Sharing the Rhythm

There are countless ways to understand a foreign culture, such as through the language, food or religion. But François Diene, translator for the West African dance troupe Le Ballet National du Senegal, sums up his homeland very directly: "Africa is dance."

While the young performers working with Diene represent the diverse traditions specific to Senegal, he sees their efforts as the reflection of a broader African spirit. "The former president of Senegal Republic, the poet Leopold Senghol, said that in Africa, the baby begins to dance in the belly of his mother. And with that, he has the rhythm in his blood," he says of the group's founder.

Growing up in communities where jubilant dance and music are part of everyday life, scores of teenagers from villages across Senegal audition for a chance to join Le Ballet National, which has only about 15 dancers and 15 drummers. The elite few who succeed are sent to the National Theater for rigorous daily training, where they must perfect not only the dances of their own heritage, but also those of the 14 other ethnic groups from around the country.

Kuuyamba, the program that the troupe is performing on its current tour, revolves around the sojourn into the sacred forest, the Senegalese coming-of-age ritual. In part one, the sama, participants in the initiation dance to sacred songs to get permission from the gods. Then, during the djigui, the village chief talks to the spirits and announces that they've granted permission for the silimbo, an elaborate celebration ceremony.

It's an authentic, sincere cultural message, driven by what Diene says is a "very important" source of optimism in a world that's lately seen the downside of globalization. He reasons, "The more you know of my culture, the more you respect me."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig

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