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.
My theatre professors used to advise writing down all initial impressions immediately upon reading or watching a play. These initial impressions would soon be forgotten with familiarity, and were key to knowing what to highlight for the audience. Thus, I note my initial impressions of Brazil, and in particular of São Paulo and a nearby small town Itanhaém. Just a snapshot perspective that is uniquely mine, and will surely become better informed with time.
During the 11 hour flight from LA while approaching Brazil, I spotted Senegal, West Africa on the flight map, just across the Atlantic – the furthest from Seattle I’d been until now. And still more than 5 hours before we’d arrive in São Paulo on the other side of the equator. The world is massive! And so is São Paulo, a megacity of 17 million people. On arrival, passing through the custodial gates of immigration we were suddenly surrounded by a duty free mall on the scale of a Vegas hotel. My mind reeling, I grabbed a couple more pairs of much needed Victoria’s Secret underwear. As we drove to our boutique hotel, it seemed just about every urban surface was decorated with very elaborate graffiti art. Instead of a few logical turns off a freeway exit, it took many tortuous twists through narrow streets to get to our destination, a beautiful modern room at Hotel Mercure, a three-star hotel which had been through a recent remodel.
From a local perspective, everything in São Paulo is expensive. But with dollars, everything is currently affordable, and you get great value for what you pay. Much of the city looks just like Cairo to me, minus the Arabic, but including the layer of smog. Are all megacities using the same manual for urban planning? Perhaps the same investors? In an attempt to address the extreme traffic congestion of São Paulo, drivers are assigned one day per week in which their cars are not allowed on the road.
Having traveled to many places, what is absolutely exceptional about Brazil is the hospitality, warmth, and sense of friendship immediately established. I’m told São Paulo is on the cooler end of this compared to elsewhere in Brazil, such as the north. However, I can’t imagine how humans could be any warmer! Greeting those you encounter immediately is mandatory. And unless you’re passing right through, this exchange will quickly erupt into a multithread conversation and gestures of kindness. Gift giving seems standard practice between guests and hosts, a delightful practice I hope to adopt.
I am convinced this Brazilian social abundance would do wonders for the US. We are in love with their culture in all other ways, so why not? What if saying “hi, how are you” to every neighbor, store clerk, or person standing beside us at a bus stop were so second nature it would appear abnormal and disconcerting if it didn’t occur? I’m currently reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell, wherein he refers to the Power of Context to explain how such minor, seemingly trivial adjustments trigger sweeping changes in social structures. This may be just the antidote for Seattle’s rapid structural transformation and population growth. Not that I’ve ever been any shining example myself. I’m trying to imagine, how will I get past the inhibiting strange glances in response?
Turn on a TV in Brazil and see no thin thighs. All women (of any race) have big strong muscular thunder thighs and butts, and look spectacular! For the first time ever I felt represented by media. Also, perhaps for the first time ever, my hair has volume! Ironically, this is exactly what most Brazilian girls struggle to get rid of with the Brazilian blowout. The coffee, on the other hand, is never big. Served as shots of espresso, it is much stronger. Order a “long” coffee and you’ll get a bit more. But if you’re an addict like me, you’ll still need several.
If I thought the cheese was incredible in France, I just met its rival. Cheese is in, on, or with just about everything, and the pizza is king of them all. There’s no end to what I could write about all food in Brazil. The banana jam. The feijoada. The many tropical fruits. I’m making a vow to myself to take better care of how I eat when back in the US.
On the other hand, everything you’ve heard about the extreme income inequality is true. However, compared to similar environments I’ve traveled, kindness and graciousness seem to prevail over manipulating tourists for financial gain. I’m sure it happens, but I’m used to it being relentless. This makes a big difference. But the dark side of income (and education) inequality in Brazil is violence. Carjacking is common, and significantly more likely to occur when cars are stopped in traffic, which is often. Knowing precisely the route you’ll drive is also vital, particularly in neighborhoods bordering slums, which appear in random patches among more moderate to lower income neighborhoods. One wrong turn down the wrong street could change destiny. And it’s easy to do with so many one-ways.
Much of this tension has subdued since arriving in the quaint rustic beach town of Itanhaém, the second oldest town of Brazil. Nearby the artist house in which I stay is a huge boulder formation said to have been used as a bed by the first Portuguese priest who founded the town. Not sure if that is folklore, but based on the number of condoms tossed on the other side of the pathway, it is a bed indeed. Gazing out to the ocean you spot a few nearby islands.
One of them is the famous but forbidden Snake Island, with the highest concentration of deadly snakes in the world, apparently discovered the hard way by a lighthouse operator and his family in the 1920s. Inside this lovely town is one of the oldest churches in South America, Convent of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, built 483 years ago by enslaved natives of Brazil, those peaceful inhabitants that lived here long before any Europeans arrived. The statues of the saints were carefully fashioned to appear as those traditionally made of ceramic, but instead constructed of carved wood and hallowed on the inside in order to surreptitiously transport gold to Europe.
I didn’t mean this to turn into a lesson on history and culture. In truth, the caipirinha and fresh catch of shrimp squeezed with lime are already becoming my most prominent memories. But history and culture are of intrinsic interest to me, so I suppose this focus was inevitable. You may be wondering, where is the dance? Yes, there has been samba and belly dance. In fact the workshop I took in Seattle with Robert Luu on Zouk just weeks prior to this trip came in exceedingly handy with partner dancing! And it seems I am summoned to perform a belly dance show this evening. But with this geographic distance it’s been important to also accept distance from my creative work, to cleanse and refresh mind, body, and soul.