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February 9, 2012
 

Art of Diplomacy: An African Cultural Ambassador Vies for U.S. Hearts and Minds

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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Moustapha Bangoura directs rehearsal. Photo by Kelly Virella.

I

n a makeshift dance studio on the third floor of a Chicago community center, Moustapha Bangoura stands at the head of the room, calling to order a rehearsal for one of his two dance companies. Impervious to the humid day’s 96 degree temperature, he summons the six dancers at his rehearsal to the floor of the rented, un-airconditioned studio, which is actually an auditorium. Five-feet-8-inches tall, he bounds around the studio like a spring, while his dancers — all African-American women, all soaked with sweat — straggle to their positions with slumped shoulders and downcast faces. They’re tired, just having taught a 90-minute class; and sunshine scorches the floor, burning their bare feet. “It’s hot,” whines a flagging, long-armed woman.

Listen to some Guinea music that Moustapha Bangoura’s drummers played during the dance class

The auditorium has an elevated stage, but in lieu of stadium seating, it uses folding chairs. For the rehearsal, those have been removed and stacked away, leaving bare the basketball-court-sized floor where the rehearsal is occurring. Several of the windows lining two walls of the studio are open. But no air blows in until a cruel gust of hot wind catches a window fan and sucks it outside, plunging it three stories to the concrete swimming pool deck below. Even when it crashes and explodes like a grenade, no one in the company notices.

All eyes are on Bangoura. Rivulets of sweat fall down his smooth hairless chest, saturating the band of his billowing, tie-dyed pants. Yet throughout the two-hour rehearsal, he stays upbeat and on message, smiling as he repeatedly directs his dancers to retreat to opposite corners of the floor, then advance to practice the choreography he has just demonstrated.

At 52-years-old, Bangoura has trim build of someone 19. Short kinky coils sprout from his head like rays from the sun. His face is square with a strong jaw-line; a wide smile reveals his molars. “That’s good! Now let’s do it again,” he says in his thick West African accent.

T

hough his dancers balk, they want to be here and know it is a privilege. A veteran of Africa’s oldest dance company, Les Ballets Africains, Bangoura belongs to a rarefied group of master African dancers who travel the world performing and teaching. He began performing at the age of 13, in Guinea, his West African homeland, and become a member of Les Ballets Africains when he was about 20-years-old. He traveled with the Guinea-based company to more than 165 cities during his 22-year tenure, rising to a level of prominence and skill that allowed him to teach his fellow dancers and offer classes to the public.

Now in his retirement, he has dance companies in Chicago and Paris, a school in Guinea, and another 1,000 students, spread around the globe, some as far away as Australia.

Bangoura stands out on the stage because although he is petite and compact like a gymnast, his movement is graceful. Like a jazz dancer, he flows from one move to the next, without breaking and popping as is customary in African dance. He made a lasting impression on Youssouf Koumbassa, America’s most famous Guinea dance teacher, when they met in Guinea about 35 years ago as amateurs. “The first time I see him, I told him he was beautiful dancer,” says Koumbassa, who lives in New York. “A lot of young people used to love his style.”

Bangoura’s reputation for grace, authenticity and precision precede him, in part because, too many African dancers in America lack it. “There is a lot of superficiality out there,” says African dance scholar Robert Nicholls, a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. “Instead of getting that rich authentic experience that I referred to, you get an interpretation of it. It tends to be carnivalesque, a

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About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.