Tag Archives: Dance

Sierra-Leone-cultural-dance-troupe

Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe Fights to Return to Glory Days

I went along with my colleague at Cotton Tree News, Kevin Lamdo, to produce his program entitled “My Visit,” where he highlights the everyday life of different groups of people in Sierra Leone. The show has featured everyone from Paramount Chiefs to scrap metal collectors.

This week, the program went to the Aberdeen Cultural Village, the official centre for arts in Sierra Leone. Despite being located inside the city, it lives up to the title of “Village.” Generations of families live here, growing small crops and raising livestock. Chickens squawk running in between bathing children while pots of rice simmer on open fires.

This is the home of Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe, who tell me they are happy to be making a living doing what they love, even though their salaries barely allow them to make ends meet.

I visited the village in the morning and for hours they practiced singing, dancing, acrobatics and playing drums – traditional Sierra Leonean music from around the country. But, they tell me, they often can’t afford to maintain their costumes and repair their instruments.

For a time, the troupe performed everywhere from Canadato China. In 1963, the National Danced Troupe was founded by John Joseph Akar, a Sierra Leonean entertainer and repeat guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Under Akar’s leadership, the troupe was invited to the United States to perform at the New York World Fair, at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal and went on a four-month tour of Europe.

Today, little seems to be invested in promoting the culture of a country that is best known around the world in popular culture primarily for blood diamonds and civil war.

The Troupe still entertains at foreign diplomatic events and, performs for state functions – including last year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence. But this kind prestige didn’t last. Several corrupt governments and an 11-year civil war left little room in the government budget for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture,

Lansana Kelfala has been a musician with the dance troupe since 1963, and for a while, he says he felt the pride of traveling the world representing his newly-independent country.

“We used to travel, perform and get paid all the time. Now we can go two or three years without going anywhere,” said Kelfala. “We want the government to give us more help and we want the people to support us so we don’t starve.”

So You Think you Can Gota

Ball, heel. Ball, heel, I tell myself. I glance at a woman shuffling around the circle of people in front of me. Then I glance behind me at my dance instructor. 

He’s a 28-year-old cyclone of arms and legs, and he’s coming right at me. I beg my body to follow the choreography while I try to keep up with the two drummers in a mirrored room at the University of Ghana’s School of Dance, lest I collide with my Ghanaian dance guru.

I think I have a pretty good sense of rhythm but this is my first African dance class and I’m not getting the movement as quickly as I would have hoped. Granted, I’m no professional, like the contestants on the recent slew of reality dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars or America’s Best Dance Crew.

But I’m African. This should come naturally, right?

I’ve wanted to take a traditional dance class since my arrival in Ghana three months ago because music and dance are integral aspects of Ghanaian culture—in addition to being an amusing, drunken denouement to my family’s social gatherings.

Our instructor, Kofi Anthonio, summed up the importance of dance in Africa before teaching us our first series of movements. “In Africa,” said Anthonio, to the seven females sitting in a circle on the dance floor, “music and dance are like the ocean in which we swim.”

When an American friend told me about Anthonio’s weekly five cedi ($3.58 CAD) class, I was ready to dive in. I peeled myself out of bed, took some cough syrup to combat my impending cold and strapped on my dancing shoes.

That was my first mistake.

“We always say we are dancing in a pool,” said Anthonio. “Before we get in, we take off our sandals. We need to respect our ancestors.”

While African dance is often used at cultural celebrations, it can also be used for religious worship.

Standing barefoot in a circle, we start chanting our names to get into the dancing spirit as Mustafa, one of the two drummers, pounded on a traditional Ghanaian drum that is played with stick and hand. 

Minutes later, the tiny, mirrored dance studio filled with sound like a Sunday church service, punctuated with the pounding of Mustafa’s drum- the heart of any African dance rhythm. Lenny, the master drummer, gently chimed an African gankogui, a double bell made of iron that produces both a high pitched and low bass sound. I forgot about my cold as the hymn intensified and happily sang along as the bell and drum did their own melodic dance.

Our circle took on a whole new meaning once Anthonio explained its significance. “We normally dance in a clockwise direction in a circle. It signifies the life cycle and unity. I trust the person in front of me and the one at my back.”

Staring back at Anthonio as we performed the Gota, a partner’s dance hailing from Ghana’s Volta region, I tried to mimic his movement.

Mistake number two.

“Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,” said Anthonio. Of course, we need to stay true to movements, to respect our ancestors who gave them to us, but it takes time to get it,” laughed Anthonio, who has been studying African dance for seven years.

So as the dance gods and Anthonio intended it, I stopped thinking about the steps and crouched slightly to maintain the posture that many African dances demand. It was an intensely sweaty but fun two-hour workout that made me realize why African dance, a genre whose movements have inspired so many others, is strikingly beautiful.

Yes, the steps are important. But when it comes to African dance, it’s the minute you forget them and let the drum guide you that you are truly free.