In October, 2011, Berkeley and Oakland became part of greater Dakar. The occasion was the arrival of from Senegal of dancer Ciré Beye and master drummer Khadim Niang to conduct workshops in Sabar, the vigorous yet fluid dance form of the Wolof peoples of West Africa. For three weeks UC Berkeley’s Bancroft studio and Oakland’s Malonga Center for the Arts reverberated to the polyrhythmns of drums originally developed to communicate long distances in the dry regions at the edge of the Sahara, and to the cries of dance classes answering the drums.
For Lisa Wymore, assistant professor of dance at UC Berkeley, and for visiting faculty/resident artist Amara Tabor-Smith, the chance to expose their modern dance students to three weeks of “Sabar in the Studio” was not simply an exercise in learning new steps. Both teachers, Wymore says, felt “it would help students engage with dance as a world practice. Get them out of just imagining modern dance as a western phenomenon.”
Tabor-Smith, founder of Deep Waters Dance Theatre, had studied and danced with Beye in Senegal at L’École des Sables, an international center for traditional and contemporary African dance founded by choreographer Germaine Acogny. Beye, she knew, was not only a gifted teacher of traditional forms but an accomplished modern dancer, who performs internationally with Acogny’s Companie Jant-Bi. His “understanding of the body and his contemporary aesthetics,” Wymore said, made him a good fit for both their advanced and intermediate classes.
Sabar—the word refers to the drumming and the dancing—is itself a citizen of two worlds. While a traditional accompaniment to weddings and funerals, it is also an urban phenomenon, flowering on the streets of Dakar in the wake of Senegal’s independence from France. Unlike traditional folk forms, Wymore says, Sabar “is always evolving and adapting. Like any dance—but particularly street forms of dance, it’s in flux—adopting and borrowing from other styles and developing new steps.”
It is also an exuberantly interactive effort with dancers and musicians trading rhythms and egging each other on to ever more insouciant displays of virtuosity. In the classes, the interactive or collaborative mode continued, Wymore says. “What was exciting—and Ciré kept saying this—he wanted to not be the teacher but the sharer of information, so the students could then take this form into their own practices”.
An important aspect of Sabar, Wymore says, is its involvement of the whole spine and pelvis in a kind of undulating movement—a stretch in more ways than one for those students who come out of a ballet background where the torso is held rigid—but important to developing the fluidity and versatility demanded by modern dance.
Another basic Sabar movement involves stepping from foot to foot. Wymore describes the resultant motion as “strong, earthy, and grounded.” The constant transferring of weight, she says, forces dancers to be aware of their own substance. Emotional engagement is required, too. “You have to bring your full self to it. It really requires that you not be embarrassed or holding back or shying away.” At the same time, she says, “Sabar is soft, older people do it. You don’t have to jump that high. It has this incredible gracefulness in the arms and this powerful pelvis. You can see how it was created by women.”
As a women’s dance from a patriarchal society, (the Muslim sub Sahara) Sabar also seems to carry a quietly confident assertiveness that blends well with political expression. It does so in the choreography of Acogny and Tabor-Smith. It did so again in early November. As part of the Occupy Cal/ Walkout at UCB over tuition increases, Sabar students and a class drummer left the studio to perform a kind of resistance dance as Wymore calls it on the Plaza. As their teachers had hoped, they were incorporating the form into their own practice. They were also showing—as Sabar vividly does—what mutual respect and dialog can look like.
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