July 13, 2009
While teaching an African dance workshop with the “In Motion” program at the National Museum of African Art last Thursday, Sylvia Soumah saw a reluctant face in the crowd. Instead of verbally encouraging the girl, she marched over to offer a hug. Not a polite, reserved hug, but a full body embrace.
After that, the girl’s whole attitude changed. “It’s really about showing somebody love, and everybody needs that,” Soumah says.
She started dancing African for what she calls a crazy-but-true reason: her son. In 1990, a few years after his birth, she returned to her modern dance classes, but she had to bring her son with her. The baby’s restless noises interrupted the quiet focus that modern dance required. After class, the drummer approached her and said she should switch to the African class and bring her son because there, the drumming is so loud that if he made noise, no one would hear him. “So I did,” she says. “He was two then, and he’s 20 now.”
His acceptance into the African dance class embodies what Soumah loves most about African dance: the sense of community. “[Modern dance] really focuses on the techniques and the people who have created these techniques, but with African it’s about community,” she says. “It’s spiritual, it’s about family and it’s about culture. Modern ballet is a dance form. But African dance is a dance form and a culture. It’s a way of life.”
Soumah transfers the more-than-just-dance attitude to her educational programs. During the African Art Museum workshop, she introduced a courtship dance and used that as an opportunity to talk about dating with the kids. “If you really like a girl,” she told the boys, “you’ll introduce her to your family.”
In 2006, the National Performance Network and Dance Place in Washington, D.C., commissioned Soumah to create a piece. Destiny, which clocks in at two hours, follows her life from childhood in the projects of Cincinnati, to her first trip to Africa in 1994, to the creation of her dance company, Coyaba, in 1997, and even to the birth of her children—she gives birth on stage. In just two weeks, she’s heading to Texas to work with children to incorporate them into the piece.
To see Soumah and her company dance, check out one of her workshops tomorrow or Thursday at the African Art musuem.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.