“I am a dancer. I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living.... In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.” ~Martha Graham, c.1953
This is a suitable quote for a young, aspiring dancer whom I met twenty-five months ago, named Alisha Ross. She is my subject of dance because she lives and breathes its essence. Hers is a journey reminiscent of all devotees, whose “arduous paths of self-discovery and cultural enlightenment… spread knowledge and ways of living” (her words), and “invigorate human feelings and expression of them, connecting diverse peoples, without boundaries” (my words).
Human bonding occurs when dancers connect deeply – physically, emotionally, psychologically – with movements that convey methods and meanings of life. Intensive, ongoing training of body mechanics, musicality, space, line, energy, and synergy (dancers moving and breathing as one organic “whole”) can span several decades, with most professional dancers acquiring thousands of hours in a lifetime.
What makes Alisha special is her quest into West African dance and drumming, which began in 2004 as a student of Joe Galeota’s West African drum and dance ensemble at Berklee College of Music. Traditional Ghanaian dances from the Ewe and Dagomba people, like “Atsiagbekor” and “Takai” were studied intensely upon Alisha’s first trip to Ghana in 2004, and further upon her enrollment as a graduate student of Tuft’s University and membership with Professor David Locke’s “Kiniwe” African drum and dance ensemble.
Simultaneous studies occurred at the Cambridge Dance Complex, where master teachers such as Astou Sagna, Seydou Coulibaly, and Lamine Toure rounded out her training in Guinean and Malian djembe and Senegalese sabar styles of dance. Finally, she spent two months in 2006 doing filed research in Dakar, Senegal, where she studied with Les Ballets Africains Fambondy, under the direction of Djiby Sane and Abdou Dieng. Lamine Toure’s brothers, Viewx Toure and Massala MBaye, were also instrumental to her training.
This story only magnifies, as Alisha gains momentum teaching, writing, developing drumming circles and formulating curriculum that can be “taught in schools and after-school programs that focus on both the health (mind/body) benefits of drum and dance, as well as the cultural contexts, meanings, values, and traditions.” Alisha and I share a love of the cultures and people of Africa, and strive to maintain customs that have been aurally conveyed for hundreds of years. For example, Sabar is a collective, Senegalese dance form performed at many “life cycle events,” such as birth, weddings, healing ceremonies and coming of age. Alisha studied, observed, participated, and delved deeply into these and other world rhythms that continue to connect people to people – worldwide, sharing stories of real life events.
Because the dances are often physically and mentally strenuous (because they follow detailed, exacting steps and movements, which are often responses to drum signals that can last 20 minutes or longer), these dances evoke blood, sweat and tears, as dancers struggle with “dedication and love” of them, while suffering the pains and toils of extremely complex movement and music. Some of Senegalese dance is complex by design, sharing both “amazing agility” and “ballet-like grace and precision,” which can prove challenging to an athlete who studied soccer (speed, jumps, high energy), but not necessarily the “delicate placement of hands and wrists, and precise bending at the waist with turns,” which proves what Alisha reflects “a wonderful challenge.”
Since we all bring our particular strengths to the dance table, our uniqueness adds to the sheer beauty and variety within a dance group’s synergy – all which is raw expression through (usually) pre-determined movement. When dancers bond to one another, to communities, traditions, and at last the audience, theirs is a realm that is larger than life itself. As Alisha aptly states: “sometimes the stories behind performers of these traditions are beautiful, brutal, or heartbreaking…. but all of it leaves their body when they are onstage.” That is what makes a professional dancer; that is how we stay connected in deep and vital ways.
As a multifaceted (still young) performing artist, teacher, and researcher, Alisha aspires to “be dynamic, changing, growing, never stagnant, with my dance and music always focused on how it affects people.” As a fellow colleague and dancer, I am one eager audience member, awaiting Alisha Ross’ choreographies that will certainly contain strong elements of West African influence, and whatever other forms she follows with full zest over life-long quest as a dancer.
Alisha Ross, Dance Complex, Cambridge, MA 2009