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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."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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