By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer
Dance as viewed through our modern lens is centered on entertainment. You can hardly look at a music video, sports game or viral clip that doesn’t involve the latest dance move of the moment.
Thanks, Odell Beckham Jr.
However, for Dr. Ofosuwa Abiola, professor of Africana dance and performance history at Howard University and author of “History Dances: Chronicling the History of Traditional Mandinka Dance,” the movements many watch and emulate had a much more important role in African history—to tell the Black story.
“History is a field founded in written documents,” Abiola said. “In Africa, the history was really recorded in the culture. You had to look at the culture and the dances.”
That is not to say there were no written accounts of African history, Abiola quickly pointed out. However, for a more comprehensive accounting, “You had to look at African dance. It’s not that there are no sources written or derived from Africa. You’re looking in the wrong place.
“You have places in Africa where they have oral history. Where they sing it and tell it,” Abiola said.
A former dancer, Abiola was always a student of history. Before getting her doctorate in history from Howard University, she was a voracious reader and consumer of all aspects of the African Diaspora.
Abiola founded Suwabi African Ballet, a traditional African dance company in Newport News, Va., where she was artistic director for 15 years. She wrote choreographed and produced several ballets, including “The Dismal Swamp,” “Wasalunke and the Three Virtues,” “The Voices of Shu,” “Waters of Despair, Waters of Hope; Africa: A Song of Me” and “Imhotep”. She also set the choreography for numerous musicals, including “Once on this Island,” “The Outliers,” “Rainbow Park,” “The Outliers II” and “The Wiz.”
“During that period I did research,” Abiola said. “I would create ballets that displayed the finding of that research.”
What started out as a passion turned into a career–teaching and now publishing a book. Her ode to dance was a culmination of years of study and research. And, Abiola’s results surprised even her.
“What all the places have is dance,” Abiola said. “In the dances, I argue you will find all the history. They depicted cultural changes. They also serve as a record of change. If you’re able to look the dances you can be able to ascertain what the new events are. That was one of the reason I wrote the book.
“African dance really is the conglomeration of a bunch of things,” Abiola said. “I call them African dance systems. You have to look at drum rhythm, where the dances are done, if they are only done at a specific time at a specific location. You have to look at what folks are wearing. The types of fabrics. It also tells something about the dance and what it’s trying to convey.”
Dance was not just communication, it also was policy and politics.
“During the time when a lot of countries were fighting colonialism they established African dance companies and nationalized them,” Abiola said. “They are government companies that were deliberately sent out to tell the story.”
According to Abiola, this nationalizing of dance was created by Keita Fodéba, a Guinean dancer, musician and politician who realized that in order to tell the story of his people they have to be put on the national stage.
Abiola has been teaching some of what she learned in her dance classes for juniors and seniors at Howard. Soon, she will be teaching sophomores in the upcoming school year.
“History Dances” is out on hardcover with Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, please visit Dr. Abiola’s site here.