West African Dance for the Soul

'Welcome to Black River' Conference 2012, photo by Damel Dieng
With blistered feet and throbbing limbs, we jumped into each movement line by line as if following Mama Kadiatou into battle. Our arms circled, propelled by a mixture of muscular strength, centrifugal force and pure will as we heeded to the beckoning drums ahead. Bodies flew. Necks rolled. I closed my eyes and enjoyed losing myself in the movement. 

In spite of the dozen or so drummers and Mama Kadiatou’s constant reminders, it is actually very hard for me to find these moments of mental suspension. Dance classes and workshops often feature audiences and mirrors, and my mind finds many points to linger on. Is the way Kya moves her hands the right way or the way Linsey does it? Daaang, my back is hurting right now. I hope this doesn’t end too late cause I have to do laundry and I still haven’t finished that assignment….. The list goes on. But in those rare occasions when I plunge into a movement that my body has come to own and the live drumming takes over, my heart soars and my mind empties out and all I can do is breathe and dance

Over the years I’ve taken West African dance classes sporadically here and there. There was the college class, the free community classes on 114th between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem and of course dancing in front of the TV and at parties in Dakar. I’ve come to appreciate the art form, not just for its aesthetic beauty and high energy or the fact that it will literally whip you into shape, but also for the more subtle lessons on living it bestows on the communities it brings together. 

Mama Kadiatou Conte-Forte, the 58-year-old founder and artistic director of Balafon West African Dance Ensemble, comes off as a stern character upon first encounter. She routinely lectures her pupils, prefers to face-off drummers dancing with a powerful warrior-like expression and can certainly out dance most twenty-somethings. She is fierce. She has been in the U.S. since the early 80’s teaching dances from her home Guinea and neighboring Senegal, cooking and making deliciously spicy ginger juice for her many students or ‘children’ as she calls us, and preaching the values that she lives by, which are a mix of her traditional values about community from home, her womanist insistence on the strength and power of black women, and many nuggets of wisdom about business and health that she has picked up on her own journey. Every class or workshop is an opportunity to share these lessons; the dance is simply a part of the whole package. 

Last week Balafon hosted its first West African dance and drumming conference, ‘Welcome to Black River.’ Mama Kadiatou’s children or former students came to Pittsburgh from as far as Texas to participate in the three days of workshops and the performance. The guest of honor, Papa Assane Konte, a Senegalese dancer and founder of DC-based KanKouran West African Dance Company, also taught workshops and performed. Papa Assane Konte, at age 61, is a truly regal figure. He, like Mama, has a loyal following and at the end of each workshop would sit on a chair and have us gather round on the floor like kindergartners at story time to impart his wisdom. We eagerly obliged, for in these communities there is an implicit understanding that this dance is not just art or exercise, it’s a way of life that both Mama Kadiatou and Papa Assane Konte have mastered.

Their advice ranges from the simple, ‘if your bathroom and kitchen are nasty, you’re gonna get sick,’ to the profound, ‘if you have a grandmother, call her, love her, appreciate her. She reached through your parent to make you.’ Both teach to all age groups and encourage families to come together. Mama insists that parents teach their children how to tie their lapas properly, interact with adults and follow the lessons as part of their socialization process within a larger community. Papa encourages parents to let their children run free within dance community settings where, as in the proverbial African village or ‘back in the day’ in Brooklyn or Harlem, any adult can teach or admonish anyone’s child. Both are strong and healthy, advising us to be conscious consumers and maintain active lifestyles. They epitomize the beauty, power, confidence and strength that sometimes was, sometimes is, and can be an inclusive, safe and loving black community at its best. 

Sometimes things are more than what they seem. It has taken me time to realize what this activity and community mean to me. I know now that I need West African dance and the community that surrounds it to maintain some balance in my hectic life; I need it to consistently remind me of a deeper and slower path in which greetings and family time are necessities and conversations are full and relationships are wealth; and I need it to clear my head and unleash my spirit. It is art and exercise, but also a form of prayer and praise, love of community and love of self.

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