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Enriching Lives by Relearning African Culture and Dance

May 20, 2001


Enriching Lives by Relearning African Culture and Dance


IT was unusually busy on West 127th Street in Harlem one warm afternoon last month as a spirited procession of children and adults headed to the Dempsey Multiservice Center. Every Sunday, Obara Wali Rahman Ndiaye, 54, and his wife, Andara Rahman Ndiaye, 41, teach African dance classes there and rehearse their 35-member company, Sabar Ak Ru Afriq (Drum and Spirit of Africa, in the Senegalese language Wolof). They were getting ready for the popular Dance Africa festival, coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday and running through next Sunday.

In 1977, the choreographer and educator Chuck Davis established the event to give African-Americans an opportunity to see top-flight African and African-influenced dance companies. "We need reminders of our history," he said recently. "It adds meaning to our lives."

This year, along with Sabar Ak Ru Afriq, Dance Africa will present Forces of Nature, a New York-based dance company, and in its first American appearance, the Ndere Troupe of Uganda. The theme is "Rhythms From the Circle of Life." Thirty youngsters from the BAM/Restoration Dance Africa Ensemble, a local community group, will perform dances taught them by the Ndere Troupe. Also scheduled are an art show, film screenings and an African dance party. The Dance Africa Bazaar, featuring foods, clothing, art and handicrafts, will be set up in a parking lot near BAM.

Even without the Dempsey Center's security guard telling a visitor where to find Mr. and Mrs. Rahman Ndiaye, the sounds of drums and children's laughter lead one to the big, sparkling gym, which, with basketball courts and all, becomes their dance studio every week. Like most dance companies, Sabar Ak Ru Afriq and Forces of Nature make do with limited funds, which means dancers support themselves with other jobs. But while one would never see children at most dance rehearsals, they are inevitably around when these troupes rehearse, to relieve the parents of finding babysitters. It appears to make everyone pretty happy, and it creates an unusually homey atmosphere.

As an adult session ended, a woman in a long flowered skirt walked slowly toward her belongings. "It's not just my feet that hurt," she said, wincing, "everything hurts." Her son giggled, having gone through the same exertions an hour before.

After class, Mr. Rahman Ndiaye, gray haired and bearded, took a break in his small, drum-filled office in the back of the gym. "When I was coming up in New York, African drumming only existed in community centers," he said. "After the National Ballet of Senegal performed here in 1973, I got close with some of the people in the company. What attracted me was Sabar, a Senegalese style of dancing and drumming. It's rich in artistic value and relates to African-American styles of movement."

Wearing a purple and violet African dress, Mrs. Rahman Ndiaye joined him, her long hair pulled back by a matching scarf. Their backgrounds mesh well: he came from jazz; she studied modern and folkloric dance after moving here as a child from Carriacou, Grenada. To learn African dance firsthand, they traveled to Senegal and in New York studied with a Senegalese teacher, Adja Ma'am Fatou Seck, who died in 1997. Since founding the company in 1980, they have developed their own system of working: he suggests the themes, she choreographs and performs, and in the final stages they edit pieces together.

"My choreography derives from Senegalese styles," she said. "Essentially, it's celebratory and makes rigorous use of the torso, hips and arms."

Their daughter, Mariama, knocked on the door, reminding them it was time to start. Their daughters, Mariama, 17, and Fatouseck, 8, and their sons, Latir, 20, and Konate, 14, grew up in the company. For the last couple of years, Mr. Rahman Ndiaye has been caring for a sick family member, and with Mrs. Rahman Ndiaye holding a full- time position as a supervisor at the Greenwood Job Center in Brooklyn, plus finishing graduate school, they have had to limit their performance schedule. So it is with particular zeal that they gear up for "Revival," a premiere for Dance Africa.

At Mr. Rahman Ndiaye's signal, the 15 dancers formed two diagonals and started across the room in a rolling gait, their voices rising in a gentle melody. The drumming intensified, and Mrs. Rahman Ndiaye separated herself from the group and implored another dancer to join her. "The piece comes out of folklore," Mr. Rahman Ndiaye said, watching them carefully. "After a spirit coaxes the girl into womanhood, she must be taught to take care of herself. We need to know these stories. When we relearn our culture, we restore our souls."

In the same vein but with a different aesthetic, the choreographer and musician Abdel R. Salaam, 50, creates dances for Forces of Nature. Later that week, he rehearsed one evening in the crypt of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, his company's base since 1984. His subterranean headquarters are formidable. Cavernous, with a soaring vaulted ceiling, they consist of his office, handsomely decorated with African sculpture, and a good-size rehearsal space framed by towering columns. "When I started the company, some of my dancers who practiced African religions got upset when they learned that a couple of bishops were buried down here," said Mr. Salaam, a hefty man dressed entirely in black from his skull cap to his billowing trousers. "It seemed blasphemous to them to literally dance on their graves. So I had a priest come in and bless the space. That reassured them."

A New Yorker, Mr. Salaam first studied modern dance at Lehman College in the Bronx, rounding out his training with various jazz techniques. In 1970, he joined Mr. Davis's company, leaving to form his own group in 1981. "Chuck taught me that a dance should have a message," he said, "and that a choreographer should be socio- politically aware."

Mr. Salaam's dances, often prompted by African and American Indian culture, are far from polemical, however. After duplicating African dances for years, he began creating his own hybrid, impelled by a friendly suggestion. "Chuck and I were working with a master drummer from Ballet Afrique in the mid- 80's," he recalled, "and when we finished one of our dances, he asked: ĀBut what's your story? It's important to tell your own story.' "

That night fewer than half of his 22 members made the rehearsal. Naeemah Brown, a police officer, arrived late with apologies. She quickly got out of her uniform and into a yellow African skirt and white T-shirt. The dancers began with "Club Legacy," set to a score by Michael Wimberly. "The movement is a mix of modern, house, hip-hop and African," Mr. Salaam said. "There's a D.J. and scratching rhythms. A lot of the foundation of club music is African. I like the ride of it."

Moving like quicksilver, the dancers formed elaborate patterns and for several minutes all went well. Then suddenly, the whole thing got away from them. They burst out laughing.

"Abdel's work is so complex technically and mentally," his longtime rehearsal director, Laniece Mobley, said, with an eye on her 11-month-old daughter, Amina, contentedly bouncing in her stroller, "that when dancers from other companies first join, it takes them months to catch on."

Next, they tackled a section of "Terrestrial Wombs," a moving retelling of the story of creation. On its premiere in 1997, Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times called it "beautiful-looking and thought-provoking." Standing between the drummers Kojo Christopher and Randal Alston, Mr. Salaam set the tone on his drums, mixing Nigerian and Malian tempos with blazing results. "The bishops buried down here," he said, hands flying, "must love this."  

Valerie Gladstone's most recent article for Arts & Leisure was about Basil Twist's ballet ĀĀPetrouchka.''

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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