Dancing the Gentle Wind: A Reflection on The Ghanaian Dance Idiom
by Natasha Nyanin
African dance forms are strong, virile and vital with a feeling of dynamic thrust and resistance. They are exceedingly controlled, having the power to project the gentle wind or the raging storm. …. But more that any combination of steps, African dance has an urgency. The dancer has direction and purpose. The purpose is to communicate. This is why he can assume the proportions of an ant or a giant. For him and for his people, the dance is life!
- From Kariamu Welsh Asante’s book “African Dance”. Reprinted with permission from the author from her dissertation “masks in the Enculturalation of Mano Children” by Dr. Pearl Primus
The thundering of the chorus of drums; that undulating rhythm and puissant pulse: how can one resist reaching to the edges of his kinesphere driven by the polyrthymic harmony? The music in my African Dance class kindles a desire in me to physically fill the room; to pervade the breadth of the space in energy. And indeed, such is the demand of many of the dance forms I have been introduced to since formally studying “African” in Atlanta.
When a number of practitioners of varying modalities of dance were polled for adjectives to describe that which is referred to as African Dance , descriptions that persisted included “community-based”, “vibrant” “energetic” and “highly physically dramatic”. To many, the genre is synonymous with gravity-defying leaps, dizzying spins and a pace rivaled only by a power-tool on acid. And yet, one is inclined to wonder if all African Dance is always an extroverted idiom, characterized by a dominance of distal movements and quite simply by “bigness”.
A recent trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia revealed the shoulder-heavy nature of traditional dance from certain regions of the country, unlike anything I have been exposed to in “African” class. What was even more apparent was the vast differences between the dances of the different Abyssinian regions. If such spectral variety exists within a country, one can only imagine how much variation must exist across a continent. What dominates and is often taught as “African Dance” in the West are indeed the dances of a very particular region of western Africa including Guinea, Mali and Senegal; dances which are imbued with incredible outward intensity and acrobatic showmanship. From Sunu to Kakilambe and Dundunba to Makou, the bent to the vigourous has become the archetype of not only of West-African dance but of African dance as a whole.
Yet, priding myself on being thoroughly African and a dancer , my innate body “language” is not this beautifully explosive expression that has become synonymous with African movement and I struggle in class to exude the “largeness” of the forms we are taught. I tend to move from my core, as many African dance forms demand, yet with a sort of inward intensity not in line with the aforementioned forms. This movement tendency led me to wonder about Ghanaian dance in general and how it differs from other African dance to which I have been exposed. Certainly, Ghanaian dance as a genre is, in and of itself, variegated and multi-faceted. Still, considering the petite and precise shuffling steps of the regal Adowa and its convoluted spiraling hand motions with arms that never extend past a bent elbow, or the twirling handkerchiefs that dangle right in front of the dancer’s face in the boboobo of the (Nothern?) Ewe people, there seems to be something insular about our movement vocabulary. Our dance language strikes me as far more contained, subtle even, than other forms.
The proximal proclivity of most of the Ghanaian dance I have been exposed to can even be seen in modern incarnations of our movement lexicon. The Azonto dance which has swept the nation happens almost completely within a very close sphere surrounding the dancer who pivots one leg repeatedly, adding personal nuances that take the dance to the next level. Though the dance communicates loud and clear, it speaks subtly and even quietly if you will.
Indeed, the communicative nature of African Dance which Asante alludes to is perfectly exemplified by Azonto and its reliance on the dancer’s visual focus and pointing fingers for sublime execution. Yet dance does not only communicate what is happening in the moment, but also tells a story of the dancer; of the people; of the essence of a people. Does our inwardly focused movement speak of a pudeur or of tact and grace— like Asante’s “gentle wind”— the line between which is fine and the designation of which is based on vantage point. Whatever the case, Dr. Primus, an anthropologist who quoted studied West Indian dance and quoted Asante in her dissertation captured a truth when she said: “In dance I have confided my most secret thoughts and shared the inner music of all mankind. ”
Whatever the inner rhythm of our people, our dance sings it for all to hear as they will; our quintessence lives in the way we move.