Last winter, during the Smuin layoff, I had the privilege of traveling to Ghana, West Africa as a LEAP student through St. Mary’s College of California with Jeremy Cohen and This World Music to study West African dancing and drumming and immerse myself in a culture. It turned out to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life, changing my life forever.
A GLIMPSE OF WHAT I LEARNED:
At David the Drum-makers workshop “There are layers of rhythms all around us. We must open our eye and ears to each other’s layers all while keeping true to our own. Just like in African music.”
Prayer Ceremony: We were invited to participate in one of the oldest and most sacred ceremonies call the “stool cleansing ceremony.” This stone stool has represented their community for hundreds of years. It has been through several wars and they believe it holds the power of the well-being of their entire culture. The only time it is ever moved from its’ location is when they feel the need to cleanse the community of hardships and negativity. This has not happened for over 40 years and we were lucky enough to be there when this was going on. We were even more fortunate to be invited to the prayer ceremony part of the cleansing by the Chief himself and get each one of our wishes heard. This is an example of true Ghanaian hospitality. Their willingness to share everything is a special and unique part of their culture.
IN THE VILLAGE OF KOPEYIA AT THE DAGBE INSTITUTE:
Also, those village children, oh man, they are heart-melting! From the moment of our arrival they were at the gates of Dagbe staring at you with those big beautiful eyes. They are constantly dancing and drumming on things because it is so engrained in their soul. It is amazing to see even the smallest ones hold a complicated but decent rhythm.
One day, I stayed behind while the others in the group went to the beach and I had some of the kids teaching me highlife dancing. In exchange I taught them a little ballet and even the moonwalk! For the rest of the week they were moonwalking all over the village as well as practicing their “pas de chats.” One little girl named Ablavi, who took a particular liking to me, would be outside waiting for me every morning when I would wake up early. We would draw together and I taught her how to play tic tac toe. Boy was she hard to say goodbye to.
Cooking with Gloria: Learning to make kelewele, basically palm oil fried spiced plantain. Yum! All the meals at the Dagbe Institute are cooked on this little burner by Gloria.
As a thank you present for all the hospitality shown by the entire village, we bought them a goat to sacrifice. Yep…enough said. Goats are a delicatessen to them and a huge treat to eat one.
VISITING THE SCHOOL:
The kids of the village LOVED when we paid a visit to their school one afternoon. They sang for us and followed us around. Besides just a few desks and chairs, the classrooms are pretty much bare.The library had just a few books but it was very minimal. But they do not feel like they are lacking because what they do have is song, dance, tradition and a strong sense of family.
From what I understand, when the staff is not teaching a group of students from abroad then they are working with the kids at the school. Like the fishing in Ghana, it takes the village! Everyone helps each other out and they are all connected. It is one giant family!
Walking through the village and visiting the market. Between the beautiful handmade cloth, the wood-carving, the jewelry and the drums, down to the fine details, Ghanaian craftsmanship is out of this world!
PERFORMING FOR THE CHIEF:
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, performing 2 of their traditional dances for the entire village with some fellow LEAP students, was one of the most empowering performances of my life. Despite a costume malfunction, my headscarf slipped off and one of the elders had to run in and get it. It was something about dancing in the hot sand outdoors with the pressure of honoring the entire Ghanaian community and making the Dagbe staff proud so that they can continue to teach. Crazy adrenaline rush! Even after 10 years of professional ballet.
BACK AT HOME:
What I learned most during my time in Ghana is that the most important thing to humanity is to share whatever you have. Ghanaians are all about sharing. That is their contribution and the best thing we can do is learn and then pass on what we have been taught. Thus, when I got back home to my own culture and community, while digesting what I had just experienced, I decided to share some of the aspects of traditional Ghanaian dances via our choreographic workshop. While I pounded out some West African rhythms on my drum made by David, my dearest friend Jane demonstrated the movements, both of us dressed in traditional hand-made cloth that I also brought home with me. What an empowering experience to share and teach what I had learned.
Compared to the luxuries we have, Ghanaians have next to nothing, yet, they have everything! They are content and happy and even though it is hard for us to imagine living in the conditions that they do, they do not feel without. You really learn to love the simplicity of everything. Their sense of family is so deep and rich. They have great respect each other and their elders and give out so much love to one another. And taking us in as their brothers and sisters, you feel that love radiating from them to you. It truly cannot be explained, only experienced first-hand.
One significant moment that stuck out to me was when we were walking through the village and we came upon the home of the priest and some of the elders of Kopeyia. They were just sitting on mats, the priest in a chair, facing each other with these glowing and peaceful expressions on their faces. They were not even talking, just being. They were not busy or hurrying off to someplace they needed to be and of course there were no televisions or cell phones to distract them. It was such an eye-opening moment to me to witness people simply enjoying being in the presence of one another. Not to mention the connections that I made, there is so much about Ghana that I truly miss.
Sometimes I still wake up in the morning and think that I hear the sound of drumming. I think back to Ghana and my heart swells. And still, every time I play my drum, a giant smile is plastered on my face as I reflect back on this experience and once again i feel connected to my brothers and sisters halfway across the world.