Creative Movement and the African Aesthetic

By Cherie Hill

November 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When I participated in Luna Dance Institute’s 2012 summer program, I challenged myself to create a creative movement lesson that engaged the body in African movement. Two occurrences spurred this proposition. The first was my curiosities about the elements of dance encased in cultural dances. The second was my hypothesis that if dancers kinesthetically experience the basic essence of African movement without worrying about steps, they can grasp a deeper understanding of African dance foundations.

Photo by Luna Staff
Photo by Luna Staff

Initially, creating my lesson felt like a difficult inversion.  In learning creative movement, Western dancers do not rely on seeing the body in action; they can follow directions through many methods. African dance, on the other hand, is commonly taught without speaking, giving great significance to the body.  I struggled with the concept of using foreign speech to teach a dance form that was traditionally conveyed mostly through movement itself, while still honoring African culture. In addition, I struggled with imposing a Western-based pedagogy on another culture’s way of movement, while deciphering which dance elements could be used to create what I perceive to be a true African dance experience.

I visualized my puzzle as an hour glass turned upside down with substance passing through the center. I envisioned both dance forms establishing a mind-body connection between the upper and lower portions of the hourglass. In my experience, creative movement seemed to begin in the mind, then translate down to the body, yet African dance was initiated with the body’s movement, and then connected to the mind through rhythmic complications and footwork patterns. The visual and kinesthetic analysis I conjured up aided me in establishing my curricular goals. I wanted to find a way to incorporate language that would move the body consistently in a polyrhythmic fashion while simplifying and extracting the essence of African movement. I figured that if I focused on body parts and then added modifiers such as levels and tempo, by the end of the exploration the entire dancing body could be engaged in multiple motions.

My first exploration was performed with school and dance teachers attending Luna’s Summer Institute. For the warm-up I used open and closed shapes with breathing to prepare the body for contraction and expansion. Following these shapes we explored various ways to contract and expand body parts. From the neck to the shoulders, chest, back, pelvis, and so on we contracted and expanded, sometimes doubling and tripling the tempo, alternating from high to low levels, and locomoting. I complicated the experience by asking the dancers to add multiple body parts to their movement and by the end of the lesson dancers’ entire bodies were engaged in rhythmic motion. All the dancers did not look exactly alike, but there was continuity within each body, and to me, the movement felt and appeared African.

The next day, I hopped on a plane to Holland, Michigan, to teach African Dance at the Sacred Dance Guild Festival. I decided to mix things up by introducing my new exploration to the class before I taught a traditional Guinean dance. After the class, a dancer from Europe approached me and said, “You know, this is the first African Dance class I felt like I actually understood what I was doing.” I knew what she meant: she had finally began to understand the technique and flow of African dance on an intellectual level, because it was broken down to her in way she understood: language, which is pedagogically the dominant approach to learning in Western-based education.

Pictured: Cherie Hill Photo by: Nathan Rist
Pictured: Cherie Hill
Photo by: Nathan Rist

Two weeks later, I returned to Luna Dance Institute to teach a lesson for the children’s summer camp. I developed my contract and expand exploration to include improvisation and composition. After the exploration segment I asked students to create two lines facing each other, and I called out body parts to contract and expand with. As they danced, other students called out more body parts until at least three parts were moving simultaneously. We continued this game seeing how well we could coordinate contract and expand movement in different body areas. After the improvisation students chose trios and were given tools to compose a dance. The structures included choosing three different areas of the body to contract and expand, a speed at which to perform them, an energy quality, and at least one level change.  The dance needed to contain a beginning, middle, and end. The resulting compositions were multi-dimensional and varied. One group decided to do all different levels as they traveled across the floor. I saw young girls contracting and expanding on their backs, contracting and expanding while turning, and contracting and expanding while slowly rising and falling. Another group chose to contract and expand by each doing only one different body part. I thought, “Yes, this is what I want to see: the African aesthetic performed and visible through multiple methods of creative expression!”

The more I analyze African dance the better I understand its foundations and the language I can use to accompany it. My investigations are increasing my knowledge of and empathy for the dance elements that compose its intelligence. Currently I am taking Luna’s professional development workshop Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula-B, in addition to teaching in the SCA, MPACT, and Studio Lab programs. My curricula project is to expand my lessons into a complete unit that can be taught to older teens in high school and early college. In addition to dance, the unit includes exposure to African life and/or traditions and places importance on community involvement. I look forward to implementing the unit in the Bay Area, and I am eager to see what responses the new project inspires.

Cherie Hill is a dance teaching artist with Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MFA in Dance Choreography and Performance from the University of Colorado, Boulder and graduate certificates in Somatics and Women and Gender Studies.