This article is part of a series documenting my 2020 journey to Gorée Island, Senegal. For the Hungarian translation, click here. For others in this series, click the Africa category on the left side bar. Thanks for reading! © 2020, all rights reserved.
Just days after my New Year’s gig was cancelled due to renewed government restrictions on social gatherings, I walked to the top of the island for lunch as I’d done several times and would do many times more. After this lunch I felt the urge to move and shake off the heaviness of pigging out. Conveniently, I happened to be wearing my RakasaFit™ gear. I swear, I didn’t plan this, and yet somehow I suspect my mischievous subconscious participated.
Fallou saw my gaze at the empty space across from where we’d gathered and asked if I wanted to go dance. I responded timidly, thinking of how silly and out of place I’d be. “Go,” he said. Well, I’ve never concluded a lunch at someone’s house with a personal RakasaFit™ session, but moment by moment as I plugged in my music, the idea of this began to feel more and more natural. And I’m sure all the spontaneous dance, music, and art happening all around added to my feeling of welcome.
Almost immediately I was joined by a girl, and then another, and then more came. They followed every single move, nuance, and gesture, like parrots with the spoken word. I immediately switched out of my inner world and into teacher mode, and saw the unforgettable light and joy radiating from their faces!
RakasaFit™ is normally a 50–60 minute workout, but as I tuned into their motivations and energies, songs were added and repeated and thus we trained for two hours.
At that point I could see they’d arrived at their sweet spot between learning saturation and happiness, so I concluded our lesson for the day. Later that evening, it was decided I would arrange a mini-show with them for the New Year’s Eve gathering on Goree! The flame had ignited.
Throughout the next two weeks, I created a 15-minute presentation of three choreographies. I’ve always noticed how mesmerized kids become when veil is added to the dance, so I arranged to find fabric in the colors of the Senegalese flag and had veils made for them.
As our practice proceeded, I became fascinated with how the kids learned. Initially and overall, they didn’t seem especially concerned with breakdown and details of getting it “right” and were happy to follow along and figure it out with their astute observation skills. Then, after a few sessions, a few of the girls began asking for verification on technical details, thus I used this as a time to go over such details with everyone.
It made me reflect on how we learn language in childhood -- initially we just speak what we learn and don’t ask why; then years later our grammar lessons come and we learn the logic behind it. It occurred to me that the elevated joy I was observing among these girls was a result of their lack of concern over whether they were doing it correctly or not; there was no notion of failure.
I also discovered that the learning approach and format of RakasaFit™ had particular resonance with the kids! The method of visualizing and creating shapes with the body resulted in immediate understanding and served as exactly the shortcut intended. The repetitiveness also added to the fun -- as they became more competent each time we repeated a combo, I observed their creativity and level of joy increase. And the overall “cardio” effect of RakasaFit™ was a perfect outlet for unloading the massive amounts of energy they’d accumulated throughout their school day.
In the process of learning about their learning approach, I also became aware of what to let go of. I realized that anything that impeded their experience of pure joy was to be discarded. I relaxed my attempts to maintain their stage placements, as I could see this was not relevant to their interests and motivation. Symmetry and visibility of dancers onstage is an aesthetic for the audience (and quite possibly more for Western audiences). I also learned to relax expectations of when and how the event would take place and who would participate. As this was a very informal effort during the pandemic, we had to make the best of very limited resources. And as the availability and schedule of kids is dependent on parents, reliable attendance wasn’t possible. But no matter what or when or whatever the outcome, we were all gaining immeasurable enrichment from this magical venture.
Thus, although disappointed at first with the cancellation of my one-of-a-kind New Year’s gig in a spectacular Dakar venue, when this sweet new project popped up I found myself feeling relieved with the change, for I would not have been able to dedicate my focus on it while also preparing and performing the gig. And this project now has a legacy. There is talk of me returning to Goree to repeat it on a grander scale. Regardless of whether this happens, the seeds have been planted in these wonderful girls. They now carry the spirit of this dance and the possibility of its evolution in their community, on Goree Island, but of course!
Video will be posted soon on the following social media channels:
Ez a cikk egy dokumentációs sorozat része a 2020-as, szenegáli Gorée-szigeti utazásomról. Az eredeti angol verzióért, és a sorozat többi részéért kattints az Afrika kategóriára a bal oldali menüsávban. A magyar fordítást Stúber Gyöngyi készítette. Köszönöm, hogy olvasol! © 2020, minden jog fenntartva.
Pár napra rá, hogy lemondták a szilveszteri fellépésemet a kormány által meghosszabbított gyülekezési korlátozások miatt, a szokásos módon sétáltam a sziget tetejére, hogy elköltsem az ebédemet. Az egyáltalán nem szerény lakomát követően muszáj volt mozognom és lerázni magamról az elnehezülést. Kényelemből épp a RakasaFit™ cuccom volt rajtam. Esküszöm, egyáltalán nem így terveztem, de úgy tűnik, csintalan tudatalattim közrejátszott az események alakulásában.
Fallou elkapta a tekintetemet, amint arra a térre révedek, ahol összejártunk és megkérdezte, lenne-e kedvem táncolni. Félénken azt válaszoltam neki, hogy nagyon nevetséges, és nem odaillő lenne. Erre azt mondta, “Menj!”. Hát, sosem zártam még le ebédet meghívottként más házában RakasaFit™ edzéssel, de ahogy elindítottam a zenét, egyre természetesebbé vált ez az ötlet. És a mindenhol jelenlévő spontán tánc, zene és művészetek is biztosan támogatták az elfogadottság érzésemet.
Abban a pillanatban csatlakozott hozzám egy kislány, aztán még egy, és még egy. Minden egyes mozdulatomat, nüanszot, gesztust követtek, mint a papagájok a beszéd utánzását. A belső világomból azonnal átváltottam tanár üzemmódba, és láttam a fényt és az örömet sugározni az arcukon!
A RakasaFit™ edzés 50-60 perces, de ahogy ráhangolódtam az energiájukra és lelkesedésükre, több ráadás számot is csináltunk, volt, amit ismételtünk, és így két órán keresztül edzettünk.
Ekkor vettem rajtuk észre, hogy már pont elég volt a tanulás, de még tartott az öröm, így aznapra be is fejeztük az órát. Még aznap este eldöntöttem, hogy szervezek velük egy mini fellépést a Gorée-szigeti újévi összejövetel alkalmából! Fellobbant a tűz.
Az elkövetkezendő két hétben 3 koreográfia 15 perces bemutatóját készítettem el. Mindig feltűnik, mennyire elbűvöli a gyerekeket a fátyol használata a táncban, így hát szereztem a szenegáli zászló színeit visszaadó anyagokat, és fátylakat csináltattam belőlük.
A próbák során teljesen lenyűgözött az, ahogyan a gyerekek tanultak. Elsősorban és legfőképpen, őket nem igazán foglalkoztatták a mozdulatok lebontása, meg az, hogy “jól” csinálják őket. Egyszerűen csak élvezték a lekövetést és rájöttek a mozdulatokra az ügyes megfigyelő készségüknek köszönhetően. Aztán pár alkalmat követően néhány lány elkezdett a technikai részletekről is kérdezni, ezért akkor ezeket mindenkivel végigvettük.
A gyerekkori nyelvtanulás párhuzamát juttatta ez eszembe -- először csak használjuk, amit megtanultunk úgy, ahogy kaptuk. Aztán évekkel később a nyelvtan órák miatt megértjük a mögöttes logikát is. Feltűnt, hogy a lányok túláradó örömének az volt az oka, hogy nem érdekelte őket, vajon megfelelően táncolnak-e, így a kudarc fogalma szóba sem jöhetett.
Azt is felfedeztem, hogy a RakasaFit™-ben alkalmazott tanulási módszertan és formátum különösen jól feküdt ezeknek a gyerekeknek! A mozdulatok vizualizálása és a testtel formákként való leírásának módszere miatt a gyerekek azonnal megértették a feladatot, pont úgy lerövidítve a folyamatot, ahogy az szándékosan ki lett találva. Az ismétlésszám is hozzáadott a mókához - ahogy egyre ügyesebbek lettek a kombinációk ismétlése során, úgy nőtt a kreativitásuk és az örömük is. A RakasaFit™ “kardió” jellege miatt pedig tökéletesen le tudták vezetni az iskolai nap során felgyülemlett töménytelen mennyiségű energiáikat.
A tanulási folyamataik megfigyelése során arra is rájöttem, mit kell elengedjek. Mindent, ami az örömük kibontakozását gátolja. Lazítottam a térforma megtartásának követelményén, mivel láttam, hogy ez számukra teljesen irreleváns. A szimmetria és a táncosok láthatósága a közönségnek (és nagy valószínűséggel elsősorban a nyugati közönségnek) fontos esztétikai szempont. Azon elvárásaimból is lejjebb adtam, hogy mikor és hogyan kerül megrendezésre az esemény, és ki vesz részt. Mivel ez egy teljesen ad hoc kezdeményezés volt, ráadásul a pandemia kellős közepén, így a legtöbbet kellett kihozni abból, amink volt. És mivel a gyerekek rendelkezésre állása és időbeosztása a szülőktől függött, nem lehetett megbízható részvételre számítani. De mindegy is volt a végkimenetel, mert mindannyian mérhetetlenül gazdagodtunk ez által a varázslatos projekt által.
Így, bár elsőre csalódott voltam, amiért visszamondták a különleges szilveszteri fellépésemet egy gyönyörű dakari helyszínen, amikor bejött a képbe ez a bájos kis projekt, megkönnyebbülést éreztem, ugyanis nem tudtam volna egyszerre erre is fókuszálni, és a fellépésre is készülni. És ennek a projektnek mostmár folytatása is van. Szó van arról, hogy visszatérek Gorée-ra és megismételjük ezt még nagyobb volumenben. Függetlenül attól, hogy erre sor kerül-e, a magok el lettek ültetve ezekben a csodálatos kislányokban. Mostmár ők is hordozzák ennek a táncnak a szellemiségét, és kifejlődésének lehetőségét a közösségükben, és persze, Gorée-szigeten!
This article is part of a series documenting my 2020 journey to Gorée Island, Senegal. For others in this series, click the Africa category on the left side bar. Thanks for reading! © 2020, all rights reserved.
In no other place have I witnessed such complete transformation from the darkness to the light, from the basest evil to the purest love. Once the hub of the West African slave trade, today Gorée Island vibrates with peace, love, art, community, and humanity. Here, art is just another shared element, like air and water. Here, the purpose of art is communication, connection, and community building. All are invited to participate, whether by creating, appreciating, or both. As an artist myself, I find my endless source of renewal and inspiration in this ecology.
Cobblestone pathways flow between historic repurposed buildings and uphill, winding through an enchanted display of art by local residents.
Soft waves caress my thoughts as birds zealously chant and flutter through the flowers, conversing about all that is important.
Nearby, drummers may spontaneously gather and elevate the earth with rhythm, including cassé cassé, a percussive instrument that makes me want to shimmy shimmy, created from a tree commonly found in Diogué Island in southern Senegal. Through Fallou and Sallou, this has become an international sensation, especially in Japan, where the instrument has been named Asalato. They make it look so simple, yet it’s incredibly challenging!
In the afternoon, songs of a hundred angel voices echo from the Mariama Ba all-girl's school, and I am transported to paradise. And sometimes at night, strong, joyful, and gorgeous singing permeates the air from the other side of the island.
The other day I heard from a distance someone playing not a hand drum, but the drum kit. I decided not to mind my own business and pursued it, leading me into a tunnel that pivoted to a room, whereupon I was welcomed to the drummer's practice.
This historical metamorphosis of Gorée Island, alive with every sunrise and sunset, expressed through the collective heart of the community and through the light of each individual, has fortified my sense of hope like no other. I can imagine no greater response to history. If it can be on Gorée, it can be anywhere. It's been an immeasurable gift to spend some time living this existence and learning so much from it.
I’m taking a unique journey of a lifetime. I am going to Gorée Island and there I will stay for a little while. This is about the last thing I imagined doing at the end of this year. But then, everything about this year is about the last thing I could have imagined. Thus when this opportunity so boldly and clearly presented itself and the usual noise of my busy life couldn’t cloud my vision, I patiently stood still in my resistance, then stepped into my courage and said yes.
Gorée Island, just off the coast of Senegal, was once the hub of the inconceivably evil West African slave trade. By contrast, it is now an incomparably magical, artistic, vibrant, and joyful place. This contrast is no coincidence. It is an intentional collective manifestation by the residents of Gorée throughout generations, determined to represent this monumental island as the world hub of humanity, which they demonstrate in every action and interaction, and especially through art. Each day is an acknowledgement of the evil that took place, with daily actions and expressions to demonstrate it is nevermore. As ambassadors of peace and humanity, they bring others into the light, healing the residual fragments of trauma that lie within our consciousness.
My first visit to Gorée Island was just over 20 years ago, an emotionally charged experience that culminated in sleeping in one of the underground dungeons, which I spent months writing about as a way to process, but never published. Since then I have witnessed the changes of this island toward more commercial and institutional as Senegal develops, leaving the traditional resident artists more vulnerable. Last summer a call for help came to me. One of the leaders of the Gorée artist community was on the verge of losing the lease on his modest gallery space. With no visitors permitted throughout more than seven months due to the pandemic, his income was eliminated. And so I launched a small fundraiser to help him save his livelihood and help others in his community, and to preserve the unique and extraordinary enlightenment they offer to visitors from around the world. My profound thanks to all who contributed! 🤍
The process of coordinating this fundraiser and writing about it reawakened my connections and opened the door to this journey I now embark on, a personalized residency organically created somehow through my life path. This will be an immersion of sharing and exchange. I will grow my language and communication skills in French and Wolof. I will learn the ways of transmitting peace through a smile. I will learn how to cook in new ways. I will learn much more about world history and culture. I will be available to offer what I know to whoever seeks it. And I will dance with the sea!
Prior to my trip to Europe last February and March, one of my RakasaFit participants suggested I would surely not want to miss the opportunity to get photos in a belly dance costume on the beach while at Canary Islands! In my flurry of preparations focused on the workshops I was to deliver in Budapest, I probably wouldn't have thought about this, so I was glad she mentioned it. But here's the catch -- I'd have to find someone to take these photos, as I was traveling solo. My former sister-in-law whom I was visiting and who'd lived there for decades would be a good possibility. But it turns out she was busy with work and family and suggested it was a simple matter of going to the beach and asking someone to take a photo.
Anxiety crept in as I visualized this. How would I bypass my lifelong shyness and social inhibitions to approach a complete stranger with this request while wearing a belly dance costume? Or what if I made an unlucky choice and the stranger runs away with my phone? After delaying about as much as I could, a couple days before my flight departure I shove myself out the door in my costume and shimmy down to the beach. It's just a question of showing up, I tell myself, and not thinking ahead. The rest will find a way, one step at a time. I begin to enjoy the feeling of unthinking, listening to the distant voice, and watching my own movie.
A few steps go by and my eyes settle on the man running the outdoor jetski rental. Hmmm, prepared to meet the public and a safe choice moreover. And so I ask, "I wonder if you could take a few photos of me in front of the sea?"
"Clothes on, or clothes off?" he responds.
The self watching my own movie howls with laughter! All at once I realize I'm just one of many with this idea to approach him with such a photo request! And clearly these requests have fallen in two categories! I pause for a moment, as the self watching my own movie is tempted to choose the "clothes off" option in order to find out his response. I also pause at the notion that numerous others before me must have requested this, in order for my question to require such clarification.
"Clothes on," I smile, and explain that the special costume I'm wearing is my purpose. He agrees, hurriedly secures his shop, and we take a few steps down to the shore and take some shots. Less than a minute later, he hands me my phone and hurries back to his shop. His disinterest amuses me, further underscoring the narrative of the many requests that came before me.
And then that's it? I think. All this preparation for a few shots in less than 60 seconds ? I decide to proceed further down the beach and repeat the process. I expect it to feel easier now that I've tried it, but it becomes hard again as I consider the awkwardness of approaching an unsuspecting tourist minding his own business. It occurs to me that I'd feel much better about asking a woman, and that's what I do. The woman I approach is with her male partner. She turns out to be Italian and barely understands my request in English, which would have been in Spanish, if only I knew how.
Contrary to the previous "photographer" she is effervescent with interest in the whole idea. She suggests new angles and poses as her artistic discovery unfolds. Many photos later, we agree to finish and I express my heartfelt thanks. In her eyes I see an unmistakably bright soul, glowing with a million stars. Arriving back in Budapest for a few more days before my return to the US, I immediately learn of an emergency outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, one of the first dominoes to fall in what was to quickly become a massive global health crisis. Casualties were piling high in Italy as the rest of the world scrambled to understand how to minimize the spread of this novel virus, in a panic to avoid the same fate. I think of this Italian woman, imagining the shock of her return from Canary Islands to face this nightmare, a destiny we would soon share.
Ⓒ 2020 - All rights reserved.
Thank you for reading! With the pandemic, my usual work as a presenter, teacher, and event organizer has been nearly eliminated. I'm nonetheless making good use of my time, and community building through writing, photos, and video is one of them. If you wish to support this, please send a contribution of any amount through PayPal or CashApp and connect on the various social channels. --With gratitude, Suzanna.
On February 11th, 2019, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This writing represents my thoughts and journey in the moments, weeks, and months that followed. From this, a poem was also developed in collaboration with my mother, Josey Cooper, for a spoken-word dance solo I recorded, choreographed, and performed. View the written poem >
I guess I never imagined hearing that word applied to me, hoping the avoided thought would keep it distant from me. In the days before, a massive uncharacteristic snow storm -- perhaps the biggest in my region’s history -- quietly settled in, as an ominous backdrop. And on February 11th, 2019, isolated in the storm, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
This unbelievable news was the outcome of a routine but overdue medical checkup, one that could have been taken care of months or even a year before, or could have been delayed further, but suddenly was top of mind. Benign cysts are common. Over the years there had been many of these routine exams, always with the same benign conclusion.
But this exam was different -- a new cyst was discovered. Still, not alarming; perhaps an addition to the family. But this one was not easy to find. “It doesn’t look like the others,” said the doctor. “It needs biopsy.”
And the results were back. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I didn’t know these words. Anticipating they were fancy medical jargon for another variation of another benign cyst -- and not ready to hear anything else -- I asked, “but what is that?” “Cancer,” she struggled to say. In that moment, my mental interior entirely and permanently changed.
Looking outside at the endless snow, I couldn’t help thinking this might actually signal the end of the world. Everything began to spin. Reality shifted. How long had I moved through life and all its hustles and pursuits, ignorant of cancer growing inside of me? My body absorbs shock and bounces back, I’d always thought. Suddenly, I began to discover myself as a completely vulnerable being, in the process of slowly, or perhaps not slowly, being destroyed from within. What is my environment within that allowed for this mutation?
Suddenly, I felt myself drowning in a future I never imagined -- surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, long-term medication, or all of those. Night after night I allowed only thoughts of faith to carry me to sleep. But each morning I awoke to a nightmare, remembering I have cancer now. I wondered if there was an exit, back into my dreams, back into the vortex, then to a new start?
After the findings of the first surgery I was told I needed a second one, as soon as possible. I didn’t imagine this could happen! Malignant cells lingered. My mind orbited in a constant state of uncertainty. Do I have a future? How much? This uncertainty has always existed, I realized, but now I lived in a heightened state of awareness. Suddenly, I began to see all the colors and textures! Suddenly, I began to consciously and actively choose life, whether for ten more minutes or for ten more years. At least I have this chance. So many are no longer among the living.
Hearing the news or by osmosis, the survivors began to reach out and share their wisdom. “In many ways it is a gift,” said one. “You’ll never have another bad day again,” said another. When cancer falls upon you, all previous anxieties and sorrows become small pebbles. “You are about to discover how much love there is in your community,” said another. And I did! I wanted to capture this in a bottle and save the world with it. Seriously, why don’t we call or text a few people weekly to check in on how things are going, without that being weird?
On February 11th, 2019, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This poem was adapted and developed, in collaboration with my mother, Josey Cooper, from my initial writing describing my experience in the moments, weeks, and months that followed. From this poem, I also produced an audio recording, and choreographed and performed it as a spoken-word dance solo. View the original "Cancer Reflections" >
That word, I never imagined hearing that word applied to me.
Hoping the avoided thought would keep it distant from me.
Then suddenly, as I busily pursued my dreams, the skies shifted.
A massive and unusual snow storm
Quietly settled in.
It trapped our cars on icy hills;
It trapped us in our houses,
With diminishing supplies,
It trapped us with our thoughts,
Setting an ominous backdrop.
And on February 11th, 2019, that word, cancer,
I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
There was one unlucky aunt, died at 49,
Leaving behind two young children.
But, I had many of these routine exams,
Ending always in the same benign conclusion,
And reinforcing my blind confidence.
Avoidance prevailed, month after month,
Almost a year later
A ghostly urgency prodded me
Toward a long overdue checkup.
This exam was different –
A new cyst joined the family.
Didn’t look like the others.
It was hiding, reclusive.
“Invasive ductal carcinoma,”
Said the pathologist.
I was still hearing benign cyst, like always,
And not ready to hear anything else.
I asked the doctor, “What’s that?”
“Cancer,” she struggled to say.
In that moment
The darkest chaos descended upon me,
Closing in like the weather.
Unpredictable like the weather
These death cells inside of me
How fast are they multiplying?
Where would they roam?
Would they incinerate my dreams?
Looking out at the confining snow,
I began to see the apocalypse.
How long had I moved
Through life’s hustles and pursuits,
Ignorant of cancer growing inside of me?
My body absorbs shock and bounces back!
Suddenly . . .
I realized myself as a completely vulnerable being,
In the process of slowly, or perhaps not slowly,
Being destroyed from within.
What allowed this mutation?
Suddenly . . .
I was immersed in a script I was completely unprepared for –
Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, long-term medication,
Or all of those.
I struggled, but accepted the first surgery.
Then, I was told I needed a second one,
As soon as possible.
I didn’t imagine this could happen.
My mind orbited in a constant state of uncertainty,
Uncertainty that always existed;
I am shifted to a heightened state of awareness
Suddenly . . .
I find myself noticing all the colors and textures!
Suddenly . . .
I consciously and actively choose life,
Whether for ten more minutes,
Or for ten more years.
When cancer falls upon you,
All previous anxieties and sorrows
Become small pebbles.
Just as suddenly . . .
The survivors entered
And shared their wisdom.
“In many ways it is a gift”.
“You’ll never have another bad day again.”
“You are about to discover
How much love there is in your community”.
And I did!
I wanted to capture it in a bottle,
And save the world with it.
Why don’t we call
Or text a few people, weekly?
Ask them how things are going.
Would that be so weird?
Over and over I hear that I am strong.
Sometimes that feels like I don’t qualify for concern.
I have never been more vulnerable;
And I am valuing the honesty of that more every day.
People refer to cancer as something you fight.
For me, it is something I try to make peace with.
There is no light without darkness,
Even (or maybe especially) within us.
The feeling of the knife lingers,
And the fear of what may come.
But I have been given the gift of today.
Why am I in a good mood?
Because I woke up today,
And I’m standing here
Alive and whole.