The real performance began with the final round when some of the dancers leaped from the stage and began to stamp and jump in the aisles. One could see their leg muscles tense and traces of sweat and smiles surface on their faces. The Kennedy Center's Concert Hall is a big, cold space to thaw even for the 34-member National Dance Company of Senegal. But breaking into the audience finally did the trick last night. Contact was established, and even when the performers returned to the stage for the rest of the finale, the music and dancing continued to sizzle.
Up to then it had been a long evening of exotic sounds and steps that once in a while formed themselves into stretches of ecstatic music and dance. In the far west African country of Senegal, Arab and black tribal traditions have met. One hears the suggestive flute and the inexorable drum; one sees the swaying hip and the firm footstep. In the dancing, it's the stamping step that's dominant.
The variety of the stamping was remarkable. The dancers would bend their bodies forward, their feet drumming the floor or appearing to penetrate it like pile drivers. Or they would become light and airborne while still treading. There was cross-step stamping, side-to-side stamping and wild, all-over-the-place stamping.
Typically, the Senegal company's musicians start a dance. Women and men often move separately before mixing. Sometimes a story is being told, but it's not central, because adventures are things that happen to individuals. The community persists, and that is what the substance of this dancing is about.
The company is handsome, young, strong. Its firm sense of ensemble doesn't inhibit individual performers from virtuosity and showoff when called for. Nor is a strict distinction between dancers and musicians easy to draw. For example, in the initiation to the tam-tam (a small drum tied to the hip), the company's women wrap themselves from the waist down in a cloth of black and white stripes. The cloth highlights the movement of the hips and somewhat restrains the freedom of the legs. Above the waist, the only costuming is the hairdress. Friday night's was the dancers' only Washington performance of their current tour. If the company returns, it ought to be in a more suitable space and setting.