KanKouran’s irresistible celebration of West African dance


WASHINGTON, DC: Sept. 5, 2009: The KanKouran West African Dance Company performing "Bolo Moye Dole" at Lisner Auditorium. (Andrew Foster/Andrew Foster)
August 9

How stirring are the drumbeats in a KanKouran West African Dance Company classroom? Stirring enough to make a clueless novice forget, briefly, that she has neglected to wear a lapa skirt.

I was sporting a short-sleeve top and sensible shorts when I showed up for the 90-minute KanKouran adult dance class one recent Saturday afternoon, at the invitation of Assane Konte, the company’s artistic director. I arrived at Dance Exchange in Takoma Park to find the building already thrumming with percussion. Tykes were beating out polyrhythms as a children’s drum-and-dance session wound down in a roomy rehearsal hall.

After the kids exited, we older students — all women, of various ages — took our places, facing a full-wall mirror. I suddenly felt self-conscious. The other students had tied, over their leggings or shorts, long wrap skirts — garments that imparted both stylishness and an air of fidelity to tradition. By contrast, with my glaringly bared legs, approximately the color of mashed potatoes, I simply looked dorky.

I fought to tamp down my embarrassment as KanKouran veteran Darryl McDuffie led the class in warm-up stretches to the strains of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Then Konte, a native of Senegal, took the floor, dressed in long striped pants and a sleeveless white T-shirt that showed off his muscular arms. Drummer Roy Horton and a couple of younger percussionists seated themselves at their instruments near the side wall.

Konte demonstrated a movement sequence that involved pulsing steps — left-right, right-left, always moving forward — accompanied by churning arms, twisting hips and jauntily swiveling knees. As the drummers pitched into their infectious sonic patterns, we students formed lines and followed Konte’s example, flowing from the back of the room toward the mirror.

“It’s not a stamp,” Konte admonished at one point, speaking of a quick sole-meets-floor beat. “It’s a touch! It’s a completely different language!”

We strove to touch, rather than stamp. At another point, he urged us to let our arms swing back into the right exuberant angle. “Bird doesn’t fly without wings!” he shouted.

Periodically, Konte moved from the floor to the drum section and joined in with the accompanists. Then he would move back to the floor and demonstrate another bit of dance.

Averting my eyes from my own reflection — I tried to hide behind some more competent, elegant students — I did my best to follow along. A bit of choreography involving a spin confounded me, but, all in all, the session was great fun and terrific exercise. My sartorial failure even faded from my mind now and then amid the exultant pummeling of the drums.

After the class ended, I learned from Konte’s colleague Eurica Huggins that we had been learning a strand of the Senegalese sabar dance. The sabar will provide a unifying leitmotif when KanKouran presents its concert production “Sounougal (Our Boat)” at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Aug. 30. A showcase for performances by KanKouran’s senior, junior and children’s companies, as well as community class participants, the concert will coincide with KanKouran’s 31st Annual National African Dance and Drum Conference, which includes workshops with international artists and runs Aug. 29-31.

Dancing the KanKouran way becomes “like an addiction” to many people who take the company’s community classes, Huggins said as we chatted after the sabar workout. She pointed out that three generations of one family — including a lapa-wearing grandmother I had danced beside in the adult class — had been represented in the building that day.

“It’s a whole life experience,” she said.

The love interest speaks

A life experience of a bittersweet kind reverberates after a death in “Molly,” a new play by George O’Brien. An Irish native and a professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, O’Brien based his script on the true story of Molly Allgood, the actress who was mistress to the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. Scena Theatre is giving “Molly” a world premiere run at the Atlas Performing Arts Center starting Aug. 23.

O’Brien hit on the idea for “Molly” when he was teaching Synge’s once-controversial “The Playboy of the Western World” to students at Georgetown. He remembers feeling a need to find a fresh, compelling angle on the 1907 classic, which appeared on the syllabus alongside works by W.B. Yeats and “the usual suspects” of the Irish Literary Revival.

“When you’re teaching something, God knows, you’re [often] looking for something to renew your own interest,” he notes.

Rather than stressing the significance of Synge’s title character — a self-proclaimed murderer who is lionized by Irish countryfolk — O’Brien thought he would emphasize the character of Pegeen Mike, the playboy’s love interest. In Pegeen Mike’s spirited personality, the professor thought he could sense Synge’s attraction to Allgood (whose stage name was Maire O’Neill), the first actress to play the role. “There’s a fantastic energy in this part,” he says. “Writing this kind of part for a young woman in 1907” would have been “a remarkable kind of occasion.” Add in the knowledge that the Synge-Allgood romance faced substantial obstacles — he was from a wealthy Protestant family and she from a poor Catholic one; he was almost 20 years older—and the ingredients for drama were hard to ignore.

The author of three published memoirs, among other books, O’Brien wrote the play, his first, as a monologue and set it on the afternoon of Synge’s funeral. Actress Danielle Davy will play Molly in the Scena production, which is directed by the company’s artistic director, Robert McNamara, and which runs in tandem with another Irish play, Conor McPherson’s “Shining City.”

The pairing may be particularly apt, given McPherson’s well-known fondness for ghost stories and the funeral theme in “Molly.”

“I don’t think that mine is a ghost story, exactly,” O’Brien says of his play. “But I think that, inevitably, when somebody is mourning, there is an element of haunting in it.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Sounougal (Our Boat) A concert production by KanKouran West African Dance Company, 8 p.m. Aug. 30, George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. KanKouran’s 31st Annual National African Dance and Drum Conference Aug. 29-Aug. 31, Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle NW. Visit www.kankouran.org.

Shining City, Molly Directed by Robert McNamara for Scena Theatre. Running in tandem: “Shining City,” Saturday-Sept. 21; “Molly,” Aug. 23-Sept. 21. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. Visit www.scenatheater.org or call 202-399-7993.

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