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KanKouran West African Dance Company

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Editorial Review

KanKouran West African Dance Company stays true to tradition

By Lisa Traiger
Friday, September 3, 2010

You can hear the sharp staccato drums down the block, especially on a hot summer evening when the doors of the Randall Recreation Center in Southwest are propped open to catch a rare breeze. Inside, Assane Konte leads a dozen youngsters in a knee-pumping, torso-gyrating combination, his shoulder-length braids gathered into a ponytail.

"Keep your torso forward like this," Konte, 59, calls to one girl wearing a multicolored lapa -- an African-print wrap skirt. He pitches forward from his hips, demonstrating the tilt he wants to see in her upper body.

This weekend, KanKouran West African Dance Company celebrates 27 years under Konte's direction with "Circle of Praise: Blessings," a heart-pumping program of traditional dance and music at Lisner Auditorium. The performance honors the late Sherrill Berryman Johnson, who was Konte's mentor and a longtime dance professor at Howard University. It's the centerpiece of a weekend-long international conference at the Washington Plaza Hotel of African dance and drum workshops, which Konte organizes annually.

The program at Lisner will highlight dances with roots in Afro-Caribbean culture and feature drum-and-dance ceremonies from Senegal, Liberia, Mauritania and other West African nations. "We're taking [the audience] back to our culture," Konte says. "Starting here, with what was left over from Africa when black people joined the Baptist church in America, the show travels first to the Caribbean covering the spiritual dances of the islands, then we cross the sea to our ancestral homeland -- Africa."

That has been Konte's mission since he moved from Senegal and settled in Washington in 1983: passing on his African heritage to Americans, particularly children of the Wii and iPod generation. "I go to the neighborhoods around here and I try to convince them to join us," he says. Those who join his community classes are inculcated with a love and respect for African dance, music and cultural values, particularly the importance of family and education.

Ten-year-old Kana Yakud of Washington, catching her breath after an hour-long rehearsal, says she began dancing at age 2. "I love the challenges and learning the new steps. [African dance] also helps me understand my culture and who I am. It connects me to Africa and brings me my history."

Konte says: "Some choreographers want to do fusion, of African with American, a little modern or jazz technique. But that's why I am here. I'm going to keep doing what I do the best: the tradition.

"Africa is a continent [where] there is so much culture and beauty to explore. I don't have to try to change the dance. I want it to be authentic and traditional. It's about history. It's very important because I'm representing Africa. It's what I do the best."