"The rhythm is in your blood" -West African Proverb
It has often been said that the history of most contemporary forms of dance have their roots embedded in folkloric and ethnic traditions extending back to the age of African antiquity. With a history of scholars, scientists, mathematicians and artisans, it's no surprise that this region has gone on to contribute and influence so much of the Western world; still, it is within the complexity of Africa's music, dance, rhythm and song that the paradigm of both classical and urban artistic movements around the world has experienced the greatest shift. As they traveled throughout the Diaspora, inspiring the Savoy Lindy Hop of the Harlem Renaissance, the Ballerinas of 17th century Europe, the Capoeira and Samba at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and the masterminds of Krump in South Central Los Angeles, the roots of African culture blossomed into unique creations, separate -- but equal -- to their ancestry. The boot dancers of Cape Town, South Africa shaped the genre of Tap and the mine workers of Kimberly and the Transvaal ushered in a new wave of Greek fraternity steppers; but, it was West Africa that proved to be the inspirational catalyst for such legendary American dance icons as Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Judith Jameson, Josephine Baker -- eventually becoming the archetype of modern black dance.
There is a rhythm to urban life, a freedom and colorful spontaneity felt in vernacular dance that was unlike anything I had experienced when my mother enrolled me and my sister in more conventional classes. I instinctively gravitated away from Martha Graham and began navigating the world of street dancing to the pulsating language of New Edition offshoots Bell Biv Devoe; I was ensnared in every addictive remix to Poison and couldn't even leave the house in overalls without that proverbial strap down -- yet, at some point there was a shift. Towards the end of my teen years, I began to experience a strident disconnect between the forceful jerkiness of the choreography and my burgeoning femininity. The awakening completely erased any desire to bust moves like the Roger Rabbit, it wasn't until Caribbean influences hit the scene in the late '90's that Hip-Hop became more sensual for women. Until that pivotal moment, it remained masculine and left me -- in all my emerging womanhood -- with the compelling sense that something was missing.
In 1995, I parted ways with the Bay Area -- and ultimately Hip-Hop -- when I enrolled as a student at UCLA and signed up for Guinea style West-African dance classes. I gradually learned to hear the drum breaks that were as foreign to me as it must be for inhabitants of the Motherland to hear modern jazz teachers shout out the eight-count. There were no fingers being snapped, so I was forced tolearn the patterns and call of the foreign goatskin instrument. We danced to the Djembe, a drum casted by blacksmiths of the Mande culture that has become most commonly associated with West African dance in America -- consisting of the most recognizable steps, costume ornamentation and popular rhythms. I dedicated semester after semester to learning the dances from Boke' and Conakry -- having no idea that I had yet to experience the real thing.
One evening while admiring bracelets at an African bazaar in the Leimert Park area, I faintly heard the sounds of distant drumbeats. I knew it was Djembe but it was nuanced -- unlike the one-dimensional cadence I was used to hearing in my American taught college classes. At that very moment, for the first time, I was hearing Africans play their drum and the echo was transcendental. Soon thereafter, I began migrating out of Westwood in the evenings, finding myself in South Central Los Angeles where I discovered a community of expatriates and classes offered by some of the most pre-eminent former dancers from Le Ballet du Senegal and Ballet Africains, the national ballet companies of Senegal and Guinea. These men and women had defected while on tour in the early '90's and settled into various regions across the country. They were old-school traditional dancers and they ultimately assembled classes to survive. Considered the crème de la crème in their native lands, we were instructed by the best. It was then that I became obsessed with replicating my teacher's grace -- an elegance far more poised than any Giselle performance that I had sat through with my rich friends at Zellerbach Hall. Unbeknownst to many, African dance is one of the most stylized forms of ballet, manifesting from the flourishing empire of Ghana long before the Italian Renaissance Movement of the 16th century. Although irreverently trivialized in the Western world -- perceived by outsiders as uncultivated or lacking structure -- dances like Lamba from the Bambara people of Mali could rival any French derived Grand rond de jambe. Still, much like Hip-Hop, I slowly began to feel myself growing detached from Djembe dance. It was a time capsule, evoking ancient village life, but it became repetitive and felt anachronistic. I yearned to blend the drums with the passion and ingenuity of Hip-Hop dance -- at the time I had no idea whether contemporary African street dancing even existed -- I would soon find out that it did, and even more -- it was thriving.
They called it Sabar.
Relatively unknown in the West, there was another obscure drum which has been just as important in the Wolof and Serer cultures of the Senegambia region and would go on to be just as powerful and symbolic as the Djembe. Known by its native people simply as the Sabar. Carved from Senegal's national symbol, the Baobab Tree, these drums are manufactured by the Laube or wood workers caste of the Wolof and played by the N'Geuewel -- what we've come to know in the west as Griots.
Sabar, the national pulse of Senegal, is also the term collectively used to describe the intricate and sophisticated genre of Senegalese inspired dancing that originated on the urban streets of Dakar. After years of abandoning native traditions to adopt a French identity, this ancient "forbidden dance" re-emerged at the insistence of President Leopold Sedar Senghor as West Africa embraced its Post-Colonial French Independence with a wave of neo-Afrocentricism.
I first witnessed the picturesque beauty of Sabar dance along the streets of Brooklyn, courtesy of the music video "How Come" from Fugees member Wyclef Jean and Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour. I vividly remember how fascinating it was that African dance and drum didn't look at all out of the ordinary juxtaposed with little Bed-Stuy girls playing hopscotch. Transcending continent borders and ocean divides, we were able to behold an art form seamlessly transported from hood to hood.
Sabar has come to represent for Senegal what Hip-Hop is to us -- breaking out of traditional dance and injecting novel and inventive steps, but also reclaiming a woman's right to be both sexy and dignified. It has given women in Senegal permission to explore their sensuality within the framework of a time-honored art form free from judgment and vilification. Unlike other forms of African dance, Sabar doesn't act as a choreographed orchestra, at times, our feet move to their sticks and other times their sticks move to our feet; periodically shifting between who represents the canvas and who the paint. It was said through various multi-media platforms that, "When Youssou N'dour brought the exuberant and sensual rhythms of the Sabar into the clubs, he took the lid off the scene."
Eventually a Sabar class emerged in Los Angeles and it soon became our way of life and the topic of almost every conversation. The sounds of the M'bung M'bung, Lambe, Talmbat, Gorong Yeguel, Tama and the rest of the seven piece drum orchestra resonated throughout our studios; with Galan sticks scattered across the floor, double lapas and delicately held t-shirts in proper Senegalese style, Sabar's "lid" had been lifted. Danced high off the ground with exuberance by aficionados, heavy emphasis is placed on provocatively rolling the hips and vigorously throwing limbs in unison, while still deliberately projecting an inner calm, grace and detachment. In Senegal, women get up in turn during drum circles, impatiently discard their fashionable stilettos and with incredible excitement, move towards the drummers and playfully perform passionate dance steps. Continuously improvising unexpected variations, the dexterous dancers move with unabandoned, frenzied grace, still leaving the dancing circle with aloof attitudes and casual disdain even after the most galvanizing steps.
At its core, Sabar embraces the modern day empowerment of femininity, managing to paradoxically co-exist within the confines of an Islamic based patriarchal society with strict laws outlining the etiquette of women. Unfortunately, some fundamentalists still plague YouTube comment boards, scouring through Leumbeul videos -- the most heavily watched traditional Sabar booty dance -- only to give these women the appellation of "Prostituée." Interestingly enough, the women don't see themselves that way. Even in a region that has been indoctrinated into believing the actual act of sex is not meant for female enjoyment, girls seem to find no contradiction in jumping up to salaciously pop and wiggle their hips. Even more, the men in Senegal don't salivate over these dancers or seem to get turned on by the X rated moves -- a stark contrast to how males in America behave amidst the disposable aphrodisiac of female gyration.
There is much about the rich, earthy genre of dance from the African Diaspora that is worthy of intellectual exploration; but, more importantly, it's a connection between worlds. African dance is celestial; transcending beyond just artistic expression, it contains movements of spirit possession. Within folklore, it is said that the drums were handed down by the gods at the beginning of time, their rhythms and syncopations slowly embedded into the fabric of daily life. Long before the advent of Islam in the 14th century, there was a culture of movement manifested from the Orishas. It were these Yoruban muses, endemic to the natural world of West Africa, that provided the powerful force that energized the spirits of men, women and children. Spectators will on occasion witness vestiges of this pantheon of deities still found in every step, beat and tempo. Well-versed dancers can feel the spirits of Oshun and ancient women collecting water alongside the Niger Delta, the passion of Oya and Shango's love affair and the graceful force of the omnipresent Yemaya. When I move to the Djembe, I am aware of the history inherent in each step and I lift the weight of each village on my shoulders in ancient recognition; but, with Sabar I am in tune with modern-day urban Africans who, like Oaktown's 3.5.7, often throw convention to the wind.
Sabar dance has proven to be the thread that links every facet of my life into a unique tapestry that makes sense. I'm humbled by the beauty and style of my instructors who pass on these sacred traditions which have become a lifeline to so many. In a world often filled with uncertainty, I find my inherent equilibrium when I surrender to the rhythm of the drum and the intoxication of the dance.
As my teachers would say...Waaw Waaw.