Circulating Inside -
Reducing the Distance to Folkloric Dance

Interview with Christelle Kamanan
Edited by Nicole Bradbury

#dance #cuban #people #folkloric #culture #ivorycoast #africa #teachers #westafrica #africanroots #occidental #transatlantictrade #colonisation #spirituality #oralhistory

You're the only artist in the series at the moment that relates to folklore dance, in particular, Cuban folklore. And if I understand, you're not Cuban. So you also look at it with some distance. I'm curious about the experience of embodying this dance. What critical perspective do you have towards or in relation to it?

Yes, indeed, I'm not Cuban. At the beginning, I first approached it as a total
foreigner. I started by approaching Cuban music. I'm native to West Africa, Ivory Coast, and over there it is really normal just to listen to Cuban music, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is the time when my parents grew up. So my parents grew up listening to Cuban artists, and therefore, as a kid, I was listening to what my parents were listening to, so in my child's mind, I wasn't making any difference between African music, Ivorian music, and Cuban music. For me, it was somehow the same. As a child, you don't really understand this kind of difference. So I grew up with a very close approach to Cuban culture, and Cuban history, and Cuban music. As a teenager, when I started to learn the history of the country, and learn how Cuban people are related to Africa, particularly to West Africa, I found myself to be more interested in the country. I learned Spanish since my idea was to go to Cuba. Then when I arrived in Berlin, I found out that there is a huge Cuban community, at least in comparison to where I was living in France, or West Germany. I was fascinated about how they have been able to maintain a strong connection to Africa, through the culture, especially through music, and it is what I wanted to investigate.
And then I discovered that it's not only in the music, it's also in the dance, and somewhat in the food. Then as a dancer, I slightly switched from my previous practice to learning a bit more of their folklore. I've discovered that actually, it's not that foreign for me, because they also have a lot of West African movement, especially those coming from Yoruba culture, which is a culture that you find more in Nigeria or Benin, as well as movement that is also in traditional dances that we have in Ivory Coast. Instead of learning it at school, or by reading some books, and so on, I discovered it throughout my body. When I was doing those kinds of body moves, I could just feel that it was not a foreign movement –it was a body movement that I already knew, or it looked like something that I'd already done. So more and more this distance has been reduced for me. And I don't see it as a total foreigner, but more as if it's a part of my culture, which has evolved on another territory, and which has been changed by other people. It's interesting to see how it has evolved for me.

... in my child's mind, I wasn't making any difference between African music, Ivorian music, and Cuban music.

… it's a part of my culture, which has evolved on another territory...

You mentioned a connection between African folk dance in the region where you came from and the Cuban one. How does prejudice play a role in the function, stigma, as well as access to the archive?

First of all, we have very few videos, or even books, or tutorials, or any kind of material that you could use to learn. Even access to classes, especially when you live outside of Africa, and even when you live in Africa... To learn traditional dance, it's difficult, you need to be able to go to the villages. In the main cities, you don't really have access to it. So it requires you to travel. And for people growing up or living outside of their native country, it's kind of impossible. It's very difficult to find traditional African dance classes. You can only find it when you have someone who had the idea to create a class, but then usually, it won't be specific. This person would name it African dance, or West African dance, – it's a mix of several dances because West Africa is a space of several countries and cultures. Even though I am still open to learning other dance styles, it may not be related to my culture. This is a huge prejudice, and it is also one of the reasons that has led me to keep on learning Cuban
folklore dance. I was saying to myself, "Okay, I cannot learn traditional dance from Ivory Coast and my culture, but at least the Cuban one is really close to it and it’s a specific one.” So by learning it, I knew that I was still learning a part of my traditional folklore. And even for Cuban folklore, it is something not so common. Nowadays you find more contemporary popular dances like salsa, but for the very folkloric one, you need to have a teacher who can pass you the information. You need to be able to find it, and it's not easy. There is no curriculum that you can follow outside of Cuba, I mean in dance schools or clubs, or even if you think of books, it would be very difficult to learn dancing through the book. It's a cloudy area where you need to ask a lot of questions, to find the right people to direct you to the content. Then it's a learning and researching project because from what I know, there is no database or even a library where you could go and be sure that you will find this information.

To learn traditional dance, it's difficult <...> In the main cities, you don't really have access to it <...> it's kind of impossible.
It’s a kind of unspoken ritual. When you go there on holiday, you learn the trending dance.

Another form of archive that is really popular to learn any type of African dance has been the VHS tape. Until the booming of the internet and platforms like YouTube, VHS tapes were the only easily accessible tools to visualize dance and music videos from any African country. Basically, people in your native country would save the music videos broadcasted on local TV and they would send the VHS tapes to you via someone traveling. We were doing the exact same with audio tapes to have the music. I still have a bag full of them! In my case, I have had the opportunity to go at least once a year to Ivory Coast as a child and I also lived there for 4 years as a teenager. Therefore, I learned a lot during these moments. It’s a kind of unspoken ritual. When you go there on holiday, you learn the trending dance.

I remember that in our meeting in ADK (Think Tank meeting 2020), you mentioned that there are unspoken roots of this dance <salsa> that are now not obvious. So people just go to social dance events, they practice, but they have no idea about the history of these dances.

Dancing was <...> a free space where they could <...> maintain their identities…...
the repetitive movement that you do while you work on the field enslaved, creates also a flow of "planting, taking, planting, taking..." When you repeat this, during 30 minutes, a certain musicality and body movements flow appears.

Even myself at the beginning, I wasn't seeing a clear connection between the Trans-Atlantic Trade, West African body movements, and Cuban folklore. Because most of the African descent Cubans were taken from West Africa, and these are the dances that they were practicing when they used to be in Africa. Then when they were enslaved and brought to the Americas (in this case, Cuba) they still had the memory of the music, sound, body movement, and so on. And they have been doing it through centuries, and this is the main reason why we have this strong connection. Dancing was for them a kind of a free space where they could express themselves and maintain their identities, as they were forced to make invisible who they used to be (changing names, not speaking your language). When you are enslaved, you don't have holidays or a day off, and so on. So what you could do, it's only what you have with you; you have your voice, and your body, and with your voice, you can sing, and with your body, you can dance.
This is a kind of entertainment that you can do without having any other thing. And you can do it while you work. While you work in the field, you can still sing and you can still dance... while you're not going to dance like crazy as if you're in a club, of course, but you can dance by working actually. Imagine that, instead of just doing right-left, you can do right-right-left or left-left-right, and then you create a body movement and a musical flow just by doing this. And the repetitive movement that you do while you work on the field enslaved, creates also a flow of "planting, taking, planting, taking..." When you repeat this, during 30 minutes, a certain musicality and body movements flow appear. The movements born through this process have been added to the already existing dance vocabulary. And we still find all of this in popular dancing styles like salsa, mambo, or other Cuban-based dance. Actually, it is exactly the same way that Blues music, finding its roots in the Mali area - West Africa evolved in the South of the United States. In Colombia, we find this with Cumbia. The stepping is directly inspired by how enchained people could step. There are also movements related to their religious beliefs, or ways to see how the world works, the seasons, the storms, the wind, and the water, and so on. Embodying these elements is something we have absolutely been doing in Africa. We believe, we speak and we live with our body.

The stepping is directly inspired by how enchained people could step.

It is amazing to get all this knowledge and context. It really enriches our thinking and also considering dance in those places that one maybe wouldn’t consider them all the time. Because you speak of, for instance, this labor experience as this kind of lived experience that informs the dance, or is the dance. How does your positionality or lived experience in other places, or mainly in Berlin, inform your artistic or your dance practice?

For me here, in Berlin or even in Germany, it's another culture. It's a culture in which I didn't grow up. So there is another body language, which is still challenging to understand if I may say, especially the nuances. Well, I was born in France and raised between France and in Ivory Coast. On one hand I am familiar with Latin culture and, on the other hand with West African culture. Therefore, I am used to interacting with my body and reading other people’s body language in a very completely different way. Therefore, I often observe and question, or even sometimes restrict my body language. I am also navigating with these questions when I dance in Germany. How can I connect my natural body language within my dance practice, and how can it also speak to a local audience? How to match this? Then I have been experiencing that dance is still this place where I can freely express all my emotions and feelings without feeling awkward, or totally weird, or totally outside of the society. When I dance, I still have this place where I can express my emotions and feelings as if I'm in my own culture – whether in France or Ivory Coast. I can really move my hands... I can really have this free body language while I dance. It has encouraged me to even dance more when I'm here. I found the need to dance stronger, because I need to express it. Dancing in a different cultural context is a research with my own body. I don’t dance the same way or at least I feel I don’t dance the same way when I dance in other contexts.

I agree, it really helps. I also moved here just two years ago, and I started to feel this demand much stronger than before. It was very interesting how you explained this contextuality, or Cuban dances, because I remember that during my education, we had a class of Afro dance. Of course, it was taught by a white person in St. Petersburg, but he described a lot of these connections: what movement means what, for instance, you drop the seed... but he never brought this context that these relations exist,because people were in slavery. Because if I now trace back to other folk dances, these dances are mostly for fests, for weddings, for other communal occasions, but it's never about how people are going to the field, and how they work there. And it never came to my mind, so I'm curious, when you go here in schools, or in other places, where people, for example, from my background, have no idea, do you feel teachers transmit this information enough? Or it's rather like what my teacher did. He just explained, but didn't bring context?

... dance is still this place where I can freely express all my emotions and feelings without feeling awkward, or totally weird, or totally outside of the society

Before answering this, I just want to mention that it's very common in Africa, and in West Africa particularly, while you work on the field to chant and to dance. It's very natural as well, not only when you work in the field, whenever you work. For instance, when you wash clothes, there are specific songs for this, songs when you cook, songs for whatever work you can do, for fishermen and so on – it's really part of the culture as well. Then regarding the teaching, I cannot really answer this question. I have been really lucky and I'm still grateful to my teachers here in Germany, because they're totally aware and fully conscious of it, and they keep on transmitting this history. They really insist on it. Even one of my teachers, Lisandra Cervantes, the one for the folkloric dances, she's Cuban, she learned in Cuba, and she used to teach at the University in La Havanna as well, so she has this full knowledge, so it's part of her teaching. It's not something that she would separate from it. But yes, I'm not sure

… people are not really informed about how the Trans-Atlantic Trade and then slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean has totally transformed and impacted some cultures...

that everyone has this in mind. And also I wouldn't blame other teachers or party organizers. I can really understand that it's not so easy to relate to it, because it's a very foreign culture and country. This part of history is not really spread out in the mass media. So even outside of the dancing scene, people are not really informed about how the Trans-Atlantic Trade and then slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean has totally transformed some cultures, and how it has impacted cultures, and how some countries are still culturally really closed. So I totally understand that they cannot see this when they dance. I mean, if you don't see it in your daily life, why would you see it in your dance practice?

You're bridging amazingly between life and dance. They are so interconnected, and people tend to think that one is professional, and the other is not. But when they are alive, it really helps. You speak about how your teachers transmit what their teachers pass to them in an oral embodied history. I'm curious if you consider yourself as someone that would want to pass it on. And I'm also curious about the position of this dance on the stages in Berlin, if it interests you, and why it's not there? And also how this continent in the German narrative is kept in the margins, or it's kept in its place of safety for German audiences, and why is that? What does it mean in this very moment?

If I consider myself passing it on, I would say, I don't know yet. I may be doing it without noticing it. There are some things that you do while you dance. You don't create an intellectual process, you're just in it. And maybe later I will look at it and I will say, "Oh, okay, this is what I've been doing the last years". About a place on the stage, at the beginning, it made me really sad, because I could see that it didn't have value as a dance style. So it was really painful and frustrating. And then I understood and looked at it in a different way. That it is not seen and not shown, because it is really unknown. Only a few people look at it without using Occidental lenses. And I think it's not only from the German side, but also from our side, the people directly involved in these cultures, to speak louder and dance louder, and go on stages where
maybe we are not expected, informing people. I think it's a long-term process. But it's still very far out from the German culture and German history, but Germany also had colonies in Africa. So it's not totally outside of German history, actually. And I think this part of German history is very not known. It is one of the current social, cultural and political questions in Germany. It is asked to have these moments of the German History taught in schools and universities, for instance. A city like Berlin holds a strong symbol. The Berlin Conference – 15th November 1884 to 26th February 1885 – was the moment when European colonial powers traded their African territories, which led to the birth of new geographical areas in Africa. These are the countries that we still see on a map. So African people do remember such an event and that Germany had colonies in Africa. Then, the other side also needs to see that, I think.

Only a few people look at it without using Occidental lenses.The Berlin Conference (1884-85) – is the moment when European colonial powers- trade their African territories <...> African people do remember such an event and that Germany had colonies in Africa.

Not sure if this is related to our conversation, but in Russia where I came from, salsa and other dances that have African roots are very popular as a leisure practice. There is prejudice, not only toward African folk dances, but to folk dances in general, that there is conceptual, intellectual dance movement, and then there is folk heritage dance movement. And in order to bring them together, you as a choreographer need to create a particular frame. It's separated in a way, you cannot just do ballet on a stage of contemporary dance, and to the same extent, you cannot just do any folk dance on the contemporary dance stage either. Who creates those rules and why? How do you feel about that? And could you tell a little bit about your other dance background and how it relates to what you research now?

Especially when you look at "African dance rooted", I feel that there is a bag, and whatever dance may have African roots, would be put in this bag. And it's as if they are all the same. And many times it can be looked at or even described as something exotic, and not seen as a dance practice which has rules. This is a very common thing. And then especially when it comes to African folkloric dance, because as we said before, there is a lack of access to the archive, it is of course not spread. So there is a kind of bubble that is supposed to gather all of the dance, and it is not really. Particularism is not seen. Mentioning my dance education I have mainly learned not in an academy or university, but mainly next to my curriculum studying. I started with modern jazz, then I 
went to hip hop. Then I've learned other African dancing styles, like Kizomba, or a dancing style that we also have typically in Ivory Coast, Zouglou, for instance, which is also linked to popular revendication movement. So it wasn't only a dance, it started as a protest movement among young people in the ‘90s. And from that they have created a music style, a dance style, and I would say a kind of lifestyle. So it is very specific from the country. If you notice, at the moment rap music was strongly used to protest in other parts of the world. We had the exact same movement with Zouglou in Ivory Coast, a movement speaking about local realities. On one hand, I have been influenced by hip hop from France or the USA, and, on the other hand, there was Zouglou from Ivory Coast. Not forgetting the Cuban music of my father in my ears!
Since last year I have started learning the Acogny Technique, created by Germaine Acogny. She is a Senegalese and French dancer, teacher, and choreographer, considered as the mother of contemporary African dance. She has created her own dance technique mixing traditional African dance styles and Occidental dance styles. Due to COVID-19 I must learn online so far, but it’s still an amazing experience.

I think it's helpful to see that there are so many cultures within Africa, there are so many different dances. It's so specific and so local to each and every community, right? And then this idea of the archive... you said a couple times, there is no tutorial. And I wonder if there is even a desire, because I have a feeling that in relation to the idea of the transmission, there is something about permission. There is something about the value of the oral history, of the embodied history, that seems very important. And that refuses these other ways of trying to make it into a book, because it is so vast, and it is so detailed, and it's so much about person-to-person connection. How do you feel about an attempt to use other means that are used more in other dances?

Yes, it's really true. Especially because I know that in Africa, when you want to access traditional knowledge or even history, if you want to ask questions to elders, there are a lot of protocols to follow. They will test you, they will ask questions to know who you are, what your intentions are. Why do you really want to know this? Why do you really want to learn it? What are you going to do with it next? This is really important for them to know, not only why you're learning, but what you're going to do with it. And because they know that what they're passing to you has value. This somehow prevents the idea of maybe being recorded and being totally freely available online, and so on. The other question is how much interest do you have in learning it? Is it a one-shot learning? Or are you going to commit to this process of learning? And coming again, maybe the next month, or the next year, two years, and so on? And are you going to incorporate it into your lifestyle? And all of these are questions that they also have in mind, and the reason why they do not pass it on so easily.

Another thing is right after the decolonization, people had this idea in Africa that they had to be modern, and for them it meant being occidental people, adopting an occidental lifestyle. This has affected their cultural practices, and dance, of course. Even though they knew the movements, they didn't teach those movements to their children. For instance, my parents didn't teach us those body movements. We learned it from other people of the family, or other people of the community, because they didn't see it as something that was very important to be passed on. They had this idea that we had something more important to learn than this.
It was also a way to protect us and provide us with the best tools to find our ways into this post-colonial world. I know it sounds paradoxical. Well, throughout their
upbringing teachers have taught them not to speak their language or not to behave like they would do outside school. It was strictly forbidden, and it was a shame not to speak French, or not to behave like the dominant French colonial model. It is obvious that no parent would want their child to be shamed, blamed or punished.
The other thing that I can mention is the relation to religious belief, because many traditional dances are connected to the religious beliefs and spiritual systems that have existed before the colonization.
That was also cultural colonization and religious colonization, which is as deep or even more than economic  colonization. When people changed their religious beliefs, it was impossible for them to maintain this dance practice. It was described as ‘evil body movements’. So this has also created a gap, because they wouldn't teach those dances anymore.

My teacher who taught African dance practiced a lot of hip hop and other styles, and he had an idea that really fascinates me, that this tremendous embodiment in all dances that have African roots, is somehow keeping that religious system through at least the dance. He told a lot of stories, that this dance is for gods who care of 

… many traditional dances are connected to the religious beliefs that used to exist before colonization. … it was impossible to maintain this dance practice, described as ‘evil body movements’. 

farming, this dance is a war-god dance. When we learned, I felt that it gave me this expressivity, and it charged me emotionally. I'm still fascinated by this idea of how this embodiment traveled through generations, and I still can see an absolutely different quality and deepness. How movement goes deep... to the gods.

Makes total sense for me. And I would say, it is really the case. When I started to dance I was young, and I wasn't aware that what I was feeling was so connected to spirituality. I just didn't know what it was, but I knew there was something. And when I started to dance more and more folkloric Cuban dancing, I started to receive more and more information: this movement is related to Yemaya, for instance (the Ocean Orisha) or Shango (lightning and thunder Orisha) I can really feel this kind of power or flow. I definitely understand why your teacher said that and I totally agree that it's also a way to pass your belief and not only religion, but really spirituality: the way you refer to what is around us. And many of those songs are related to spirituality. It can just be music for when people are just grateful for having the sun, and going to celebrate the sun, or going to celebrate the rain, and so on. And then everything they're going to do – to express this gratitude – dances will relate to it. Then yes, I definitely agree that you can feel it.

When I started to dance I was young, and I wasn't aware that what I was feeling was so connected to spirituality.

Thank you

We're getting closer to an ending, are there things that we didn't speak about that you would like to mention?

For me, Cuban folkloric dance was a way to get closer to my culture, to my African roots. And through this, it also helped me to have the courage to go and look deeper at my culture and my folkloric dance, and directly learn West African folkloric dance, especially those from Ivory Coast. The distance has been reduced – it's something circulating inside me.

Music showing the connection between Africa and Cuba:
Afrocubism album 
Las Maravillas de Mali 
Franco & TP OK Jazz 
Les Bantous de la Capitale 

To learn Afro-Cuban folklore in Berlin
Yerba Buena Art Company
Lisandra Cervantes Fernández at Global Music School

*photo by Hannah Beyrich

Moving Margins Chapter II
moving arti|facts from the margins of dance archives
into accessible scores and formats

- STEPPING OUT, funded by the Federal Government
Commissioner for Culture and Media with
in the
framework of the initiative NEUSTART KULTUR.
Assistance Program for Dance.