Rhythm & Culture in Dakar
By Sophie Schouwenaar
The first time I went to Senegal, I didn’t know anything about sabar dancing nor drumming. So when my teacher in the second week of our dance workshop proposed we dance sabar, I was not very enthusiastic. A typical Dutch saying is what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t like. I remember quite well the drummers who started playing and my teacher telling me to ‘just respond to your inner dance impulse’. I didn’t know how to dance on these rhythms. The only thing I heard was a lot of uncoordinated noise. Later on that week we were invited to a baptème (a baptism ceremony). I was dressed up by my teacher’s wife in an yellow grand boubou in which I felt incredibly uncomfortable. The other Dutch lady who participated in the workshop felt much more at ease. I was stuck to my chair, intimidated and amazed by the women who seemed so passive would jump up out of their chairs and give an amazing, acrobatic performance. Everyone would start to scream and giggle when the other Dutch lady would jump in as well, apparently very much at ease in the setting. Another reason why I clung to my chair and during the whole baptème I wouldn’t get off it.
About two years later, after having danced in Mali and Burkina Faso where I would always miss the sabar drums and the explosiveness of its dances, I went back to Senegal. This time fully equipped with a lot of experience in sabar-dancing. During my stay in Toubab Dialaw (on the coast just south of Dakar) where I took classes with one of Africa’s most renounced choreographers Germaine Acogny, I got to know her dancers very well. At the same time I entered my master’s phase in which I would have to make decisions concerning my research. I already wrote my bachelor’s thesis on dance, but in a very theoretical way. Now I decided that this would be my year, in which everything would come together. So on the third of May 2006, almost a year later, I went to Senegal to do my master’s research on sabar dancing after preparing my research proposal for months. Arriving at the airport, inhaling Senegal’s air, being surrounded my Wolof speaking people… The first thing that went through my mind was: home!
I stayed in Yoff, kind of a suburb on which Dakar is in fact founded, where I rented a small room with a tiny window with only a mattress. Only months later I bought myself an air conditioner. I still don’t understand why I let myself suffer by waking up every day bathing in sweat. I chose Yoff because my family in law lives there. I thought that at the same time as my research, I might as well take the opportunity of really getting to know these lovely people. Also, Yoff is a relatively quiet place (compared to Pikine for example) and I knew it already from last year’s visit when I met this family. My eventual plan of doing my research in Toubab Dialaw changed completely. I figured that I already knew the people and the village, and that it would be an interesting place since it is a fishermen’s village where traditional gender-patterns are clearly observable. But I discovered while being there that first of all there were no sabar events taking place in Toubab Dialaw. Second, nothing happened, except for preparing thieboudien (Senegal's national dish - a rice & fish stew) every single day. Bottom end is that I got very homesick (that is to Dakar) and I couldn’t wait to go back there in the weekends to dance in the tanebeers (nightly sabar events) and nightclubs. Plans are made to change I was told during my preparation courses on the University of Amsterdam.
.... Stay tuned next week for Part II.....
About the author:
Sophie Schouwenaar is a 24 year old Netherlands native. She started dancing sabar three
years ago, after being a salsa dance instructor and a djembe dancer. She has traveled
all over the world to dance. Her experiences finally came together during her
research period in Dakar, where she spent 4 months researching sabar.
She is now a master in anthropology and graduated from the Universiteit
van Amsterdam in January 2007.
Her documentary about Sabar can be viewed by following this link in Root: Sabar Dancing
You may reach Sophie via email: email@example.com
Portrait of Germaine Agogny by Antoine Tempé
Images courtesy of L'Ecole des Sables & Sophie Schouwenaar