Dance Teachers Trending

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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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman

Unlike a usual waltz, in which the lift and dip would come from the legs, this waltz from Paul Taylor's Cloven Kingdom (1976) requires the up-and-down motion to come solely from the torso. The legs remain in plié the entire time, eating space. (When this piece is performed, dancers traverse the length of the stage using one pass of this waltz.)

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Adam Rose/FOX

At the start of last night's episode of "So You Think You Can Dance," 41 dancers remained. An hour later, we had a Top 20. And then there was a BIG FAT TWIST. (We'll get to that.)

The 41 still-standing Academy dancers showed up at the Dolby Theater in L.A. ready to tackle three rounds: contemporary choreography with seven-time Emmy nominee and one-time "SYTYCD" contestant Travis Wall; an "epic group routine" with jazz choreographer and La La Land she-ro Mandy Moore; and a last-chance solo showdown. Here's what happened.

The Contemporary Competition

"I'm not looking for robots," SuperTrav immediately explained. He gave the dancers shapes, but from there, each was expected to make the choreography his or her own. Everyone got sweaty and exhausted, and after 90 minutes, it was time to perform in groups of three for Nigel, Mary, Vanessa, and Travis.


Allen Genkin

The ballroom babe struggled during hip hop last week, but (naturally) crushed the ballroom choreography. This time around, the judges still couldn't resist Allen's charm, and he got to stay—though, Nigel said, "We need more."

Cole Mills

Cole has stood out during each round of choreography thus far, and not just because of his full-back tattoo. Travis called him absolutely beautiful. "I don't know where you came from or where you've trained, but I am very excited for you," TWall said. And he made it through.

Tessa Dalke

The pressure was on for this early favorite—and the judges weren't feeling her contemporary performance. Vanessa was expecting more, Travis didn't think she commanded the space with her energy, and Nigel said she needed to step up. But they weren't ready to give up on her, so she stayed for jazz.

Sydney Moss

She stood out, Nigel said, simply. She got to stick around, too.

Hannahlei Cabanilla

All the judges agreed that they couldn't take their eyes off her. Hannahlei made it on to jazz as well.

David Greenberg

The ballet dancer didn't totally crush Travis's choreography, so the judges decided to send him home. "I hate this part," Travis said through gritted teach. (We hate it, too.)

Eddie Hoyt

The judges needed to make cuts, and despite Eddie's awesome personality, the tapper's "SYT" journey ended here. Tear!

Evan DeBenedetto

The other tapping standout in the competition killed this choreo. Vanessa said he rose to the occasion, and he made it to the jazz round.

Bridget Derville-Teer

Nigel told Bridget she lost him today, and Mary didn't connect with the performance. Bridget was sent home—but Nigel hopes to see her again. (Season 16, girl! Be ready to crush it!)

Genessy Castillo

Genessy seemed to lose confidence halfway through the performance, but the judges still adored her, so she made it through.

Emily Carr

Emily was totally captivating in this round. Her jumps were the highest, her expression the fullest, her performance the boldest. Travis thought the competition was hers to lose: "Girl, I can't wait for you to get on the show so I can work with you," he said. Holy ultimate compliment, TravMan!

The Group Production Number

With 33 dancers left, it was time to bring in Mandy Moore for the final round of choreography. Her jazzy group routine featured all the dancers shining in their individual styles, plus a grand finale where everyone came together. "If they can't hang in the group routine, then it is cutsville, buh bye," Mandy said. STONE. COLD.



This routine looked so fun. (Was anyone else standing up, trying to learn it at home? No? Just us? OK.) The high-energy choreography was fairly simple, but there was a LOT of it. Each group got just an hour to perfect their portion of the routine—and to choreograph two eight-counts of the performance themselves. Intense much?

There were so many wonderful moments during the enthusiastic performance. Emily Carr was a standout again. The tappers looked awesome, and Jensen Arnold had undeniable presence. (The entire ballroom group is looking super strong this year, TBH.) The exhausting routine earned a standing O from the four judges, whom we were not envying at that point.



But cuts had to be made, and Tessa Dalke, sadly, was one of them. Other favorites—Alexis Gilbert, Jay Jackson, Gaevin Bernales—were sent home, too.

The Last-Chance Solo Round

The remaining 27 dancers got to perform one final solo before the judges chose the Top 20. Jay Jay Dixonbey's number was powerful, precise, and pretty darn perfect. Chelsea Hough rocked heels for hers. Hannahlei Cabanilla earned a "love. her." from Mary. And Allen Genkin wrapped things up with a booty wiggle, a big smile, and a Magic Mike-esque shirt toss that Nigel called "a little desperate." (AGREE TO DISAGREE, NIGEL.)

Without further ado...

The "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 15 Top 20

THE GUYS

Jay Jay Dixonbey

Cole Mills

Justin Pham

Slavik Pustovoytov

Peyton Albrecht

Dustin Payne

Evan DeBenedetto

Darius Hickman

Kyle Bennett, Jr.

Allen Genkin

THE GIRLS

Genessy Castillo

Magda Fialek

Jensen Arnold

Stephanie Sosa

Dayna Madison

Sydney Moss

Brianna Penrose

Chelsea Hough

Emily Carr

Hannahlei Cabanilla

BUT WAIT. After the reveal, there was another reveal: Turns out only 10 dancers will continue on to the live shows. What is happening?!

Next week, each of the Top 20 dancers will be paired with an All Star and a choreographer. See you then for more madness!

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.

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Ballroom dance could be the best form of diplomacy, according to New York City teenagers starring in a new documentary, Taking New Steps—The Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company Goes to Israel.

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Happy Nationals season, everybody! It's that time of year when us lucky editors get to watch so, SO many gorgeous solos by dancers competing for big titles. But even among the insanely gifted artists at the top of the comp circuit, Tate McRae stands out. Just ask anyone who's seen the solo that helped her win Teen Best Dancer at The Dance Awards in Vegas last week.

Choreographed by Travis Wall (naturally), "Woman" is virtuosic both technically and artistically. Are the 180-degree extensions and fluid lyricism that captivated "So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation" audiences two years ago still there? Of course they are. But Tate also approaches the solo with a commitment and maturity that's rare in industry veterans, let alone 14-year-old students.

Planning to spend the majority of your summer sweating it out in the studio? Don't worry, you're not alone. And while you're definitely going to want to save the warmups for the winter, you can still accessorize your studio look without adding bulk, thanks to the always-in-style ballet skirt. From bright florals to washed out pastels and wild prints, we rounded up our favorite short (and a few long!) ballet skirts for summer.

AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

via AinslieWear

If you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully). ainsliewear.com, $50

Nationals is a doozy every summer—ESPECIALLY for dance teachers. You spend the whole year gearing up for one week of pure insanity. Nonstop classes, last-minute rehearsals, costume malfunctions, emotional students, stressed parents, endless awards ceremonies and a fancy gala—this week is enough to kill you. Yet somehow you've survived, and now it's time to detox! To help, here are memes that perfectly depict the five phases of Nationals recovery every dance teacher goes through. You'll die over how accurate they are.

Get ready to laugh!

Oh, and you're welcome 💁♀️.

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Running a studio is an enormous undertaking that requires you to wear many hats at once (and with expertise): pedagogy, customer service, business management and beyond. Some owners find they're better off doing the work with a trusted partner by their side—someone to share both the responsibilities and the rewards. But finding the right person to work with isn't easy. You need someone whose personality, strengths and weaknesses complement your own. Here, three sets of successful partners get to the heart of how they make it work.

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When Brittany Purtell heard one dancer was repeatedly bad-mouthing another on her eight-person competition team in early 2017, she knew she had to take action. "We got word about bullying among the team members," she says. "It started at their school and then carried over to the studio." A dancer was spreading rumors about her teammate: "Something along the lines of 'So-and-so is not trying; she's not practicing; she doesn't deserve to be on the team,'" says Purtell, who directs the Senior Elite team at Open Space Studio in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Concerned the bad-mouthing could lead to a serious rift among teammates, she planned a camaraderie-building session, where students filled poster boards with dance compliments about one another—and themselves—and decorated the studio with hearts where they'd penned why they love dance. She's heard no complaints since, but statistically speaking, she likely will face some variation of this challenge again.

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