Dancing in Senegal

My knocking knees tried to bring some blood back into my numb fingertips and lips as I sat in the 90 degree heat. Oh god oh god oh god, I thought, what am I doing here? This is great . . . no, this is terrifying, but exciting! The buzzing in my ears was not from the piercing thwack of an orchestra of sticks slapping goat-skin drum heads nearby, but from the blood zipping around my body. A single line of lights precariously twisted onto a live wire in a window drooped across the cleared street to end on an Acacia tree branch. I cowered in the half-light at the edge of the circle of bystanders, guests and drummers, trying in vain to wipe sweat from my forehead with my sequin-embellished silk gown. Barely a half-minute passed without a new dancer leaping into the circle to show off her own Sabar moves to a rapt and voracious crowd. Some had attitude, some were shy, but everyone was caught in the adrenaline rush of the party. I’ve practiced this dance a million times with my teacher, why am I nervous? I tried to calm myself down. If I didn’t jump in soon, the rhythm would change and I’d have to think of a whole different set of steps. Suddenly I lept up, unsure whether my legs were really my own, and ran in front of the drummers to dance. They called the break, I changed steps, they called the break again and I jumped to land in a pose at the exact moment the drummers ended in a collective THWACK!! The crowd roared, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” they shouted and ran to give me hugs.


            Long before I went to Senegal for the first time in 2006, I took African dance classes with teachers all around the US. My mother has been teaching an African dance class for over 24 years in Santa Fe, NM. Dancing in this forum has always been a relaxing and joyous event for me, a place where, three times a week, I get to have fun with some of my closest and oldest friends. We start in a circle, whether there be 15 of us or 90, as is often the case during summer months. By way of its shape, the circle makes us look at each other and recognize that we are here dancing together, and when we see each other’s faces, we smile. This is my home community and as a collective, I believe we bring positive energy to ourselves and to others. After our warm-up, we get into lines where we move across the floor practicing each new move shown by our teacher. It’s not a competition and we aren’t trying to dance better than others, it’s a class where we’re all students sharing a collective knowledge and joy of movement.


            Cowering in my chair at the 2 AM Sabar party on that summer night in Dakar, I felt the farthest away from my mom’s light-filled dance class. Terror, insecurity and self-doubt streamed through my veins, simultaneously freezing me and sending every nerve on edge. Not until I landed my final jump and heard friends and unknown neighbors cheer did I realize that they too danced to be part of the community, celebrating each other and bringing joy through music and movement. I feel like my experiences with African dance are akin to what people feel when they go to church or win a home-game in sports. The energy that everyone brings to a community event results in an identity and experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, it is venues such as these dance parties that provide a window into a culture, in part because they have helped define the fabric of meaning that defines how a society sees the world. At the same time, dance is a universal language accessible to every human being.


            Culture is like oxygen: it surrounds us often without our awareness of its crucial function to our lives. Senegal has a rich dance and drum tradition which uniquely defines it from the rest of West Africa. Unlike the Guinean government which has fostered the development of its artistic industry for domestic and international marketability, Senegalese artists have developed individual careers but mostly only after leaving Senegal. I have seen from the United States that touring artists sponsor entire families back in Senegal. Sabar is what defines Senegal for me as a foreigner, but young Senegalese are eager to study more lucrative professions than their traditional art forms. Sabar dancers who have not been able to succeed financially within Senegal have captured devoted students and audiences in the United States and Europe, creating a demand for classes and performances that Senegal could now provide as a commodity.


            I was a Fulbright Dance Fellow in Senegal, studying how to make artistic professions economically viable within the country so that artists don’t have to rely on foreign travels to support themselves. More than anything else, my time in Dakar led me to reflect on my role in African Dance and in the world. Was I there to take responsibility and act upon the problems I see? Was I there to contribute my training in economics and microfinance to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the artists I know? Was I there to learn Sabar dance in order to be a teacher myself? Unfortunately in my life, the more I learn, the less I seem to know because new information leads me to question my assumptions. Although I can’t predict where dance will take me or what I will be doing in ten years, I can tell with certainty that I will be dancing because dance is something that unites me with my community in Santa Fe and my communities around the world.


Originally written in May 2011, during my Fulbright Fellowship studying dance in Senegal.