Dance, Tubab, Dance

Emily Hanna - Senegal


November 15, 2011

I will never be able to dance like a Senegalese woman.

This rueful and self-defeating axiom runs through my mind over and over, growing steadily more certain the longer my friend – and fellow Fellow – Fatima Ndiaye (Natalie Davidson), her host sister Fatou, and I watch the sabat (drumming-and-dancing ceremony) the inhabitants of our neighborhood are conducting as part of the Tabaski holiday celebrations. It’s pitch black outside, but that hasn’t deterred about half of Sebikotane from dragging plastic chairs and wooden benches into a huge circle around one of the few streetlamps to observe, heckle, and applaude the circle of young, male djembe drummers that have set up their instruments in the very center of the lamp’s glow. They cast long shadows, cavelierly ignoring the perpetual screeching of the cheap speaker system and occasionally drumming one-handed in order to light a cigarette or take a long swig from a proffered cup of water. These impressive feats of multitasking however, are nothing compared to the music.

Senegalese drumming, an art form I once regarded as a largely incomprehensible, vaguely rhythmic cacophony, has quickly become one of my favorite types of music. The men throw their whole bodies into the beat, swaying their hips and bobbing their heads as they tattoo highly complicated, precisely-coordinated patterns into their goatskin-covered tomtoms. The music moves through you like a second heartbeat – the entire crowd is tapping their feet and swinging their shoulders simultaneously, everyone connected by the gutteral thumps and high, piercing rat-tat-tats emitting from the center of the circle. Then, a young woman in a shocking pink boubou darts forward, flailing her arms and legs in a wild physical embodiment of the ephemeral beat, jumping, twirling, lifting up her skirts to free her limbs, throwing up puffs of sand with her unshod feet. Just as suddenly as she entered the circle, she runs back out into the audience, giggling, her long, elaborate plaits trailing in her wake. Then another girl gets up to dance, and another, each in an outfit brighter and more beautiful than the last, each determined to outdo the others in terms of energy, style, and grace.

I’m transfixed. It looks like it should be so easy, jumping around in time to the music like that. But since I first observed this type of traditional Senegalese dancing back in September, I’ve surreptitiously tried to replicate it in the mirror, and…it looks less like I’m dancing and more like I’m having some kind of controlled, upright seizure, or else playing a childhood game that my sister and I used to call “crazy legs.”

“Tubab!” A young girl standing in front of me tugs on my sleeve, speaking in Wolof. “Ya ngiy demm feccal?” You’re going to dance?                                             “Deedeet!” I reply emphatically. No way!                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “Feccal! Feccal!” Dance, dance!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               “Je ne peut pas!” I explain, almost pleadingly, so flustered that I abandon all attempts at Wolof and revert to French.  I can’t.

I can’t. I cannot understand how a person can move simultaneously with so much force, yet so much poise. I cannot make my body move like that – after two and a half months in Senegal, I’ve only just obtained a tenuous grasp on the simple, stationary YUZA dance (which every single Senegalese seems to know, like the West African version of the Electric Slide.) But to take part in this sabat would require a whole other level of skill that I simply don’t have.

Just as I’m resigning myself to life as a Senegalese wallflower, however, a new person steps into the center of the circle. Even before she begins to dance, she garners hoots and hollers from the crowd – this woman clearly has a reputation as the best dancer in town, and she’s reveling in it. She builds up the suspense, stretching a little and fluffing her already gigantic hairdo, displaying her glittering Tabaski outfit to the eager onlookers. And then, at some invisible signal, the drummers change their beat, and she begins to dance. No – she begins to float, moving so lightly and with so much vigor that she seems to rise on the cloud of sand stirred up beneath her nimble feet. And she keeps going. And going. And going, dancing for three, four times as long as any of the shyer girls who preceeded her. Another woman hands her two shimmeringscarves, and she twirls them expertly as the drummers pick up the pace. The lead djembe player places his baseball cap on her head, a trophy of admiration that has yet to be bestowed upon any other dancer. And still she dances, until the hat is knocked off and, knowing the importance of a good exit, she sweeps it up off the ground and bows low to the crowd before flouncing back to her vacated seat, a victory strut. She’s not able to rest on her laurels for long – three of the drummers have abandonded their posts to chase after her, begging for a kiss, an embrace, a word, any acknowledgement of their existance from this local goddess. I don’t see whether she obliges – the crowd is so riled up, many have risen to their feet, blocking my view. But I don’t need to see what happens next. I’ve already witnessed the important part.

What I wouldn’t give to dance like that! It’s incredibly empowering to me that, within such a traditionally patriarchal culture as Senegal, one woman can
command such power with her movements and her attitude that she can hold an entire neighborhood captive and literally bring the men who are running the show to their knees. What I wouldn’t give to have the confidence, the knowledge, and the maturity to command my body like that dancer – to inherently know that I can not only roll with the flow of the unpredictable djembes, but do so with beauty and grace?

And that’s when it came to me – right there, in the press of a hundred sweaty dancers and onlookers, an epiphany illuminated by the cone of light pouring fourth from the streetlamp – isn’t that why I’m taking a gap year in the first place? Didn’t I come to Senegal to learn how to be myself – how to handle any situation I’m confronted with? Didn’t I decide, before I even boarded the plane, that this year I would learn how to walk in beauty and live with grace? And haven’t I written in every recent email to friends back in the U.S. that I already feel more confident, self-assured, and independant?

Though I may never actually master how to shake it like the Senegalese, at least I know that I’ll emerge from this gap year experience with the ability to dance (as it were) to the unpredictable drumbeat of life. And that, to me, might be even better than the real thing.

Emily Hanna