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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."

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Markus teaching at The 92nd Street Y's Harkness Dance Center. Photo courtesy of The Ailey School

In Andrea Markus' West African class at The Ailey School in New York City, listening is just as important as moving. “My goal is to get them to really listen for what makes each rhythm distinct," she says. As her 7- to 8-year-old students sing, hear the drummer and then dance the steps, they become familiar with two to three djembe rhythms each year. “If you break it down and repeat it every week, the things they can do by the end of the year are impressive," Markus says.

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KanKouran West African Dance Company hosts its 33rd annual dance and drum conference, Diamono (meaning “roots”), September 2–4 in Washington, DC. Master dance teachers and musicians from Mali, Senegal, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea, including KanKouran artistic director Assane Konte, will conduct three days of classes. A concert will be held Saturday, September 3, at 8 pm. Kankouran.org

KanKouran West African Dance Company

Photo by Andrew Foster, courtesy of KanKouran West African Dance Company

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