Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
African Dance in America, Then & Now
Africa and America go way back together. For more than
300 years, by way of the scourge of slavery, African sacred and
dance has been a fertile and liberating agent for the arts in America.
Beginning with the middle passage, West African slaves transplanted
a spiritual and artistic love of dance on this continent.
Historically, dance has always been — and continues to be —
of central importance in West Africa. There it is both a routine
activity and an integral part of sacred ceremonies that bind its
together. Le Ballet National du Senegal, a high-voltage company of
30 dancers and musicians, is the premiere dance company performing
traditional dances of West Africa today. When they travel across the
world to present their dances this week at State Theater, don’t be
surprised if you feel quite at home.
As a liberating force in American social and vernacular dance, African
dance is all around us. As the performance unfolds, you may catch
glimpses of moves that are reminiscent of every aspect of our own
social dance from tap, jazz, jitterbug, and jive, to the twist, mashed
potato, and more contemporary break dancing and hip-hop.
And it doesn’t end with club dancing, African dance
has also been a key ingredient in the flowering of American modern
dance over the 20th century. The late Alvin Ailey, whose company
to galvanize terrific enthusiasm, once described his first
creations as dances based on his "blood memories." From the
African-American artistry of an Alvin Ailey or Ballet Theater of
the African influence permeates the ballet world, from the
neo-classicism of George Balanchine right up to Twyla Tharp’s new
Broadway hit, "Movin’ Out."
Le Ballet National du Senegal was founded by poet and national leader
Leopold Senghor in 1960, the year that Senegal achieved independence
from French colonial rule. As Senegal’s most famous and well-traveled
troupe, Ballet National has performed numerous sold-out North American
tours. Today the company’s artistic director and choreographer, who
also performs onstage with his troupe, is Bouly Sonko.
This fall, the company offers a new stage show,
which comes to the State Theater, New Brunswick, Friday, November
15. Prior to the 8 p.m. curtain, a 7 p.m. pre-performance talk by
a Ballet National company member, will help orient audiences. Held
at the United Methodist Church, close to the theater, this talk is
free, sponsored by Fleet.
"Exuberance" is the word most used in the glowing reviews
received by Le Ballet National du Senegal. The company’s work is
by high-energy choreography that soars on and above the stage,
by dancers with unmatched physical gifts and discipline. Not only
do these dancers communicate the unbridled joy of dancing, they offer
audiences the sensual pleasures of watching beautiful bodies in
Dazzling choreography, airborne acrobatics, amazing stilt-dancing,
elaborate costumes, and colorful masks are all part of Ballet
Whether entertaining in local villages or on stages around the world,
the company strives to express the "true face of Senegal"
with authentic dance and music representing its culture and
African-American dance historian Katrina Hazzard-Gordon writes,
can say without exaggeration that dance competency, if not
is required of all individuals in traditional West African
She writes that public officials such as chiefs, elders, and priests
who lack great dance moves, may have to undergo remedial dance lessons
before taking office.
Today it is said to be the dream of the finest young African dancers
and musicians to become a part of Le Ballet National du Senegal.
of the troupe travel throughout the country learning the music and
dances of Senegal’s 15 ethnic groups to enrich their theatrical
and to preserve the West African cultural heritage.
The Washington Post concurs. "Throughout years of international
touring, Le Ballet National du Senegal has presented the traditional
movement and music of its country in the most direct and heartfelt
fashion imaginable. Rhythm is the source of all that it does, the
language that allows for instant communication among the dancers and
with the spectators. "
Musical accompaniment for the Ballet National du
performances is provided by its own ensemble who beat out the
on drums and traditional instruments that fuel the dancers’ art. Live
music, performed onstage together with the dance, is the spine of
the performance, uniting dancers and musicians as well as performers
and spectators. Instruments native to West African culture that will
be featured in the show include the Kora, a kind of 21-stringed harp
made from a large gourd known for its soft sonorities, and the Balafon
Dalinke, a xylophone-like instrument resembling the marimba which
is used to greet the King and Queen in their palace. Also featured
in the Lama, a small drum described as "the joy of Senegalese
women" for the way its pulsations give free rein to the women’s
undulating sensuality. Finally, another stringed instrument, the Dan,
is played as part of the theatrical initiation ceremony, an instrument
dedicated to traditional celebratory events and originally played
only by initiated men.
"Kuuyamba" is designed to bring audiences a close view of
ritual dance in Senegalese culture. Its title is derived from
culture, and the dance drama itself focuses on the initiation rites
of young people attaining adulthood in their traditional community.
The word "Kuuyamba" describes the second sojourn into the
sacred forest where the initiation from adolescence into adulthood
takes place. Through music, dance, and song, the ceremonies are said
to restore the beauty and freedom of the body.
"Kuuyamba" is composed of three parts: the Sama, the Djigui,
and the Silimbo. The Sama is danced by the young people being
to the accompaniment of sacred songs. They invoke the spirits and
ask the permission of the gods to perform the Silimbo (or initiation).
During the Djigui, the chief of the village comes out after a mystic
"chat" with the spirits and announces the good news: the
have given their approval and the Silimbo will take place.
The third step, the performance of the Silimbo, is a celebration of
rhythm, colors, the beauty of the body, and the magnificence of West
African percussion. Eight sections comprise the performance of the
Silimbo and include two musical interludes on Kora, Balafon Dalinke,
and the Dan.
The dance scenes include the Bara Mbaye, an opportunity for masters
of their art to join together and talk to the sound and music played
by these instruments. The young "Ndananes," experts of rhythm
and dance, face off as rivals competing for the attentions of the
Senegalese women who beat the "lama," or small drum. Again
the very notion of the challenge dance illustrated here took root
in America from its African origins. It shows up in early 20th century
street corner challenges between tap dancers, and became a key
in break dance and hip-hop dance innovation.
After generations of fusion and assimilation, Le Ballet National du
Senegal still travels the globe to give audiences of all ethnicities
direct access to the source of its age-old dancing joy.
— Nicole Plett
Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. "Kuuyamba" based on
initiation rites of Mandingue culture. $20 to $32. Friday, November
15, 8 p.m.
member takes place at 7 p.m. at the United Methodist Church, sponsored
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.