy of Tarpaga

  • Tarpaga's drumming class is three hours long. "We start with 30 or 40 minutes of dance, sweat really hard and then go to music. The focus is on the djembe drum [a very versatile drum] and dundun [a bass drum]. And then we use accessories when we learn a song—the shakaree or the calabash."

Biggest challenge: "Finding the right spices," says Tarpaga, who likes to compare dancing to cooking. "How do you spice your food, or how do you leave space for people to add their own spices? You give the movement raw, you cook the movement with the dancers, and then the spices come in. If you add too much spice, no one will eat it, which means, 'Don't exaggerate.' If you put in too little, they won't be interested."

He continues: "The spices in movement could be how the chest moves front and back to the tempo, how you add in the fingers, the head and the spine. How you move your elbows, how you bounce your legs in parallel, how you look to your right and look to your left, the way you put your head to the side—it changes everything!"

Omari Mizrahi was born in Senegal. At 6, he moved with his family to New York City, where his parents founded the Maimouna Keita School of African Dance. He's been dancing traditional styles from Senegal, Mali and Guinea since childhood. He's created his own fusion of West African, vogue and house that he calls AfrikFusion. For the last four years Mizrahi, who was a 2017 "25 to Watch" in Dance Magazine, has been invited to Brown University's Rhythm of Change Festival, sponsored by Brown's popular Mande Dance, Music and Culture program. Mizrahi also teaches at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance Capezio Center and has been a guest at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Courtesy of Mizrahi

  • As an eye-catching voguer in Harlem ballrooms, Mizrahi has earned the label "legend" in that milieu. He's also gotten gigs with Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson and Ephrat Asherie Dance.
  • To learn voguing, he says, "for me, I had to be a part of the community, I couldn't just take a class. I needed to feel the raw energy, because that's the purest form. So I had to live inside of the art before I could teach the art." But, he adds, "voguing is still a touchy situation in Africa because of the connection to the LGBT community."

Biggest challenge: "Doing the arms and the feet at the same time. The arms are rotating in their own direction as well as the hip and knees at the same time. I teach sabar style, which is upbeat, with high jumps. You have to be loose in the hips, but your legs have to be strong. Being on the ball of the feet allows you to get more height. A lot of people get tired and forget to stay up on the ball of the feet. Also, in African dance, you don't look straight forward. Our head movement is part of the entire spine, and it always changes."

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