WHY AFRICAN DANCE MATTERS
February 6, 2012South Oak Cliff High School
I have danced with this Sister on more than one occassion! I can truly say she embodies the culture, song music and spirit of African dance! It's not just movement for her it's a livelihood. And in every move she transfers this energy to everyone in her presence. She is one of my favorite instructors! She has the ability to find the dance even in those who don't believe they can dance. She keeps class in motion without leaving anyone behind! And for that Sis. Nzinga, I am grateful. I have traveled many countries, just being in your presence! I hope you all enjoy this article, as much as, I enjoy dancing within this sister's direction!!!
Mrs. Twymeika Hill-Jones, Community Liaison
By: Dr. Nzinga Metzger, PhD
Outside of the regular political issues that get me and other liberals riled up, there are few things at life that ignite the fire of passion in me and make me feel alive. Rather, though it may surprise many, on the great majority of things in life, I remain staunchly indifferent…dance is not one of the things I am indifferent about.
For observers, African and diasporan music and dance probably appear to be mere forms of entertainment, pass-times, pleasant diversions, you know…fun. For me, from very early on, dance ceased to be a diversion and over time has become more akin to a spiritual discipline. I do not dance because I like it. I do not dance only because it is “fun.” I do not dance for exercise. I dance because it is life sustaining…I dance because I have to.
The Spirit of Dance entered my life at a very young age. When I was four years old, on my first trip home to Sierra Leone with my parents, I ran away. Not out of spite or on a mission to prove my independence. I was not seeking adventure. I left under compulsion of dance. I do not remember many details of the incident…not where I was or what my parents and I were doing. The only thing I remember was hearing this most intoxicating and compelling rhythm that seemed to speak to me personally. It called me, and, me being a child and open completely to what is real and true, I headed its call and followed it. According to my parents, I was lost for hours. My mother was hysterical, my father a slightly less nervous wreck because he knew most likely, nothing would happen to me. I, on the other hand, was blissful. I was with the music. I was in my body. I followed the music and the people who were dancing and making it and I had no fear or apprehension and no thought of my parents at all. It wasn’t until decades later that my father explained to me that I had fallen in with a Pahdul masquerade troupe and I was able to deduce the significance of that in my life…that however is another story…
In any case, from that moment on, I can site many moments in my life when I was seized by music and dance and transported into in-between spaces where time does not exist, where remembering became embodied and the veil between me and the ancestors evaporated, not creating an altered state of consciousness, but rather, an acute awareness and a raised state of perception. It is this connectedness, this clarity, that entered my life through a pinhole and expanded, like light into the crevices of my existence and set me on an irreversible path to growth that I will forever be grateful for and for which I will eternally be indebted to my teachers.
Dance and movement are means through which I experience and perceive the world. Dance is a cultivated intelligence. It is an intelligence and way of being that I have nurtured for 21 years. And really, I’m sure people don’t realize it, but, it’s kind of an insult when people come to dance class and are put off because they can’t dance like me after 4 classes. It’s like saying that there is no skill, discipline, technique or structure to what is being taught and that anyone should be able to pick it up after a few tries, it’s “just African dance, right?” Wrong. I have danced for two decades and in that amount of time, I have become what I would call a passable dancer, not a master, but rather a very good student. But I digress…
Though many would, can, and do choose to relegate dance to being a more aesthetically pleasing form of aerobics, I submit that it can be and is much, much more. Dance is a place that raises Self awareness and Other awareness. To dance, you have to pay attention: To be able to be in a space with others, to be mindful of your body in relation to others, to cooperate through movement is to learn that you are not the center of the universe, that you share the world with other people and that you have to consider them in how you move in space and by extension, through life. It also teaches you that you have a right to your space and that your unique position in it is to be respected. Complementarily, dancing demands that you are aware of your own body in relation to itself. You must know what your arms are and what they are doing, what your head is and what it is doing, what the rhythm is dictating etc… dance demands that you be IN your body, not separated from it, that you face your body and know it, and that you steer it, not allow it to steer you. It compels you to confront yourself-good or bad. The day to day extension is that the discipline of dance has the ability to create people who are keenly aware of themselves in physical and social space, who are self possessed, and who are fearless in standing in their own skin.
Dance engenders discipline, strength, and mental acuteness. Though Eurocentrism and Eurocentric theorists have both implied and directly stated for many years that there is no technique in African and Diasporan dance and that theyare just some orgiastic explosion of heathen wildness and sexuality, the very opposite is true. The fluidity and dynamism that characterize our dances require the utmost in physical strength and control, not to mention the mental acuity required first to even see the subtleties in the movement and then translate them into the body. Dance also teaches you how to be humble enough to learn. After you learn to actually see what is being done, you have to go through the difficult experience of often not being able to do it the first time around. When this happens you have to reign in your ego long and strong enough to be taught. Many people cannot make it through this experience, but those who do leave with a skill that helps them get the most out of life in many different contexts.
Dance engages the whole being and requires complete presence in the moment which pushes the person to be engaged with each of their intelligences-mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. It pushes the person to balance these and keep going. No time to break down and cry because you don’t get the step, can’t stop because you’re tired…Dance can take you beyond limitations that your brain tells you exist but your body can surpass and beyond the limitations that your body tells you exist but your brain and spirit can surpass…It beats the weakness out of you and requires focus and presence-discipline, and I don’t know about y’all but I sure can always use more discipline.
Our dances teach us that that body-temple is a locus for joy and wellness. That it is not inherently “sinful.” A lot of people get caught up in the connotations the West has taught them to associate with our movement. The fact of the matter is, our movement was in existence long before Europeans decided to be uptight about it. In most contexts, the body in all its functions and capabilities is simply a fact of life, a reality. This is a reality which we in the West have learned to deny, contort, distort, control, abuse, and deny. We have been taught that the body is something to be reigned in and forced into submission rather than just let be. Our movement, on the other hand, teaches that the body is an expression of the divine and of our ancestors rather than an inconvenience to be wrapped, stiffened, sprayed, covered, permed, injected, sliced, and tied into submission, or in the case of women, displayed for the benefit of men. Our dances teach us that our bodies are as much for our own pleasure as anyone else’s (and truly, this may be one of its most subversive acts in our sexist context…), and that the beauty of our bodies goes beyond the sexual and into their function and capabilities. Our dances teach us to be free in our bodies and to celebrate our physical beings as much as the rest of us.
Dance is place of sisterhood/brotherhood and personhood, a place to learn respect. It is a celebration of your humanity. To dance with others is to acknowledge our shared greatness. Our dances honor relationships, of the individual to him or herself, and of the self to others. It highlights the uniqueness of each person within the context of community and applauds it. It condones and encourages sorority and fraternity. It teaches us how to be human towards each other by showing us how to receive and be appreciative of each other’s efforts.
This is why I don’t just dance anywhere, why I demand structure in my dance class, why I insist on on respect and on people not giving up and walking off my floor half way across. It's why I take the time to explain what I know about what we are doing and why I correct people. So though it’s about feeling good too, it’s not just about feeling good. And to me, coming to dance class “just to move” would be similar to going to a Buddhist retreat to read because "it’s quiet, like a library." The potential for growth and transformation far transcends the mundane and to ignore or miss it is really a sadly lost opportunity. So many have already commodified, stripped and gutted our traditions and reduced them to destructive shells that serve the opposite purpose of what they were intended for, we shouldn’t help them along by separating our art forms from their functions. We should also do more than pay lip service to the traditions of our ancestors and use the traditions we have at our disposal for our betterment and development rather than allowing them to become shallow, tawdry, cheap, kente clichés in our hands.
For more from Dr. Nzinga Metzger please visit her website: http://www.drnzinga.com/