Early Saturday morning, the other YES girls and I set out in the crisp (ish) air to a school of traditional Malian dance, called Maison des Arts. The quaint couple that owned the place ushered us first onto the sunny terrace, filled us up with a delicious Malian breakfast, and we promptly began our dance lesson.
The husband of the couple, Makan, is an artistic genius and was surprisingly patient in teaching us to dance. The walls of their house, restaurant, and dance studio were covered by vibrant paintings of dancers, instruments and nature scenes, which were all done by him, Makan informed us.
The dance we learned is called the degou-degou, and is the most basic one of the Malian traditional style. This dance from the ancient past- further back than I can imagine- was inspiring, jubilant, and physical. Into the afternoon we worked long and hard, pounding our feet into the floorboards in time with the four drummers who relentlessly kept us afloat. Having been classically trained in ballet, this invigorating new approach was liberating for me, and I felt no constraint, no restrictions. We mastered the dance by lunchtime, and us girls plan on presenting it for the state department once we get to Washington DC. Should be interesting!
Lunch was tasty, and everyone was sweaty and tired. Makan’s wife, an older woman from Marseilles, made sure we ate everything on our plates, and with a smile in her eyes grouchily told us that she “wouldn’t dance for anything.” After lunch we went back upstairs to the dance studio, and got a lesson on how to drum. My mom in the US always tells me that she believes in some past life, she was a professional drummer, and I laugh every time as she bangs her wrist against the steering wheel while listening to the radio. I have some back-pedaling to do now, however, because I feel confident that African drumming runs somewhere deep in my blood. So wild! So raw, so exhilarating! I’ll stop before I become over-excited about this. The next day my hands were puffy and red, but who cares. The price of passion!!
Moving on now. At around 5 pm, the dance company started filing in, slowly warming up and stretching out as I remember well from my own dancing days. We got the privilege to watch their rehearsal, and what I saw was inspiring and magnificent. The imperfect yet overwhelming beauty of the corps as they moved together projected an unrefined devotion to every step they took. Their pain and their dedication to the story of this dance which outlines their history as a people was apparent in their eyes, and the way their feet pounded along to the resonating heat beat of the drums. After around two hours, the rehearsal abruptly stopped, and I felt like crying out, “Don’t stop moving! Please, keep going.”
Makan explained to us afterwards about the different movements of the piece, all choreographed by himself. The storyline of the dance follows a family, with a daughter who wants to marry a man her father doesn’t approve of. Makan told us how the dance encompasses traditional steps and music, though brings in new ideas about modernization, and how the younger generation is changing. He said to us, looking a bit downhearted, that the young ones now just want to get out of Mali, go anywhere else. “When they leave and do not come back, that is an ugly thing,” he said.
It made me reflect on what I’ve heard many people ask me during my stay: why are you here in this country, we’re so poor, there’s nothing here. It makes me a bit sad each time I hear it, and I always rush to say how much I enjoy it here, as if that could change someone’s mind. This lack of pride, nearing on disgust towards one’s mother country, has come as a surprise for me, and a frustration at that. How can I explain to someone how much they should prize their home, when everyday in geography class we learn that Africa is a continent defined by it’s problems, during school time students are callously berated for speaking Bambara among themselves, and in history we’ve learned nothing yet about Mali’s past, but instead are now focused on the technical revolution in Europe during the 18th century. I’m not saying that Mali doesn’t face many problems, but I don’t think she should be characterized solely by her worthlessness.
Mali has been an independent country for 51 years now, but the signs of colonization are still blatantly present, and a push to become westernized is an item of great importance among people my age- in the way they dress, speak, and consider their futures.
Learning to dance in the traditional Malian style was fun and interesting, and I’m glad I have this part of Mali’s culture to bring back with me and share. It made me consider, though: how many 16 year-old girls living in Bamako could dance the degou-degou? And once Makan closes up his studio for good, and all the young people move out of their villages in exchange to wear a suit into an office building, how long will it take before the dance is forgotten completely?