Students and teachers share African Dance as a meeting of cultures

By Elise Reuter

Members of the KU African Student Association’s dance group practice a piece they have been choreographing for a fashion show on Nov. 30. They explain the process of putting a piece together, along with their individual contributions:

You can read the transcript here.


Nothing could stop Willie Lenoir from sharing his love for dance. It’s no surprise that the KU lecturer couldn’t stay off of his feet, after studying several types of dance, including a broad range of jazz styles, musical theater and Limon technique.

In particular, Lenoir plans to share his knowledge through a long-anticipated course in African Dance Theater. Lenoir last taught the course in 2001, before he was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had surgery in both hips.

Now that he’s back, Lenoir hopes to educate KU students about African Dance, as the art form is underrepresented in Kansas. But he isn’t alone– a few student groups, including the African Student Association and the African Drum Ensemble, have stepped up to share the culture with as many students as possible. They all have a common goal: to share traditional dances from all parts of Africa.

“I take authentic African steps and do my choreography.,” said Lenoir. “I’ve been jumping all over putting steps together, you know, I do some steps from South Africa, and primarily from Western Africa, but I have shown them things from Ethiopia– from the Masai tribe which does a lot of jumping.”

Lenoir draws from several sources for his work, but his main focus is West-African dance, which is one of the more energetic forms. During classes, Lenoir gives his students up to five breaks, because the dancing is so rigorous.

One of the most strenuous forms he has taught students comes from Senegal, called “Sabar” after the drums that accompany the dance. While Sabar is traditionally a very feminine dance, many Senegalese men have taken the form and made it their own. Lenoir describes it as “arms and legs everyplace– it’s just incredible dance.”

Most people don’t realize how many American dances all share roots in West Africa. Hip-hop, jazz dance, swing dance all include African movement.  Drawing a comparison between the many tribal forms and Native American dances in the United States, Lenoir noted that the two are surprisingly similar:

“You see, a lot of the dances are based off of everyday activity, like picking fruit off of a tree or off of a bush, or a lot of animals like cranes, different types of birds, snakes, fish, elephants…. So, it’s sort of like Native American dance in that it’s cultural- it’s based on something,” said Lenoir. “There are certain steps that almost every culture uses, no matter what. And you wonder- how did that happen?”

Several KU students are also having these conversations, as they piece together dances with movements from across the globe. The African Student Association has a dance group that is preparing for an informal performance later this fall. During the choreography process, each student incorporated dances from their respective region or tribe– often the dances of their childhood. They also mixed in hip-hop moves and a little bit of Indian dance, which complemented the choreography.

“We focus more on the shoulder, but you can also add some hip movement. It’s hard to explain, you just kinda have to experiment with it,” said Ilham Abuenga, a senior at KU from Sudan. “You grow up learning it, so your body kinda moves in sync with it.”

Adut Anei-Yor, another student from Sudan, explained how her style of dance differed from Abuenga’s:

“It depends on the region, and I guess the tribe, because you can go to one country where one tribe does absolutely upper body and more hand motion, and my culture is more footwork.”

Right now, the dance group is focusing on reaching out to as many students as possible in order to share their culture through dance. They have a few more performances booked, including a festival in the spring. They are one of few outlets for African culture at the University, and in the Kansas City area in general.


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