FEEL THE BEAT: Sharing Dances from the African Diaspora

By Claire F. Meyler

November 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

FALL MAY BE THE SEASON to enjoy colorful leaves and chilly air, but this November is the time to delight in the color and power of dances from the African diaspora — especially West African dance. If you aren’t familiar with these dances, it’s time to feel the beat. The Bay Area is home to some remarkable talent, mixing both internationally- acclaimed experts from the African continent and locally-grown performers. Driven by rhythmic drumming, dances are often high- energy, with kicks, stomps, and rapid movements that swirl across the stage. Of course, each African nation brings a wide range of regional traditions, instruments, and costumes.

Nimely Pan African Dance Company
photo by RJ Muna


Meet us at the Rotunda

Start your month of African dance on Friday the 6th at San Francisco City Hall, for a free lunchtime performance by Nimely Pan African Dance Company, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series. The company will perform a harvest dance, known as the “Farming Ballet.” This Nigerian dance celebrates the bounty of a rice harvest. Accompanied by a line of drummers, the dance starts with farmers harvesting the grain. Once the bounty is collected, the village rejoices, and celebrates with a grand feast. The celebration dance features different regional masks from Liberia, many of them created by Nimely Napla, the group’s director, master dancer, choreographer, and costume designer.

Napla, a notorious powerhouse of talent, is dedicated to sharing West African cultural arts. Over the weekend of November 5–8, he joins forces with Alseny Soumah of Lahyidi Dance to host the Lahydi Dance Festival at Oakland Technical High School. This four-day event features a series of dance classes and lectures on African cultural arts, including dancing and drumming techniques from Senegal, Guinea, and Liberia. The weekend also includes children’s classes, and a performance by the Nimely Pan African Dance Company, along with a guest artist, children’s troupe, and community dance class participants.

Sit in on the Auditions

Mid-month, World Arts West will hold auditions for the 2016 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival: November 7–8 and 14–15 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in SF. For African dance enthusiasts, it promises to be an exciting mix of performers. This year, five companies are auditioning, including three groups that are new to the festival. Of the groups representing the African Diaspora, three draw upon influences from West African traditions.

World Arts West’s Artistic Director CK Ladzekpo is thrilled to see so many new faces trying out this year, both within the African diaspora, and throughout the program. Of 110 total groups auditioning, 45 are newcomers. Ladzekpo predicts that these groups will bring new energy and fresh work to enliven the proceedings. In his jolly voice, he explains, “The auditions in November are the real festival. This is where we draw the communities together and share diverse traditions. The shows we share in June are a refined version of the auditions.” Of course, with newer performers, some groups benefit from guidance in presenting on a proscenium stage. Ladzekpo tells the dancers, “They cannot teach all of their culture and traditions in a seven-minute dance. They must draw the attention of the audience; they must create an experience that excites people. From there, that will draw the audience into wanting to learn more, to get deeper into the culture and the traditions.” A quick look at the varied African dance groups competing in this year’s festival reveals a compelling mix of styles and influences, sure to engage audiences.

Jikelele South African Dance Theater is one of two African dance groups returning to the World Arts West stage, and also the single participating company demonstrating South African traditions. Co-founded by the world-renowned Artistic Director Thamsanqa Hlatywayo and Associate Director Andrea Vonny Lee, the company performs traditional dance and Township Theater, a form of Black Urban Theater developed during the apartheid era in South Africa. They will be performing Amarasharasha, a two-part piece. Based on traditional South African healing ceremonies, this dance begins with an initiation process to invoke the spirits of the ancestors. Next, the community gathers to participate, teasing out the affected person’s sickness, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. The performance piece is heavily influenced by Hlatywayo’s first-hand experience with healers, or Sangomas, while growing up in South Africa.

Ballet Lisanga, also a veteran performer at the SF Ethnic Dance Festival, is dedicated to the Congolese performance tradition. Artistic Director Renee Puckett founded the company to carry on the legacy of the late Malonga Casquelourd. Ballet Lisanga will perform N’Goma Bakongo, a celebratory dance from the Congo often performed at community events, weddings, and ceremonies to honor the dead. The dance is a friendly competition, wherein soloists step forward to show their best steps. Drummers join the competi- tion, challenging both the dancers and the other musicians, until the dance reaches a frenzy of excitement.

Hailing from the East Bay, Khaley Adouna African Dance & Drum is a collective of performing artists. Led by experienced choreographers Oumou Diamanka and Daniell DeLane, the group will present Wango, a staged dance that celebrates a Toucouleur marriage. The Toucouleur are a subgroup of the Fulani people, originally from Senegal, West Africa. Combining dance, drum, and song, the performance brings audience members through the wedding preparations and after the ceremony, celebrating the purity of the virgin bride and her new union.

Bodac Cultural Group is an international performing arts group that originated in Ghana, West Africa. Their repertoire includes traditional drumming, songs, dancing, and storytelling. The group will present Fume Fume, a ritual and spiritual dance of the Ga people of southern Ghana with spirited drumming and call-and-response singing. This celebratory spiritual tradition has been re-choreographed for the stage by the group’s artistic director and founder, Benjamin Ofori.

Director Tamika Harris brings a fusion dance style to the stage with the group Africa Meets Dancehall. Harris blends Central and West African dance traditions from the Congo, Haiti, Guinea and Senegal, learned from years of intensive study with master artists, and through international travel. Harris has combined these African traditions with modern influences to create dance classes in Oakland. This is her first time translating her unique fusion style into a stage performance.

Celebrate a milestone

Round out your month of African Dance with a milestone celebration: Diamano Coura West African Dance Company’s 40th anniversary. On November 28-29 at Oakland’s Laney College Theater, this influential com- pany celebrates their landmark achievement with the presentation of Sekelati, featuring selections from their repertoire and the debut of a new work, The Forbidden Bush.

Founded by husband-and-wife team Dr. Zakariya Diouf and Naomi Gedo Diouf, Diamano Coura is a local leader in West African dance. The directing partners are each acclaimed dancers, choreographers, and cultural leaders. Together, through Diamano Coura, their influence has spawned a new generation of West African dance leadership, including Khaley Adouna. The group has served the community through free workshops in music and dance, arts-in-education programming, international collaborations and apprenticeships, connecting over 100,000 young people to African arts. The 40th anniversary celebration promises to be a grand celebration of a dynamic and lasting legacy in West African Dance, featuring beautiful songs, bright costumes, and majestic movements performed by past and present company members.

Though many of the performers and choreographers presenting work in November may have roots in West African dance, the array of influences guarantees a wide range of styles and traditions. So spend your month celebrating African performing arts with a truly inspiring set of cultural leaders. These companies each offer a rich depth of knowledge, brought to life with powerful grace and energy. So get out and enjoy!

Claire F. Meyler is an artist and arts administrator working, writing, and painting out of Oakland, CA.