For Fun, For Culture, For Art: Sharing Dance with Schoolchildren in Ghana

By Emmaly Wiederholt

“There are three big reasons why people dance: for fun, for culture, and for art. People dance for fun when they are with their friends and they hear a song they like. People dance for culture with their community or tribe. I bet you have some cultural dances you could share with me. I do a kind of dance called ballet, and it is a kind of dance people do for art.”

Ghana2 (1)Forgive my simplistic breakdown of dance, but this is how I chose to introduce my dance lesson to the students of Tarkwa Islamic Basic School in the small village of Gomoa Tarkwa in Central Ghana this past June. I found myself in the position of teaching a dance lesson to these Ghanaian students through an organization called Opportunity Education Foundation, which supplies resources and supplementary materials to some of the poorest schools in developing countries across Africa and Asia. My mom, a retired teacher, had gotten involved in the organization a few years prior, and after hearing about her experience in Uganda the previous summer, I vowed to join her this summer for a week of spending time in schools in Ghana.

My mom and I spent our first few days with the children singing songs, reading books, facilitating art projects, and contrasting American culture with Ghanaian culture. But on Wednesday of my week in the schools, I decided to try my hand teaching a short lesson about that which I know best: dance. Or more specifically, ballet. I suspected these schoolchildren had never and might never see or learn about ballet, with its Russian – European lineage and its appeal to the higher social strata. Regardless of its decidedly white rich heritage, I didn’t see why schoolchildren in rural Ghana might not enjoy or appreciate ballet.

“Ballet is an art dance. We do certain movements with our arms and legs like turning and jumping. People practice ballet for many years, starting when they are young children like you. And you know what? Sometimes ballet dancers who are women will dance on the tops of their toes using funny shoes!” At this point I whipped out an old pair of pointe shoes and demonstrated a relevé on the concrete classroom floor. The students and teachers gasped. It felt a bit like a cheap circus trick, perhaps even cheaper for the fact I haven’t seriously danced on pointe in years, but I had their attention.

me dancing 3At this point in my presentation I did an impromptu ballet performance (NOT on pointe). Nothing fancy, a light allegro-like combination. Some jumps, some turns, some leg extensions, though nothing too high as I was constricted by my conservative dress, and I wasn’t really interested in showing the acrobatic side of ballet anyway. I just wanted to give them a taste of its movement quality. As I danced I spoke, “You can go slow or fast. You can turn. You can jump. You can sweep across the floor, or you can balance.” They applauded eagerly.

“Now I’d like for you to show me some of your cultural dances.” Depending on the class, and I did this with the fourth through eighth graders, a boy or girl might get up and show me several seconds of a tribal dance. They have many tribal dances, and on the last day I was lucky enough to witness a school performance of one of these dances. In my lesson though I wanted to emphasize that I didn’t have a monopoly on dance, despite my years of training and performing professionally. All people have dances, and it is one of the failings of my American culture that people routinely say “I don’t know how to dance,” or worse, “I don’t dance.” These children had dances all their own. I taught them some ballet port de bras, and in turn they taught me some of their steps and gestures.

At the end, and perhaps most fun for them, I taught them the Macarena, the chicken dance, and the hokey pokey. I wanted to emphasize that dance, first and foremost, is something to relish in. It’s fun. And fun they had; the students could not stop giggling and cheering for the life of them. Teachers joined in too, as the spirit was contagious. We didn’t use recorded music; clapping and singing proved more than adequate musical accompaniment. By the end of my lesson I had a veritable dance party going on in each classroom.

Ghana3At recess the students played a game I often partook in where we formed a circle. One student ran the circumference of the circle while everyone else chanted and clapped. That student came to someone in the circle and danced with that person. Everyone sang, “Shaky shaky shake your body” and then a new student ran round the circle, finding a new person in turn to dance with. This game was played with boys and girls alike of all ages. Some of the students were certainly shyer than others, but all took turns shaking their body. The game was cute, fun, and open for all to join.

I don’t think this game would go so well in a schoolyard in the United States. There is a pervasive sentiment that boys don’t dance, can’t dance, shouldn’t dance, and that it’s wussy to dance. Girls, on the other hand, suffer from stereotypes about being lithe fluttering fairy ballerinas or are taught to be sexy from an early age and are often as far from good-naturedly shaking their bodies as boys. Perhaps I’m making a gross exaggeration. Regardless, what those Ghana children showed me, despite their school’s poverty, lack of resources, running water, or electricity, was that they had an inherent kinesthetic love of movement that was ingrained in them culturally from an early age. Boys and girls alike followed me around for days chanting “Hey Macarena” or asking to learn a new ballet step. What took me years to realize, that dance is something to rejoice in and share, not something to look good doing, these Ghanaian children already knew.

I don’t know what impact, if any, the time a professional American dancer came to a school in Gomoa Tarkwa, Central Ghana, and taught the students about ballet will have on those student’s lives. But for me, at least, the exchange was fundamentally profound. It established that dance must be shared and taught in a way that nourishes revelry and joy over desire for perfection, regardless of whatever premier training program upcoming ballerinas may find themselves in. It reaffirmed my strong belief that everyone can dance, should dance, should not be able to help but dance, come good music and good friends, regardless of stereotypes about who dances and who’s good at dancing. Lastly, it reinforced that dance does matter, regardless of its ability (or lack thereof) to lift people out of poverty. All we truly have in this life are our bodies. Wealth, privilege, opportunities – all of these are conditional on having a body. And if all we really have is a body that can groove, sweat, sway, strut, laugh, feel silly, feel tired, feel powerful, cavort, and boogie, well then we’d better get dancing.

Many thanks to the students and faculty of Tarkwa Islamic Basic School for welcoming me into their classrooms, and thanks as well to Opportunity Education Foundation for making it possible!

Pictured is the Tarkwa Islamic Basic School fifth grade class learning ballet port de bras. Photos and video courtesy Emmaly Wiederholt.