NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Megan Taylor Morrison, Editor of Dance Adventures. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
In 2018, I began the journey of helping artists from around the world document their stories about the epic experiences they’d had dancing abroad. Now, two and a half years later, these educational, first-person narratives are part of my forthcoming anthology Dance Adventures: True Stories About Dancing Abroad (available on Amazon September 17). I will include excerpts from two stories in the book below.
As a dancer, journalist, and professional life coach, this project originally represented a convergence between my skills and passions, as well as a way to contribute to the world of dance education. After the death of George Floyd, however, I began to see the anthology as having a greater purpose: I wanted it to contribute towards a larger shift toward racial equity in the arts and journalism industries in the United States.
As the movement for valuing and honoring Black lives grew over the summer, I felt it was critical that this book also center the experiences of BIPOC contributors. I wanted the anthology to be different from the other publications in the predominantly white-washed travel industry and to be part of setting a new precedent. In other words, I wanted my book to be part of the solution -- not part of the problem.
I am so proud to share the final product with our NDEO community. This anthology includes 19 true, first-person stories written by a diverse group of renowned performers, dedicated dance teachers, dance scholars, and other avid dance travelers. As students read the book, they learn about dance traditions around the world, as well as about unique aspects of each country’s geography, history, demographics and educational systems. The book includes color photos and maps, and is divided into four sections:
1. Roots: Join Makeda Kumasi, Dr. Ted Samuel, Courtney Celeste Spears, and Kara Nepomuceno as they travel to a country connected to their heritage. Your students will read about what these authors learn about local culture and themselves as they study dance in locations tied to their family history.
2. Finding Community: No friends? No problem! Connecting with others through a shared love of movement helped Damilare Adeyeri, Carolyn McPherson, Tina Shield, Gabrielle Brigida Macalintal, and Melaina Spitzer find their place. This section of the book demonstrates how dance can create meaningful connections between people from very different backgrounds -- even when they don’t speak the same language. It’s also a hopeful and inspiring read for any students who plan to study abroad.
3. Unexpected Experiences: In these stories, Alex Milweski, Nneya Richardson, Laurie Bonner Baker, Peter Benjamin, and Natalie Preddie are surprised and enriched by what they discover through their dance travels. When you’re willing to dance -- even if you only have basic skills -- incredible things can happen. For our authors, these experiences range from breakdancing in a real-life oasis outside Essaouira, Morocco, to an accidental audition for a Hollywood movie in Beijing, China.
4. Personal Development: Lisa Josefsson, Khalila Fordham, Zsuzsi Kapas, Helen Styring Tocci, and I share stories about how dancing abroad challenged us to live with more self-expression, grow in our self-love, heal old traumas, or otherwise evolve in positive ways. These stories show how learning dance can be about so much more than memorizing choreography, and the extent to which dance can impact our lives.
As I’ve spoken with dance educators about this book, they’ve shared how this resource could be useful in many ways. It can provide:
- Valuable supplemental reading that compliments more academic texts. The engaging, first-person narratives in Dance Adventures provide real-world examples of concepts that students are studying. Furthermore, the book contains stories that celebrate the wisdom in cultures worldwide, going beyond traditional ways of knowing in Western scholarship.
- A source that centers the experiences of authors of color, opening crucial conversations on race and identity in the United States and abroad. According to Moncell Durden, Assistant Professor of Practice at the USC Kaufman School of Dance, “This book is indispensable in light of the current social momentum with regard to Black lives and the dismantling of violent systems. Many of the stories portray the experiences of individuals in whom multiple languages, customs, and spaces coexist, and for whom dance is the unifying factor.”
- Reading that reconnects students to a sense of wonder and community. For many of us the age of COVID-19, the things we love – attending dance performances, going to dance classes, or hugging people within our dance communities – feel far away. Dance Adventures is an educational, uplifting way to reconnect us to the power of movement and delight of adventure. According to Karen Kuebler, who teaches at Towson University, “[This is] a must-read for anyone who is ready for an incredible adventure! Enjoy stories of family, community, culture, love, teaching, and learning with a unique, global perspective.”
You can find Dance Adventures at this link. If you would like to hear more about the process of writing this book, or to brainstorm ideas of how to incorporate stories from Dance Adventures into your classes, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you will enjoy the excerpts below that come from two of the anthology’s talented authors of color.
Make Me Proud, Ms. Courts
By Courtney Celeste Spears
Photo courtesy of the Alvin Ailey Foundation and Eduardo Patino (NYC)
I woke up to the zzzzzz of my phone vibrating under my pillow. Opening one eye, I saw that it was still dark outside.
Who would be calling me this early? I wondered.
Looking at the caller ID, I saw it was Terri Wright, my dear friend and fellow company member at Ailey 2, the junior company of Alvin Ailey. I knew this call must be important. Today was a big day for us, after all. Terri, the other company members, and I would be traveling from New York City to Nassau, The Bahamas, as part of our international tour.
I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” I said, feeling groggy.
“Where are you?” Terri asked. “Are you meeting us on the bus?”
I pulled the phone away from my face and looked at the time: 6:45 a.m. Panic shot through me like a lightning bolt, jolting all the sleepiness out of my system. I’d set my alarm for 4 a.m.! Why hadn’t my alarm gone off?! The entire company was about to leave the studio to get on our bus to the airport, and I was still in bed.
“I’m meeting you at the airport,” I told Terri, trying to play it cool. “Gabriel and I are on our way. Don’t worry!”
I hung up and immediately sprinted down the hall to wake up my best friend, then-roommate, and fellow company member, Gabriel Hyman. For some reason, his alarm hadn’t gone off either. As Gabriel realized what was happening, he too panicked. Luckily, we had packed the night before. We quickly threw on clothes, brushed our teeth, and called an Uber.
Twenty minutes later, as we sped toward the airport, I felt as if I had a steel weight in my stomach. It was my second year with the company, and this part of the tour had been arranged specifically because of me. How would it look if I were late to the airport? And what would happen if I missed the flight?
I thought about how upset our artistic director would be, and then my thoughts shifted to my grandmother. What would it be like for her to show up at the Nassau airport and see all the company members but me? How would that make her feel? We were very close, and I looked up to her immensely. I did not want to let her down.
I stared at the clock in the Uber and prayed that we wouldn’t hit any traffic. We were lucky, and arrived at the airport just in time to meet everyone else at check-in.
As we went through security, boarded the plane, and sat down in our seats, I remained in a slight state of shock. Because of this, the significance of what was about to happen did not hit me until two hours later when I looked out my window and saw that we were officially over The Bahamas’ waters.
From the time I was a child, I have traveled to The Bahamas a minimum of three times each year, and sometimes up to eight. I have spent every holiday, spring break, and summer on the islands, so by now I could tell when the plane crossed from US territory to that of The Bahamas.
As I looked down, the view of Florida was slowly replaced by the dark blue ocean. As the plane approached The Bahamas, the color of the water changed to an ombre of lighter blues, interrupted only by tiny white- and peach-colored island droplets. The scene grew increasingly beautiful as more and more of The Bahamas’ 700 islands came into view. The one I could most easily identify was the island of Eleuthera, a thin strip of land that’s about a mile wide and 110 miles long. Watching this scene from the window was something I always looked forward to.
While so much of this journey seemed familiar, this time there was something very different: I was going as a member of Alvin Ailey. My company members and I were on the way to my spot, my home, my sanctuary. This trip was the culmination of the work we had done as a dance company, as well as the effort that my community in The Bahamas had put in. Once they had heard that I was in the company, my grandmother, friends, and family had become relentless about finding a way to bring Ailey 2 to the islands.
As the plane touched down in Nassau, I thought of my grandfather, Frank Theodore Sweeting, who was still alive at the time. He was, as Bahamians say, “born bred Bahamian.” He was my giant: a tall, dark-chocolate man whose smile was contagious. He’d played baseball for The Bahamas National Team and led them to victory, earning him a spot in The Bahamas Baseball Hall of Fame. He was self educated and self employed as a taxi cab driver. This was how he’d managed to put all of his kids through college, keep a home that we all treasured, travel to New York for family vacations, and even have money to put in my pocket every time I came home. He was, and still is, my hero.
“Go and make me proud, Ms. Courts,” he would tell me. “Always put God first, and go make me proud.”
And here I was with my entire dance company, about to dance for my Bahamian community and to introduce Ailey to the country I so loved. Furthermore, I knew that my mother, my Pops (stepdad), my father, and my brothers had all flown to Nassau to see the performance that night. This was the ultimate proud moment. Overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement, I began to cry.
As we exited the airport with our bags in hand, we were met by my grandmother, Andrea Sweeting; the director of the National Dance School of The Bahamas, Mr. Robert Bain, and Mr. Bain’s right-hand woman, Ms. Renee Davies. These were the people who had taken the lead on bringing us to Nassau, which had been no easy task. To secure the funding, my grandmother, Mr. Bain, and Ms. Davies had written letters to the government and to businesses. They’d also worked with local vendors to secure discounted hotel rooms, airfare, and the work permits required for us to perform in the country. They’d even found a gorgeous place for us to perform: a big theatre at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island.
My grandmother was waiting for me outside with a huge smile and her arms open, ready to give me a giant hug. I was thrilled to see her.
“We’re here, Grammy!” I said, embracing her. My grandmother or my grandfather had always picked me and my family up from the airport. When I was a child, I would run out to see them while my mom waited for our bags. “We have some very special things planned for you,” my grandmother told me.
I had been expecting this, trusting that my community would welcome my colleagues in the typical warm way we are known for. If you ever visit The Bahamas with a Bahamian – or even just as a tourist without any connections – you’ll notice how inclusive the community is. We Bahamians love to rep where we’re from, and we want to show you a good time, feed you, and tell you about the culture.
“The island has been buzzing with excitement,” my grandmother said. I
felt myself blush. That year, I happened to be the Ailey 2 poster girl, so pictures of me dancing were plastered all over The Bahamas on the ads for the show.
“When everyone heard there was a Bahamaian in the company and that you were the woman on the poster, they were thrilled,” my grandmother informed me.
Tickets had sold out, she added, and my mom was receiving tons of messages from her friends.
“Dede, is this your Courtney performing?” they asked. “Is she really coming to Nassau? If so, I have to see this! I have to see her dance.”
“Yes, that’s her!” my mom would reply. “That’s our girl.”
The upcoming event was even more exciting because of its rarity. Despite the fact that it is less than a three-hour flight to New York City from the islands, dance doesn’t travel to The Bahamas in the way that it could. Most dance companies never come, and many Bahamians haven't seen professional dance.
After checking into the hotel, we prepared to visit the former Governor General of The Bahamas and treasured Bahamian icon, Her Excellency Dame Marguerite Pindling. Her late husband, Sir Lynden Oscar Pindling, was the former Prime Minister of The Bahamas for 25 years and led The Bahamas to independence in 1973. Her Excellency has dined with royalty all over the world and dedicated her life to serving the people of The Bahamas. She is our queen, and being invited to Government House to meet her in person was an honor and true privilege. I’d never been there myself, and the chance to go for the first time with my company felt like a huge honor.
When we arrived, we were met by her guards, who shared with us the protocol for the visit.
“She must be addressed as ‘Your Excellency,’” they said. “And you cannot touch her until she reaches out her hand to touch you.”
We’d also chosen our outfits based on protocol. Men had to wear pants and closed-toe shoes, while women needed to have their shoulders covered and be modestly dressed. We had received all of these instructions before flying to The Bahamas so we could pack accordingly.
“Now introducing Her Excellency Dame Marguerite Pindling,” said one of the guards.
Anticipation built in me as Her Excellency walked gracefully down the hallway in a billowing, colorful dress. As she approached us, her eyes landed on my grandmother. Within a few moments, the two were hugging and chatting like old friends—because, in fact, they were! Although I didn’t know it at the time, they had sat next to each other at St. Agnes Anglican Parish, one of the largest Anglican churches on the island, every Sunday for years.
“Who is your grandmother, again?” my colleagues jokingly asked me, wondering how she was so close with Her Excellency.
That moment was a testament to how small and intimate the island is. This exceedingly poised royal icon was also a mother, a grandmother, and active churchgoer. A sense of love and community filled the space.
Her Excellency welcomed us all into a sitting room, where we gathered in a circle.
“I heard there’s a Bahamian in this group,” she said.
“It’s me,” I said, feeling nervous to be addressed by such an incredible woman.
“Who is your family?” she asked. In The Bahamas, this is a common question. Because communities are so tightly knit, you often discover that you know members of someone’s family when you hear their last name.
“Well, that’s my grandmother next to you,” I replied, feeling proud and delighted at being able to provide the connection. My grandmother started giggling, and so did Her Excellency. They looked at each other and then both looked at me. We all smiled.
About the author: Courtney Celeste Spears is a professional dancer with the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. While growing up in Baltimore, Courtney frequently traveled to The Bahamas. Of Bahamian descent, and with family still residing in The Bahamas, she considers the country a second home. Courtney has performed and taught dance in many countries, including Japan, France, and Germany, where she performed for former US President Barack Obama. She has been featured in publications such as Vogue, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. In 2017, Courtney co-founded ArtSea Dance, a Caribbean-based organization dedicated to bridging the gap between young local dancers and the vast dance world abroad. This work is a part of her mission to use dance as a vessel to give back to the community. Most recently, Courtney signed with Wilhelmina Models, enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Crossover into Business Program, and received an Emmy nomination for her role in A Mother’s Rite, choreographed by Jeremy McQueen’s The Black Iris Project. Courtney is an alumna of the Baltimore School for the Arts, and graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance and a degree in communications.
We Return by
This morning, it is a slow rise. The sun seems to take its time peeking over the horizon and chasing the shadows from the corners of my small, square room. Outside, a prayer is being recited over a loudspeaker.
The call to prayer has become familiar to me since my arrival here in Senegal, where 95 percent of the population practices the Islamic faith. The harmonious and soothing sound is comforting to my spirit as I roll off my inflatable mattress to salute the sun in my morning yoga and meditation ritual.
The stretch of reverse warrior, the bend of triangle pose, and the contractions of cat and cow are exactly what my body needs after the grueling 16-hour taxi ride yesterday from Saly, Mbour – the seaside town where I’d been based for my intensive dance training – back to Dakar. This long day of travel has made my body feel stiff and tired after having spent so much time moving.
Today will be my last full day in Senegal. And, as I shift into each new yoga pose, I reflect on my journey so far.
I arrived here 11 days ago, thanks to a professional development grant from the University of California, Riverside, where I had just been hired to teach West African dance. Despite my credentials in dance, I felt compelled to visit the motherland to gain firsthand knowledge and education on the subjects of West African dance and culture. I felt this was the validation I needed to legitimize my teaching of West African dance at the university level. Also, it satisfied a long-awaited dream of mine: to set foot on the land of my African ancestors.
Even though this is my motherland, I have felt more foreign here than I could have imagined. Those around me most often speak Wolof or Mandig, native languages of the Senegalese people, which I don’t understand. I have longed for home, although I am home in a sense. I have missed my children, my mother, and my husband, Jerome, all of whom were back in the United States. Despite these challenges, I am so grateful for this journey. Since arriving, I have learned so much, and today will be another important day in my education.
After my morning practice, I take my time dressing. I put on a tie-dyed, loose fitting jumpsuit over my pink camouflage bikini. We will be traveling to Gorée Island today. Located about one mile off the coast of Dakar, this island is known for its role in the 15th- to 19th-century Atlantic slave trade. Despite (or perhaps because of) this dark history, it has become a popular tourist destination for both locals and foreigners. People go to tour the House of Slaves, the best preserved of the 28 slave houses that once dotted the island, and to swim in the azure blue waters.
As I emerge from my room, Triola – my friend, host, and guide in Dakar – is waiting. She rushes me out of the apartment. Her husband, Iba, is already outside waving down a taxi.
Triola tells me that she will not tour the slave house with me.
“I visited before when my mom came,” she explains. “I don’t need to go in again.”
There is a song about Gorée, which I have performed many times with my dance companies. The song is a lament for the atrocity of enslavement and a dedication to those Africans who left from that port. We often choose to sing it before dancing Lamban, even though it can be sung before many dances. We feel this is appropriate, given that Lamban is known as a healing dance. It is also a dance that thanks The Most High for music and for creating the Jali, the word for oral historians of West African communities located within the former Mali Empire. Lamban dates back to the 1500s, before the conquest of Africa and its people. Today, it is danced by members of the community, as well as the Jali themselves, who are still considered important members of Senegalese society. The Jali trade continues to thrive, and is passed down through the bloodline.
As we drive through the streets of Dakar, we are initially quiet. I think about my first day here, when I learned Senegal’s traditional dance, Sabar.
Sabar originated from the Serer people, the third-largest ethnic group in the country. It is danced often and at many different occasions, from marriages to political gatherings. Sabar music is played with a sabar drum, which is hit with the hand and a stick. The dance includes quick turns, as well as jumps and rapid high kicks stylized by hip and thigh movements that require ample quadriceps strength. The ends of dance combinations are often punctuated by pelvic thrusts.
My teacher, “Pop,” had taught me the basic “five step” from which all the other moves are based. Over the centuries, people have created many different variations. During the class, we’d danced elbow to elbow, cramped in Triola’s living room. Nonetheless, I loved it. After that, I had headed to Saly, Mbour to continue my studies.
Triola and Iba want to know about my experience there.
“How were the rest of your dance classes?” they ask.
Gazing out the window of the taxi, I see a woman carrying a basket of sandals on her head. I am reminded of my sandal, which broke while I was taking a class on the beachside. The sand had squished between my toes and made it more difficult to do jumps. Triola chuckled as I described that day.
“I had to humble myself to learn Koukou again,” I told her. Koukou is a celebration dance for the fishing harvest, and is a common rhythm encountered in African dance classes in the United States, as well as at events across West Africa.
“Koukou is one of the first dances I learned when I started studying and practicing West African dance,” I continue. “I’ve learned it from many different African teachers and performed it many times.”
“Well, It sounds like you learned more than just dance,” Iba says, smiling.
“That’s true,” I reply. “Putting down my ego and listening to the ancestors opened me up to being a better student. It took away my arrogance so I could receive the ancient wisdom that dance teacher, Aisha, was giving me. I learned so much in all our lessons, whether we were dancing outside on the beach or inside on a tile floor in stale air with no working fan.”
“It sounds like dancing outside would have been more comfortable,” Triola says. “Did you get to do that often?”
“Oh, yes!” I reply. “We would break into dance even while relaxing under a tree!”
I talked about the day when Aisha, her family, and I had watched Aisha’s two-year-old cousin, Imani, shimmy and shake in her new raffia skirt. Earlier in the week, Aisha had come to the compound with three colorful rice sacks. She’d shown me how to pull the horizontal threads out of the woven plastic bags, leaving vertical lines of brightly colored plastic string attached to the top band. In the end, we had made three skirts for me to take home and one for Imani to wear.
“They make great skirts for performing on stage,” I tell Triola.
“You must show the skirts to me before you head back to Cali!” Triola says, obviously intrigued.
“I certainly will,” I reply. “I tell you, we had a good time that day. They sang a ‘call-out’ song in the Sere language, and each woman danced when she heard her name. When little Imani was called up, she danced in her Easter-green skirt, and Aisha’s two aunts and her cousins, Khady and Awa, were called to dance, too. When I heard my name, I was scared and reluctant.”
“Why?” Iba asks.
“I did not want to look like a fool!” I respond.
“Oh girl, please!” Triola exclaims, “You are an awesome dancer!”
“It's different dancing in front of people who participate in the dance as part of their culture,” I explain. “I don’t want to be disrespectful of the culture by doing the wrong move to the wrong rhythm or moving the wrong body part in the wrong syncopation at the wrong time. Still, I answered with a few unsure steps, and we all laughed and continued to enjoy the cool breeze into the dusk.”
“I am sure the family was glad to have you there,” Iba says.
“Oh, yes,” I say. “Before I left, one of Aisha’s aunts gave me an outfit made by her tailor. It was a sheer, flower-patterned buba (blouse), with matching head wrap and light brown lappa (skirt). It was such a generous act of kindness.”
As our taxi swerved through the morning traffic, I told my friends more about this sweet memory.
“At first, I didn’t think it was for me. I said, ‘Oh, this is nice!’ and handed it back to her. But then she pushed it back to me!”
My story is interrupted as the taxi pops over a few potholes: Bop badop bop badop bop bop! It sounds like the break in one of the rhythms I’ve recently learned. The break is a signal from the drummers to the dancers that tells them to change, stop, or start a dance move. Triola, Iba, and I sit quietly for a few moments as the taxi makes its way over the uneven terrain.
When we’re back on a smooth stretch of road, I continue, “The gift was unexpected, and I was honored, delighted, and taken aback. When I put the outfit on, it fit like a glove.”
Aisha’s aunt asked me to show the tailor, pointing me in the direction of the door to his workshop. As I walked over, the tailor stepped out. I posed a vogue or two. Then, I marched over to him, tossed my hands out side to side in Lamban fashion, and started dancing.
“What!” Triola exclaims.“You started dancing Lamban?!” Her face lights up with added interest.
“Yes, girl!” I reply. “And they all clapped and laughed with joy. Then, I got down on one knee, swung my head left and right like I’d done before in Lamban choreography, and tossed my hands up in gratitude toward the beaming tailor. He clapped, smiled and said ‘Oh, good! You are good. Good dancer. Nice, nice!’”
“He’s right; you are!” Iba adds.
“Thank you,” I answer.
Recalling the last couple of weeks reminds me that I’ve experienced many powerful and beautiful moments in Senegal, as well as how invaluable this trip has been for my understanding of West African dance. I would encourage anyone who studies African dance to visit the continent in order to better understand the context of why people do the dances. In Senegal, I have learned, dancing is a part of life. In addition, I have never had the chance to immerse myself in African dance technique before. Being here, and having the chance to work with Senegalese teachers, has given me so much more than a 90-minute class taught in an air-conditioned studio in the United States ever could.
It’s difficult to believe that the journey is almost over. I am in love with this land, and yet I feel ready to go home. I am excited to share what I have learned with my students, but I am sad to say goodbye to my gracious hosts and dance teachers. I am ready to see my family and my community, although I will miss the friends I’ve made here. These conflicting feelings are difficult to explain.
Although I do not plan to dance today, I consider this trip to Gorée Island a critical part of my education here. Gorée is a place I want to see for myself, not only because I have sung about it, but also because I know that this is one of the last places where my ancestors might have been before their forced entry into the Ma’afa, a Kiswahili term that means “terrible occurrence” or “great disaster,” and refers to the Atlantic slave trade, as well as other events in what has come to be known as the African Holocaust. For the African American who performs traditional West African dance, Gorée is one place that represents the severing of the cultural right to learn the dances of their ancestors. I want to reconnect and reclaim my right.
When we arrive at the ferry terminal, a large crowd has already formed. Lines of people stream from the tall, thick metal doors attached to a massive, stone-walled industrial building. A large sign reads, “Liaison Maritime Dakar-Gorée” (Dakar-Gorée Maritime Link).
“I’ve never seen it so crowded,” Triola tells me. “Ramadan is coming soon. They are probably getting in their last hoorah.” During Ramadan, the Islamic holiday of reflection and fasting, Muslims spend time praying, reading the Quran, and often doing charity work.
There are three lines: one with young children in blue-and-white school uniforms, as well as one for men and one for women.
We move into our respective lines, doing our best to stay close to Iba. As we approach the entrance, there is a lot of pushing and shoving to get through the front gate. It’s like an out-of-control rave, or a flash mob gone wrong. Iba grabs Triola’s hand; Triola latches onto mine, and Iba gracefully squeezes us between the youth and through the doors.
“Wait here; I'm going to get our tickets,” Iba says.
He disappears into the crowd and, a few minutes later, emerges with three tickets.
As we all board the ferry, guards remind the students again and again not to push and shove. Their excitement is causing a forward thrust in the lines that makes me feel uncomfortable and trapped. Once on the boat, we sit on benches in a room enclosed by plastic windows and a white metal roof. The students hustle and bustle between the seats.
As the boat begins its journey to the island, I step outside. I watch the dock on the mainland shrink as we move farther from the shore. Looking toward our destination, I see black bodies splashing around in the island waves and jumping off of a long pier into the water.
When we dock, Iba, Triola, and I wait for the majority of the crowd to disembark. We then make our way off the ferry and onto the island. Immediately, vendors and beggars approach us with their wares and palms exposed. We walk on, trying to avoid the eyes of a poor man in a wheelchair with one stump leg wrapped at the knee. Throughout my time here, as I have regularly come face-to-face with the poverty in Africa, dance has helped me stay focused on the beauty and power on this continent.
I am anxious to meet our tour guide, a middle-aged man named Abubacar, whom Triola knows. She catches a glimpse of him and waves him over. It’s easy for me to remember the guide’s name, as the drummer who accompanies my dance classes at UC Riverside has the same one. After introducing us, Triola flings her hands in the direction of the House of Slaves, sending us on our way. Then, she and Iba sit down in the doorway of the building across the walkway to wait for me.
As we approach the building, I read the sign above the entrance: “Ministere de la Culture; Maison des Esclaves” (“Ministry of Culture; Slave Mansion”). Outside of the heavy, aqua-painted doors, I pause.
Stay strong! I say to myself, knowing this will be an emotional experience. I think of the Doundounba – the dance of the strong man or the dance of the warrior – and call on the strength of that dance to usher me past the threshold.
I am not alone with Abubacar on this tour. Two middle-aged men who look like tourists, with their sun hats and digital cameras, have joined us. Abubacar leads us to the left and into the first chamber. I take a deep breath and press “record” on my camera. I hang on every word as 400 years of history, cruelty, and devastation spew from his lips.
I document the cold rock walls, the damp floors, and the formerly blocked and locked windows that now allow slivers of light to creep into what were once dungeon cells. I hold it together, though disgusted by the once-disease-ridden quarters, each room with its own inhumane purpose. There is the feeding room, where Africans were fed beans with palm oil to fatten them up to an acceptable traveling weight. There is the weighting room, where Africans were weighed to determine whether they would be sent overseas. If they were not heavy enough, they were instead sold in exchange for trinkets and spirits. There is also the breeders’ chamber, where slave owners kept boys as young as five years old.
The song about Gorée starts to play in my mind as I think of these children. Who among them could have been in the Jali bloodline? Being separated from the family to be used solely as reproducers was not only cruel: it also meant they wouldn't get a chance to receive the wisdom of their elders and carry on this sacred art and duty.
We walk through the virgins’ cell, where young women were placed. These women were carefully guarded, because if they lost their virginity, they would be allowed to stay in Africa as domestic workers. I think of how much of their culture they missed by being sent to the Americas. They probably never got the opportunity to dance Mandjani, the dance of the young virgin girl.
In my dance classes, I’d learned that to dance Mandjani is to accept a great honor. There are only two or three young ladies within a generation who are chosen to learn the dance and therefore to join the society of women called Mandjani. I wonder who among the young women kept in this cell might have become Mandjani, or were already Mandjani and carried the dance across seas with them.
About the author: Makeda Kumasi is a multi-talented artist and teacher who has received numerous awards and recognitions. She was a California Arts Scholar, and has also been honored with the Ida Mae Holland Playwright’s Award, the Top Spoken Word Artists Award at the Black Business Expo in Los Angeles, and the Phyllis E. Williams’ Artist Grant. Makeda is the founder of WE 3 PRODUCTIONS, and teaches fine arts through The Sesh Project, a program designed to teach youth the art of the Jali, who are African oral historians and artisans. Makeda is a playwright and the author of two books, as well as the producer of a documentary short. Makeda has danced for two prominent Southern California-based African dance ensembles, and performed in American musicals, including the roles of Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and Cha-Cha in Grease. She has been featured on MTV’s Starting Over, BET’s Fly Poet, the first season of So You Think You Can Dance?, independent films, and community theater. Currently, Makeda teaches in the Department of Dance and the Department of Theater, Film, and Digital Production at the University of California Riverside. Makeda received an MFA in theater from the University of Southern California and a Master’s in education from the University of Phoenix.
Megan Taylor Morrison is a lindy hop instructor, avid dance adventurer, and certified business coach. She has studied local dance forms in 16 countries on six continents, as well as designed and co-led dance retreats to Argentina, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. In partnership with Melaina Spitzer, she debuted the talk “Dance Travel: The Next Era of Dance Education” at the NDEO National Conference in 2018. Through lectures, roundtables, and articles, Meg continues to share best practices for dance travel. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, as well as a bachelor’s in international affairs and French from the University of Puget Sound. The author gazes out from the Door of No Return in a photo by Aboubacar, the tour guide