BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO
Sidiki Conde is originally from Guinea, West Africa, and was severely paralyzed by polio when he was 14. When it came time for the ceremony in which young men dance into manhood, he knew that if he did not participate, he would remain forever cut off from his community. He reconstructed the traditional steps by dancing on his hands. After joining Ballet Les Merveilles de Guinea and touring West Africa, Sidiki’s talents brought him to the United States where he founded the Tokounou All-Abilities Dance and Music Ensemble. Today, he continues to live in New York City with his wife.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Project, visit here!
Image description: Sidiki is depicted playing a djembe drum. The drum is blue and Sidiki is suspended above it wearing white. His hands play the drum and his feet are around his torso. Red lines of energy reverberate around him.
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
I’m from Guinea, West Africa. I was born on March 25th, 1961. When I was 14 years old, I got polio. I was paralyzed. That time was so hard. My father sent me to a village in the forest to live with my grandfather. One day I saw the people doing a ceremony and dancing. They looked happy. Watching them, I forgot my disability and was happy too. After that, I started to study the music and dance. My two brothers helped me. I started training with them. I learned how to stand up on my two hands. I pumped a lot to get the strength. I started to move my knees above my hands because I realized it didn’t work to have both my knees and hands on the ground. I lifted my legs up to just dance on my two hands. The people were happy when they saw what I was doing. They pushed me to keep going. I did the traditional dance for the formal manhood ceremony. It filled me with happiness to join in the dancing.
After that I danced in a small festival before joining Ballet Les Merveilles de Guinea, where I danced for six or seven years. That’s where I was trained in all the West African dance forms. During the Guinea-Bissau War, I had a chance to come to the United States. That was in 1998. I’ve stayed since then.
Coming to New York was the first time I’d been to such a big city with so many people. At first, I was unsure of my dancing. But when I performed at the Lincoln Center, everybody loved it. Now I teach at schools, sharing with the kids and with everybody my story.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
My group is called the Tokounou All-Abilities Dance and Music Ensemble, and we’re in New York City. We practice twice a week. I work with the traditional music and dance steps. We do a lot of school shows to teach children how to do the dances and songs. I just taught four classes this morning at a school in Long Island.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
People are surprised. They wonder how I dance. If I say that I’m a dancer, people ask, “How?” And when they see me dance, they can’t believe it. They don’t know how it can be. It was the same reaction in Guinea as it is in the United States.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
Every show I do, people are happy to watch, and I’m happy to dance. I never think about having a disability. I just think about dancing.
With regards to press, what advice would you give to a reporter who is unfamiliar writing about dance artists with disabilities?
Focus on the dance and the music. Everybody can dance, even without using legs, like in my case. Dance is about happiness, and everybody needs happiness. I am disabled, it’s true. But, at the end of the day, dance is dance. Dance imitates the animals or nature through movement, and doing those movements brings happiness.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities?
I believe in teaching kids to dance, absolutely, including those with disabilities. That’s why I do it myself. But I’d like there to be more of it in the schools.
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
That would be great. I think a festival focusing on disability is great, but I want to be able to dance in any festival in the world.
What is your preferred term for the field?
In my country, I was the only disabled dancer. All the other dancers danced normally with their feet. I was the only one dancing on my hands, but I never thought of myself as having a disability. I just danced differently. If you work hard, you can dance.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
Of course. That’s my goal and my dream, to make life better for all of us. You have to work hard though. Depend on yourself, not on others. Before you get help, you must help yourself first.
Any other thoughts?
Have courage and faith. Have courage to do exactly what you want to do. Find your happiness. Happiness comes from the movement in dance, and everybody can move. Maybe you’re playing the drums or dancing, but there’s always something you can do. That’s my main message.
Image description: Sidiki is to the right of the frame sitting in a wheelchair, his arms outstretched in motion. His hair whips around his head. He is pictured outdoors in a dirt clearing with people gathered around watching.
To learn more about Sidiki’s work, visit www.sidikiconde.com.
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