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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
African people's dance: an excellent future?
Akosua Boakye-Nimo curriculum leader in Dance at Kensington and Chelsea College sets out her ambition for the future development of quality and excellence in African People's dance in the UK
To date in Britain there is no one institution that offers a dance course that majors in dance from the African diaspora. There is no one answer as to why this is the way it is. However, I hope what follows gives some clarity as to how we can recognise some of the defining features of African dance. What I consider in recent years to be quality and excellence in the field. Most importantly, how we can work together to nurture and sustain African dance in a social and education context.

The process of exploring ideas, selecting and building movements to communicate to audiences requires skill. To observe, analyse, refine and stage dance works requires knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the dance forms one works with. The process of dance making builds on quality and the final product on excellence. Most important in all that is the aspect of aesthetic understanding of the vocabulary being brought together.

Choreographers Germaine Acogny of 'Jant Bi' (dance company), Bawren Tavaziva, Tavaziva (dance company) and Bode Lawal, Sakoba (dance company) all clearly demonstrate quality and excellence in their work in their of combination African dance techniques with western contemporary vocabulary. These choreographers are consistent in their ability to draw from a heritage of movement vocabulary from the African diaspora. They utilise, explore and creatively develop aesthetic qualities that are true to their culture, to African dance. They are creatively engaging in reflecting cultural richness in a collection of works through physical and emotional expressions, both visually and musically.

In their work they apply a wide range of skills and techniques that are effective for the architecture and presentation of choreographic works. They demonstrate their ability to construct works laced with history, social and political ideas that present their artistic and aesthetic intention. Through their skills, their understanding of the cultural context they work in is revealed.

The process of choreographing dances requires a qualitative process that is essential to the success of the works developed. Knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the music and the forms brought together are paramount to the former. It is evident when viewing the work of Acogny, Tavaziva, and Lawal that the above has indeed been achieved. They demonstrate explosive dynamic characteristics that are expressive of African dance. They stage vibrant works that show elegance and grace at the same time as deep emotion. They give life to their movement vocabulary by marrying and embedding their dancers' skills and abilities in the right sections within their choreographies. Thus, successfully engaging and challenging their dancers to show their intent. As a result they achieve quality and excellence through which artistic and choreographic intentions are competently displayed in a non-verbal but yet communicative way to their audiences.

Germaine Acogny, who developed the Acogny dance technique, which combines the traditional base of West African dances with the structural elements of classical ballet and western modern dance, communicates quality and excellence in her dance works.

Fagaala, choreographed by Germaine Acogny and Japanese dancer and choreographer of contemporary dance Kota Yamasaki is one such example. In this piece West African, traditional and contemporary African dance is amalgamated with theatrical Butoh, a contemporary Japanese dance idiom. Acogny and Yamasaki use seven strong male dancers to tell the story of the deep emotions stemming from the catastrophic genocide in Rwanda. The piece demonstrates strength and speed, raw and natural energy, quick, percussive, fierce movements integrated with slow, controlled movements that are Yamazaki's signature. In all this it is seamless in its combination of the two forms.

In Pachedu, choreography and music by Bawren Tavaziva, dancers show quality and excellence through their technical competence and stage presence. Aesthetically lyrical and powerful, they show their understanding of the choreographer's movement vocabulary through the articulation and total control of their bodies. Pachedu pays homage to Tavaziva's choreographic craftsmanship and his dancer's versatile ability to effortlessly combined balletic grace with that of the dramatic, energetic and elegant dynamics of African dance.

Some defining features of African dance
African dance and music traditions are inseparable. The two forms have a very special relationship that sparks a narrative true to their traditions when well used. In traditional forms, movement, music and song help define the context of the dances ranging from ceremonial, religious, ritual and entertainment.

Polyrhythmic expression is a defining feature of African dance. In well crafted dances performers dance to polyrhythmic drum beats with a strong emphasis on their relationship with the music. Dancers are trained to unite opposing segmented movements that originate from various parts of the body. They also bring together gracefully subtle lyrical expressions with dynamic movements through spontaneous improvisations.

As a child I remember playing 'Ampe' in the yard and being good at it too. Ampe is a game that consisted of jumping, clapping and an extension of the opposing (or same, depending which you have chosen) leg to your partner's in a victorious grounded stomp. Depending how sophisticated you were you would include turns and steps to confuse your partner before you jumped so that he or she would not know which leg you chose to extend. Victory included an explosive dance in the face of your opponent demonstrating your dramatic expressions and with your stamping, gliding, dragging, shuffling skills.

Playing and dancing in some African dances are always staged together. In this game and many dance forms from the west of Africa the regular grounding step of the foot often kept time for the heart beat of the movement. That movement of the foot may be a grounded step, a drag, glide or shuffle to initiate the first step or the last mighty forcing stomp that ends the movement in time with the music.

Other important and particular characteristics that are present in African dance styles are:

.     Dancing in barefoot, this gives more of a connection and unity with the earth and an uninhibited ease to move
.     Synchronized movements of the torso, head and angular shapes of the arms, hands, feet and legs driven with skilful triumph to unit in time with an undulating spine
.     The percussive and fluid use of the spine at the same time as the pelvic region moving back and forth, left to right, corner to corner, round and round or a combination of the former
.     Dances set in lines and circles, including serpentine formations semi-circles, small and large group formations and spatial arrangements.
Dances from Africa are as diverse as the people of the African diaspora. Although they share commonalities in their styles and practices it is important to remember that not all African dances are the same, even if they are from the same region. Depending where the dances are from each contain their own specific stylistic and expressive characters.

The following are some of the commonalities and key characteristics that clearly define dance from the African diaspora:

.     Posture: the torso of the dancer is in an upright posture with a straight back and wide parallel deep plié
.     Posture: the torso of the dancer is in     a crouched position with the torso bent at varying levels from the ground
.     Posture: the torso of the dancer is held nearly parallel to the ground
.     Curved, undulating and contracted spine
.     Contraction and release
.     The wide second position, parallel, bent knees (deep plié)
.     Barefoot
.     Parallel or neutral positioning of feet
.     A combination of earth bound grounded steps that are one with the heart beat of the drums - flat footed steps, stamping, gliding, dragging, shuffling actions
.     Stepping onto the heel (flexed foot) or toe or a combination of the two
.     Flattened step (whole foot bearing the weight)
.     A flexed or relaxed foot
.     Leg flicks and kicks
.     Clear and strong transference of weight
.     Clapping and slapping
.     Jumping, hopping, skipping
.     Segmented movement of the shoulders, chest, pelvis, arms, legs etc.
.     Angularity, emphasis on using and manipulating the joints, bending of wrists, arms (elbows), legs (knees)
.     Fluid movement of the arms or spine and torso
.     Rotating hips/isolations of the pelvic region: movements back and forth, left to right, corner to corner, round and     round or a combination of the former
.     Dynamic movement that is continuous, percussive, and at times animated
.     Asymmetrical shapes
.     Mimetic, drawing from nature, imitate animals in a realistic detail.

Traditional West African dance styles with its depth and richness has influence many dance forms existing today, from the Lindy Hop with its angular posture to the Charleston, tap and Jazz dance.

Jazz dance vocabulary shares a range of stylistic and expressive features with African dance. This includes the combination of earth bound grounded steps mentioned above. The use of flexed foot as well as steps that land onto the heel, toe or a combination of the two. Synchronized isolations from head; shoulders; ribs; hips; arms; hands and feet to syncopated rhythms with a strong use of the facial expressions. Other movements include contraction, release, parallel positioning of the feet, leg flicks and kicks. The African call and response and the playful way African dancers and musicians communicate is also imbedded and clearly a feature in Jazz dance and music.

It is all these elements that establish African People's dance as a unique tradition and form and linked with the first part of the article about the qualities of the work produced by Germaine Acogny, Bode Lawal and Bawren Tavaziva that I can begin to identify what I mean by excellence and quality in African People's dance when it is manifested in educational and community contexts.


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Animated: Spring 2008