Bringing the Message: Naomi Diouf and Diamano Coura West African Dance Company

By Rob Taylor


My conversation with Naomi Diouf, who with her husband Dr. Zakayria (Zak) Diouf is artistic director of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, came

about because of the upcoming celebration, processional, and performance they are creating in collaboration with Jikelele Dance Theater on July 18 at San Francisco’s City Hall, celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. The event, part of the monthly Rotunda Dance Series, will also be the closing event for the 2014 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

Naomi recalled the huge celebrations that were held for Mandela when he visited Oakland in 1990 shortly after he was released from prison, but before he was elected President of South Africa: “The Bay Area put on a grand welcoming.” For the event on July 18, “our thinking is that if the Bay Area put on a grand affair to celebrate his release from prison, it is appropriate that we also do something now to celebrate his transition, his going home.”

Naomi explains, “it’s an African tradition for someone of his status—he’s like a chief. That’s why the City Hall event is designed to celebrate that transition.” Naomi and Zak are designing the event in collaboration with Jikelele’s artistic director, Thamsanqa Hlatywayo, a South African choreographer who grew up in apartheid South Africa.

Naomi is from Liberia and Zak is Senegalese, but it’s not surprising that Diamano Coura has taken the initiative in organizing a celebration. Since Zak first formed the company in 1975, Diamano Coura has been a leading force in the Bay Area’s African dance community. I met up with Naomi to hear about what they are planning for the Mandela tribute, but also to discuss perceptions of African dance, how the community has changed over time and where Diamano Coura is heading as the company approaches its 40th anniversary.

group photo of Diamana Coura
photo by RJ Muna

Naomi first came to the US as an exchange student in 1972. She was here for a year before going back to Liberia, returning in 1974 more or less permanently. She was living in San Diego when she met Zak who was doing choreography for a company she danced in. In 1987, when he returned to the Bay Area, she came with him.

I ask Naomi to describe the Bay Area African dance community she encountered in the late eighties. “It operated on a smaller scale, but there was a passion and a desire among people to make this thing bigger—a desire to get back to their roots. People came from all over to be part of the African dance community in the Bay Area. There was this unity in the community that was fantastic. It’s not that it doesn’t still exist, but it was on a different scale—it was much more intimate.”

She describes for me the vitality of the dance community centered in what was then named the Alice Arts Center and is now the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, named for another leader from the community whose life was cut short by a drunk driver in 2003.

“Drummers and dancers moved from class to class. Everyone took everyone’s class. There was constant communication going on about African arts, African music, African dance, and it was all over the place,” Naomi recalls. The Mandeleo Institute based in the Alice Arts Center and directed by Ghanaian musicians Kwaku and CK Ladzekpo organized an annual African cultural festival called The Africans Are Coming, and they were: “the flourishing of African arts in the Bay Area meant that more African artists came to the Bay Area—it was an exciting time. It was a rich environment,” Naomi recollects.

And it changed? “Well, yes all things change. There was the demise of the institute. The earthquake in ‘89 happened and we all had to vacate this building for a while. There was dispersal. We lost many companies. Dancers have to move on. They started doing individual work, which prevented them from committing to company rehearsals, and if you don’t have committed dancers you don’t have a company.”

She continues, “the Mandeleo Institute was successful at securing funding and dispersing it to individual companies” during the eighties and early nineties, but when that ended “companies had to find their own way.” Now she thinks “the funding situation is even worse, because you have more companies in the Bay Area vying for the same small pool of money.”

Related to this, and even more challenging is the simple act of finding time to work together. “Everyone has their artistic pursuits, but you have to make a living at the same time,” she says. Before, the community “was smaller, and we rehearsed in the same space we watched each other’s rehearsals. That’s not the case now.”

To help force artists in the community to make time for collaboration, every spring Diamano Coura presents Collage des Cultures Africaines. This showcase of the Bay Area’s dance, music and culture is a structured with a “vision to bring artists together.”

Naomi states that another core element of Collage is “to show the differences and similarities that exist in African cultures. It’s to give young people in the community an opportunity to appreciate the diversity of their cultures, to understand why it’s important, and to be able to claim all of it as theirs. It’s like looking into a closet and seeing all of your different outfits. They all belong to you, they’re all different and there’s not one better than another— they’re all a part of who you are.”

I ask Naomi what she wants people outside the community to understand about African dance, and she describes a patronizing tone she often hears when people refer to her art: “It’s African dance, it’s folk dance. You guys don’t have [an] academy, African dancers don’t go through a rigorous training, so it’s not a dance discipline like ballet.”

Her response is unfiltered: “I think my dancers have more discipline than your paid companies. They work all day, they have to take care of their kids before and after they work, and then they have to lug the kids to rehearsal. And I’m there, and I am not thinking about their jobs, or what they’ve had to do for their kids. No. They get in that rehearsal space and I want to see work [pounds fist]. I want to bring your body on, I want you to start hard from the beginning, to know your routine. I want you to dance in your own puddle of sweat. That’s how hard I want you to dance.”

Naomi challenges audiences to “understand that African dance has a technique, and I demand my dancers study that technique. The technique is what will carry you and sustain you in performance. If a dancer doesn’t understand the technique they do not fulfill the performance.”

She explains for me that “most of our performances are dance-drama and there are 45-50 pieces in the repertoire. Our dancers have to learn how to act, how to sing, they have to create their own costumes and know how to mend them. They’re learning songs in different languages and they have to understand the language of the song, so there are 10 to 15 different languages” the dancers need to have some understanding of.

Naomi pauses, “But I don’t really feel like I have to defend African dance from people who don’t get it—they see it if they want to see it, and they don’t if they won’t. But I see it. I see it when I work with ballet dancers. For them, understanding and performing the correct African moves is just as challenging and requires the same rigor”as their ballet technique. Naomi and Zak havebeen commissioned many times to work with ballet companies doing work that incorporates some aspect of African dance. Most notably was their collaboration with Val Caniparoli on Lambarena for the San Francisco Ballet, which has been re-staged by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Singapore Ballet and the Ballet of Florida, among others.

I ask if she likes doing that work. She replies, “I do…It’s just that there’s never enough come to my art form, my style.The most time I’ve had with a ballet company is two weeks. Mostly it’s just one week. Understanding a dance doesn’t work like that.”

Diamano Coura, in the Senegalese Woloff language means, “those who bring the message.” Within the Diamano Coura Dance Company that means everything within the performance is educational. And a large part of Naomi and Zak’s focus on connecting with young people. Naomi says, “we teach the youth about the relationship of music to their academic lives, so they understand they are not playing music isolated from what they are learning in a math or history class. Certain rhythms have a mathematic component that you need to understand in order to understand the music.

Another educational component is sustainability: “We do farming dance, and in learning the dance, young people start to understand that they are a group of people who are connected to what they buy and what they eat. Traditional dance can be used to educate, and to form connections that are relevant to their everyday lives,” she explains.

When she watches her students dance “I see a beam of light, and I let them know. I say ‘you had that in you and I’m glad I could pull it out.’ I want to continue pulling it out, and I want other people to help pull out the light out as well.”

Naomi teaches at Berkeley High School and Zak teaches at Laney College. I get the sense they don’t really differentiate between the missions of their day jobs and their night jobs, and Naomi concurs: “We live our belief. We do not separate our beliefs from our practice. It’s all the same. Many people wake up and dread going to work. I look forward to going work, and think it’s a blessing.”

This article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of In Dance.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.