Teacher Papa Sy talks about traditional Senegalese dance and how his generation of dancers, trained by Germaine Acogny, built on Senegal’s dance heritage to create “métisse-dance” (hybrid-dance). Papa Sy teaches Sabar this Saturday, Nov. 10 (4:30-6:00pm) and Contemporary West African dance every Wednesday (12:00-1:00pm). He is also performing a solo during the Cumbe Performance Showcase on Saturday, December 1.

Article by M. Soledad Sklate


Papa Sy was born in Diourbel, a town in western Senegal, about 90 miles, east of Dakar. He grew up in Rufisque, once an important port city in its own right but a suburb of Dakar now. He then moved to Dakar, where he worked for a few years, and he joined the National Conservatory of Dakar in 1993 when – to paraphrase Papa Sy’s words-, “he was already old” (but he was only in his 20s!) His 6 years of training in the conservatory allowed Papa Sy to excel in mastering Sabar and other traditional Senegalese and West African dances.

When I asked him how he would best describe Sabar dance, his immediate answer was “La danse sabar est aérienne” (Sabar is aerial). He then unraveled this for me: the characteristics of different Senegalese dances depend on le terrain (the ground, the terrain) of the region where the dance is practiced. Sabar, for instance, is the dance of the “habitants du sel” (inhabitants of the saltmines). Most of the northern part of Senegal has a semi-arid, dry terrain, with some thorny acacia trees and huge baobabs dotting the landscape. The tendency to jump and elevate is not surprising then, given the harsh conditions of the land. In contrast, Papy Sy explained, the dances of the southern region of Casamance are “en bas” (down). The landscape in this area is more hospitable, with forests, and green and abundant vegetation due to higher levels rainfall. The tendency then, is to remain low, close to the ground. “C’est l’espace qui conditionne le style” (It’s the physical space that conditions the style), he summarized.

Germaine Acogny

The knowledge and mastery of traditional dances acquired after his years in the conservatory were not enough to satisfy Papa Sy’s passion for dance and his innovative spirit. He joined Germaine Acogny’s École des Sables, and was part of the very first class to graduate from the program. This fact made Papa Sy and his generation of dancers proud, of course, but they wanted to “marquer époque.” They wanted to leave a mark in a more profound and even radical way. The question that Papa Sy and a few of his fellow dancers had in their mind was: “What can we do to enrich our already precious traditional dance heritage?” “Métisse-danse” (hybrid-dance) was the answer to their question.


European and American dancers had been coming to Senegal to learn the traditional dances, styles and rhythms. Why they, Senegalese dancers, could not go out, discover and absorb the dances and styles of other cultures, and then bring them back home to enrich and infuse traditional dances with outside elements? There was nothing stopping them, so that is exactly what Papa Sy and some of his dancer friends did. As part of the process of learning dances and techniques from different parts of the world (India, Europe, modern and contemporary dance from the US), Papa Sy had the opportunity to collaborate with Susanne Linke, a renowned German dancer and choreographer (important in the development of Tanztheater and contemporary dance internationally). After a world tour presenting their collaborative work in 2001, Papa Sy went back to Senegal to further develop the idea of “métisse-danse”, share his knowledge and train a new generation of dancers. He created the Pasytef Ballet Théâtre de Dalifort, the first dance ‘company’ in Senegal – before that, all the dance groups were called troupes – and the Pasy Dance School, which offered free dance artistic education to children.

In trying to translate “métisse-danse” to a term accessible to a foreign audience, Papa Sy described it as “contemporary African dance.” This is the comparison he made: as Western modern and contemporary dance styles have developed out of ballet technique, métisse-dance has traditional Senegalese dance techniques as its base, which is empowered, enriched and fused with influences and inspirations from the styles he learned in other parts of the world. “La danse est universelle”, Paya Sy concluded. However, as universal as métisse-dance is, it remains, at the same time, deeply rooted in the land, rhythms, styles, dances, traditions, and sensibilities of his native Senegal.


About the writer: M. Soledad Sklate is a PhD student in the French Department at New York University, doing academic research on the intersection of literature and embodied cultural practices and manifestations rooted in African diasporic influences. She is an avid practitioner of Latin and African dances, and is working at Cumbe as a Media and Communications intern.


October 21,2012









M. Soledad Sklate interviewed award-winning dancer, choreographer, and highly sought-after teacher Baba Richard Gonzalez about his newest project at Cumbe: the “Meet the Artist” Choreography and Performance Workshop. The workshop is a unique opportunity for emerging choreographers to develop dance pieces with a group of students under the guidance of a seasoned professional. The workshop meets 4 times in October and culminates in a performance on Sat., Nov. 17 – read on to learn more and purchase tickets.

Interview by M. Soledad Sklate

My sunny Sunday afternoon got even brighter after I had the privilege to interview our dear dancer, choreographer, and educator Baba Richard González. Baba has been immersed in the study of traditional African-Caribbean dance for thirty plus years, and has taught in both the United States and the Caribbean for over two decades. His commitment to the rich traditions of the Caribbean has fueled his passion for the documentation and preservation of Afro-Caribbean dances through teaching and performing. Baba is the embodiment of the transformative power of dance and culture. Winner of many awards, his most important one might be to have the opportunity to share his gift of dance with his students, fellow dancers and the community.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of “Meet the Artist,” the choreography and performance workshop that you are currently doing at Cumbe? Why did you come up with such an innovative idea?

A: This workshop came out of the idea of providing a platform for emerging artists and choreographers to develop and showcase their work in progress with the guidance of seasoned professional choreographers. You cannot find this anywhere so I proposed the idea to Jimena Martinez (co-director of Cumbe) and Pat Hall (Cumbe’s artistic director), because I knew that Cumbe has the type of community where such a project would become a reality.

The regular one or two-day workshop that I and other dance teachers usually hold are great, exciting, people look forward to them … but after them, what are you left with in terms of educational value? I wanted to create at Cumbe an educational component that is centered and focused in emerging dancers and choreographers, and also on the development of students participating in the workshop. I wanted to create and offer something different. People can take regular workshops elsewhere. They can only find this special format at Cumbe. I envision having the choreography and performance workshop on a seasonal basis, 4 sessions a year. I hope to hold the next one in February or March 2013.

Q: Can you tell me more details about the format of the workshop? How is this workshop different from other workshops you have conducted in the past?

A: The traditional form of other workshops I teach is “follow me along.” That is, I demonstrate a movement, and then students repeat the steps in progression moving across the floor. The choreography and performance workshop is very different. Two emerging choreographers, Kelly White-Burrell and Mara Rivera, are working along with me while their dance pieces are being created. As a professional, I see the areas where they need development and I help them by creating the avenue so that they can identify and explore their art. This process follows my vision, but it provides them with the space they need to start developing their own visions. The other important aspect is that these emerging artists will be the teachers of the future, so the workshop allows them to interact with the community and learn from their experiences. I can see their development; they are developing their own teaching style, this is their training.

Q: How is it different for the students?

A: Students have a more active participation in creating the pieces. They are in the process with me. The choreography and performance workshop is very good for their dance training, but it is also valuable in terms of education because I can address their questions of deeper interests and deepen their understanding of dance. The focus is not on me, it is on community building and development. Students of all levels can participate, which is challenging for me because there is no selection process, no auditions, there is an element of surprise in terms of how the group of students is going to be. The students are expected to arrive ready to work, because there is no warm-up. The material is presented to them in 3 repetitions, and each student has to find the way to learn it (through video, writing up the steps, etc) for the following week. They have to take the material and make it their own. This gives them independence and an insight on how the creative process works. Then the room is divided in 3 sections, each group working with a different choreographer, and then we rotate.

The process is intense, since we only have 8 hours of practice to put together a 45-minute show. Dancers are used to this, but it is a challenging process for those who are relatively new. They not only need to learn the technique, but they also have to learn (outside of the class) the spirit and the purpose of each movement, each gesture, and each expression.

Q: Can you tell me more about the piece, Mixed Flava’s!, that you and your students will showcase on November 3?

A: Mixed Flava’s! is a puree of infectious rhythms, contemporary and traditional, from the African Diaspora. As a young man, I studied Flamenco – so the piece is influenced by the form. I also studied contemporary dance, so you can see contemporary influences as well. However, what attracted me to traditional dance was the sound of the drums and ‘el ritmo latino,’ el Clave!

Mixed Flava’s! isan evening featuring a mixture of dance, poetry, and infectious rhythms and aesthetic expressions of the Caribbean islands.
The evening will start with “CLAVE,” a collaboration between Kelly White-Burrell, Mara Rivera, and me, danced by the ensemble of students and accompanied by live percussion. The second piece is “THE DRUM (AFRICA TO AMERICA),” choreographed and performed by Kelly White-Burrell. Then there will be a percussion piece directed by Niko Laboy called, “EXPRESSIONS – Infectious Caribbean.”

After the intermission, I will perform, “MY DREAM, MY JOURNEY” (2009), based on a dream I had and how it lead me to “La Regla de Ocha.” After that, there will be a piece dedicated to the spiritual force of the rivers, “OCHUN’S SWEET WATERS.” The ensemble will dance the archetypes of the Orisha interpreted as an art form. The presentation will close with “SOY BOMBA!”, honoring my Afro-Puerto Rican heritage, and featuring Mara Rivera, Cynthia Renta, and the ensemble’s interpretations of the traditional Puerto Rican dance and song.

You can watch Mixed Flava’s!, the culminating performance of this workshop, on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8:00pm (new date)

Tickets are $10 – click here to buy yours!

About the writer: M. Soledad Sklate is a PhD student in the French Department at New York University, doing academic research on the intersection of literature and embodied cultural practices and manifestations rooted in African diasporic influences. She is an avid practitioner of Latin and African dances, and is working at Cumbe as a Media and Communications intern.