Part II of Sophie Schouwenaar's journey into the world of Sabar.
time when I climbed on stage to dance during Viviane Ndour’s
concert, I was noticed my somebody know in his turn informed one of
Senegal’s best dancers: Papa Ndiaye Thiou. He called me and we
would meet at Yengoulène (Center of African Culture in Senegal, a home for dancing, singing, for music and all other traditional African arts in Dakar) where Alioune Mbaye Nder was to
evening. I had seen him in practically all video clips
back in Holland and I had even secretly told myself that if I was to
meet him, one of my dreams would come true.
I arrived in a taxi wearing impossible Senegalese high heels and a new combination of the few clothes a took with me to Senegal. As elegant as possible I tried to approach the group of boys standing on the other side of Yengoulène (probably not to be seen since Pape Ndiaye’s presence evokes screaming masses). Seeing someone in a video clip is definitely very different. On top of that, Pape Ndiaye cut his dreadlocks. Thank God I guessed right when one of them asked me to point Pape Ndiaye. I figured he would be the one with the biggest chain around his neck and the most expensive jeans from Europe. I was right. When we went in, we were immediately accompanied to the VIP room, up the stairs.
Everybody was looking up since rumours spread
that Pape Ndiaye would be there. Alioune called forward
and Pape Ndiaye took the mike after making some spectacular dance
steps with his one best dancer Pape Ndiaye Gambie (named after Pape
Ndiaye and from Gambian origin). Writing this down, I can still feel
the adrenaline when Pape Ndiaye would call me forward. This was my
audition, was I to mess it up, then I would never dance with Pape
Ndiaye and his group. But everything went well, everybody told me
that “toigna fi!” (more or less meaning you were the best, you
broke it down). That it how it happened that I rehearsed with Pape
Ndiaye and his group every day.
I would wake up (bathing in sweat),
exercise on the roof terrace, take my shower, walk over the beach to
my family in law, eat thieboudien for lunch, take two car rapides to
Pikine, rehearse till about 8 pm, chat afterwards having a Fanta
cocktail and one or two cigarettes, go back with another two car
rapides to Yoff. Eat, if there was something left, otherwise write
down my field notes from the day, maybe go out if Pape Ndiaye would
come to pick me up. Go to sleep between 2 and 6 in the morning. And
that for a period of four months. I would feel very guilty at first
because I thought I was messing up my research because I was only
dancing. But later on I told myself that my research was about
festivities, so it was very logical that my time in Dakar had plenty
In between rehearsals, performances, and the making of our two video clips, I would get to know a lot about these dancers, their problems, family ties, thoughts and feelings and the role dancing plays in their lives. Not to speak of the immense experience I had from being in Senegal for four months surrounded by only Senegalese. My basic research questions were founded upon my general thesis which poses the question of how, in relation to modernization and globalization, gender relations are being challenged and changed and how these processes are clearly visible in the scene of sabar events. Basically that meant talking to a whole range of people about the way they perceive sabar, and the degree of acception of a the phenomenon of sabar. It also meant talking to dancers about the problems they have concerning their reputation, the choices they sometimes have to make between religion and dancing and the (non)acceptation of their profession.
Me, as a female sabar dancer, had some of the same problems I spoke about with my informants. For example, where I lived in Yoff, my landlady and the others living in and around the house, posed lots of questions around me going out at all given hours a day, with about seven male dancers who’d pick me up in a big car. What kind of married woman would do that? I explained to them that for my ‘work’ I had to know everything about sabar. After a while they got used to it and the rumours of me going out with Pape Ndiaye slipped to the background. Other things to gossip about became more interesting and important, apparently.
Also, since the western concept of privacy was not very well applicable in Senegalese society, I could hardly close my door behind me. My housemates would ask me whether I was ill or sad. So every time I needed some privacy, I would take my laptop and make a show it of in the living room so that everybody would know I would be working.
Besides the lack of privacy, I had a lot of problems making appointments and actually getting to see people. For example: rehearsal would take place at 3 pm. During the four months I spent in Senegal, we never started rehearsing before 5 or even 6 pm. Also, since Pape Ndiaye is a celebrity in Senegal, he would come as he pleased. I don’t mean this in a bad way, because he would also arrange everything from ghetto blasters for our rehearsals to contracts for performances on stage or in video clips. But it did mean hours of waiting for me and his dancers. In general, there was a lot of waiting in Senegal. Waiting for electricity to come back so I could write on my laptop, waiting for the thieboudien to be ready, waiting for the rehearsal to take place and most of all waiting for nothing. I developed a great sense of patience in Senegal. I learned not to pose too many questions, but just to be there. I developed the same kind of passiveness in waiting as I saw Senegalese do. In fact I became kind of Senegalese. I adjusted the same kind of walk I’d always envy from Senegalese women. I didn’t hurry anymore, I thought of today only and I discovered that the only way to experience anything was just to be out there. Not to wait at home for something to happen. In Senegal, according to me, there is an energy law: if you reach out, it’s a party every single night. So despite all earthy inconveniences (heat, thirst, crowdedness, smog) I was out there.
Right now, I am back in Holland. I wrote my thesis in incredible speed and graduated in January of this year. I have now started my own dance course and I am trying to find a job in which I can do something with my expertise. I still keep in touch with Pape Ndiaye and his dancers. Inshallah (God willing), I will go back this summer to make some nice performances!
I thank all the people who helped me during my research and beyond.
Ba bènen joon! (see you next time!)
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.
You may reach Sophie via email: firstname.lastname@example.org