Read any fact sheet on the West African nation of Senegal, and you'll learn that peanuts are its primary and most valuable export. Yet value can be measured in spiritual as well as economic terms. Consider the National Dance Company of Senegal. Since they embarked on their first international tour 20 years ago, these ebullient dancers and musicians have dazzled thousands with their country's most visible and explosive art. This Wednesday through Sunday at the Warner Theatre, they'll present a program of works entirely new to Washington audiences.
A typical performance by this group can unstuff the stuffiest shirt. The drummers hook you first, sending forth cascades of rhythmic thunder. Then the dancers start in, rocking their pelvises back and forth, shaking their hips, shooting their limbs out in every conceivable direction, whipping their heads around full circle. Sometimes the movements tell a story; other times the dances seem to be odes to isolated body parts: arms circling out of their sockets, breasts bouncing freely, buttocks heaving themselves around and out. Stilt walkers hobble in, acrobats roll across the stage like giant tumbleweeds. Through it all, there's an ongoing sense of give-and-take, as if each participant were thinking to himself: I'm a very essential cog in an even more essential wheel.
"We have no secrets," declares Babacar M'Bengue, the company manager. "We have to do exactly what we are feeling right now, to show just how goes the Senegalese." Speaking by phone from California, M'Bengue, 35, is trying valiantly -- despite a limited knowledge of English -- to expound on one of the basic reasons for the company's existence.
Back in 1960, just after Senegal had won its independence, President-elect Leopold S. Senghor created the National Dance Company. Its aim, he declared, was to present -- whether performing in small local villages or on stages worldwide -- "the true face of Senegal."
Senghor, a renowned poet, had spent years working with other black politicians and literary figures in developing the philosophy of Negritude, a movement that asserted the integrity of the African cultural heritage while indicting racism and colonialism. The establishment of government-supported dance and theater troupes brought the ideas to life.
"The African continent is very large," says M'Bengue. "When many of you hear 'Africa,' you think of South Africa, which has a terrible problem with apartheid. But Senegal is a different place entirely. Our nation is stable politically. Above all, we are concerned with teranga, which in the Wolof dialect means 'hospitality.' "
Just as important, he notes, is the acknowledgment and representation of ethnic diversity within his country.
"Senegal has many many different ethnic groups -- about 15 in all -- and each has its own culture. It is impossible for us to show it all in a two-hour performance, but in our current program we perform dances of the Wolof, Mandingo, Serer, Diola and other peoples. We travel across the country to see what kind of dance and music are there. And then often, after seeing us perform, members of these groups come up to us to tell us if we are doing their dances or playing their music incorrectly. We have built-in critics."
Like many other Third World countries, Senegal has one foot rooted in traditional culture and the other planted firmly in contemporary society.
"When you go to the big cities like Dakar, you feel the same as when you are in Washington or Baltimore," says M'Bengue. "Technology is very strong, television is everywhere. But if you travel 200 miles from Dakar, you see the completely traditional way of life, the real life. We guard our traditions well." The existence of griots, human repositories of Senegalese history and lore, help immeasurably in keeping traditions alive from generation to generation.
Though M'Bengue and company choreographer Bouly Sanko do not reject newer forms of art, their primary commitment is to the centuries-old ceremonies, steps and rhythms.
"The Senegalese musician tries to mix traditional music with modern instruments, and that is good," M'Bengue asserts, citing the popular musical style known as juju. The musicians of the National Dance Company, however, savor the kora, a 21-string melodic harp made from a giant gourd, the marimba-like balafon and the doun, or drum. So integral a role do these instruments play in everyday life that the Senegalese national anthem reads, "Pluck your koras, strike the balafons."
A similar attitude applies to movement. "All the dance that we do we do with spontaneity," he explains. "The best training a child can have is with the grandparents or the parents. From the time he is very young, the child grows up with the tradition. At the movies, one sees modern dance, but we don't do it. We see many African, European and American national companies who mix the traditional with the modern, but sometimes if you want to show something that is too classical or too modern, it turns out not to be what your country is really doing and it's wrong. In Senegal, we have no school to teach modern dance. And if we tried to start one now, we would break up our company." To find the best performers, the company holds auditions that attract vast numbers of hopefuls; the most important quality a prospective member must possess is what M'Bengue calls polyvance, a French word for versatility.
As the company crisscrosses the United States for the 20th time in as many years, its leader -- who has been on board for half that time -- reflects on some of the reactions the ensemble has encountered here: "Always, when the ladies dance with bare breasts, people ask how we feel about this. Some are surprised -- in Africa you go like this? For them, it is erotic. For us, it's not erotic, it's natural. I see my mother and my sister in this way.
"Also, each time I come here, the audience is warmer, and participates more and more with us. Audience members come up onto the stage and demonstrate for us." Not to mention clap, stomp, shout and swoon.
What about the coins that ecstatic spectators have stuck to the performers' foreheads?
"This is a Senegalese tradition. When we have a big ceremony and somebody dances well, audience members come and give him $1 or 25 cents. Some people who live in the United States now, or who have visited our country, do the same thing."
Yet the most glorious times, says M'Bengue are those when "the whole room participates as one. That is total communication, our highest goal.