Bangoura operates Le Bagatae Dance and Drum in Chicago, and he is concluding a residency with Ballet Afrique dance studio in Austin, where he’s been teaching students and instructors how the folktales and dances of Guinea apply to life in the U.S., how to dance with precision while relaxing their bodies, how to follow the drum’s lead, as well as traditional dance steps.
“You will see a lot of difference from past Ballet Afrique performances in the adult dancers in their upcoming show,” says Bangoura, in an event announcement on soulciti.com for an upcoming performance with Ballet Afrique. “I’ve taught them that when you perform, you have to be a professional—more happiness, more bodies moving. I love the group because I am from Les Ballets Africains, and they are Ballet Afrique. If there has been imperfection, I have to tell them because I love them. I have been telling them what they were missing.”
Poet and choreographer Keita Fodeba founded Les Ballets Africains in Paris in 1952. According to Les Ballets Africains in its own interview with Director Hamidou Bangoura, Fodeba’s personal mission was to present the folklores of Guinea and Africa through poems and songs because he considered Guinea’s folklore to have meaningful presence beyond Africa, in cultures throughout the world. Guinea was part of a series of African empires until the 1890s, when France colonized it as French West African. Approximately 60 years later, when Guinea declared independence from France in 1958, Les Ballets Africains became Guinea’s national ensemble.
“Les Ballet Africains has been recognized and encouraged in their role of roving ambassadors, carrying with them on their travels the pride and aspirations of their people,” says the troupe’s website. “The company’s ultimate mission is to foster a greater understanding of Africa with a view to creating favorable conditions for a healthy and fruitful cooperation between Africa and the rest of the world.”
There are four primary musical and dance forms in Guinea, which is roughly the size of the United Kingdom and where Islam is the majority religion; the forms correspond to Guinea’s four natural regions. The regions have distinct geography, climates and cultures: Forested Guinea, Maritime Guinea, Mid-Guinea and Upper Guinea. Guinea is bordered by the North Atlantic Ocean and landside, by Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
The traditional dances are set to poems and songs about topics ranging from the history of medieval empires and kingdoms of Africa and the history of the African continent as a whole, to the negative results of genital mutilation, and every topic in between. Traditional instruments include the Balafon, the bell, the Castanet, the Djembe, the Doum-Doum, the flute, the Kenkeni and the Kora.
In Moustapha’s travels, he’s encountered many instances of dance troupes mixing the regional dances, misinterpreting the words to traditional songs, not following the form of traditional dance steps, and using dances during occasions for which they weren’t originally intended. He corrects them.
“We need to keep the tradition so that young people will know the story. Not just the history, but the same steps that your grandfathers did,” says Moustapha. “We have some students who will now mix the steps from Soko with the steps of Doum-Doum Ba and mix it with Mane, and the steps are not from the same place or for the same occasion, even though it is possible to mix them together because they have the same beat. It is okay to do your own thing sometimes, but sometimes you need to just do Soko, for example.”
More than anything else, Moustapha says the adjustment he makes to dancers in the U.S. performing West African dance is rigid muscle tension. Though West African dancing requires technical precision (for example, with the dancer’s placement of their head and hands), it is intended to be performed with relaxed, fluid muscles achieved through repetitious practice that makes the movements so innate that during performance, the dancer is technically accurate without rigid attention to holding the form.
“When you do the modern dance, you do it like this,” Moustapha says, sitting up straight, tensing one arm and striking it with his other fist to show rigidness. Then he gives a big smile and rolls his shoulders, neck and extended arms in an impromptu demonstration of African form. “In African dance, you have to relax, and your body has to relax. Dancers in the U.S. want to count the steps. You can count while you are doing it if you need to, but the movements need to be fluid. Even Hip-Hop dancers try and at first, they are very tense. Then when I show them, they are like, ‘Ok, I got this.’”
Moustapha taught dance in Texas on four previous occasions, including as host of a grant-funded workshop for dance students at Texas State University.
Moustapha’s completion of his 2014 residency with Ballet Afrique coincides with their annual performance of DANCING TOWARD OUR LEGACY on Jun. 7 at the Carver museum and cultural center on Angelina Street. From 2 to 3:30 p.m., academy students ages 2 to 17 will perform in a variety of disciplines including ballet, contemporary, African and jazz. At 7 p.m., the dance company will take the audience “inside” the music, according to Ballet Afrique founder China Smith, with contemporary choreography by Moustapha. A full African drum section will provide Live Music.
Beginning in September, Ballet Afrique will offer Balafon and xylophone rhythm classes for kids with master percussionist Abou Sylla of Guinea.