Equipped only with a small video camera, a sound recorder and my dancing body I got to know new friends in Grand Popo. For me, the dances that I participated in during my time in Villa Karo was a part of a continuous, international and intercultural exchange. In this text I want to discuss dancing as a place to meet and share in between people.
I came to Villa Karo on the search for meaningful dances. I mean “meaning-full” as in full of meaning. A dance that offers something for both the spectator and for the dancer. To me, a meaningful dance does not have to mean anything in the sense of a traditional story. It only has to offer something valuable for somebody, to the spectators, and/or to its participants. This is off course a very personal taste-related opinion. For the fun of it, think a moment on what a meaningful dance would be to you. When does a dance appear meaningful to you? Does it have to do with the style of the dance? the skill of the dancer? Or does it have to do with who the person dancing is? How do you feel when dancing yourself? Do you like better to dance alone or in relation to other people? Does it feel more meaningful to dance by yourself or to watch others dance?
In my eyes there is a great meaning in seeing people move their bodies, and to me it becomes even more meaningful outside of the theatre stage, when the dance comes from a personal desire to move. In lack of better words, lets call this kind of dance a spontaneous dance. I mean the kind of dance that you start doing when you hear a good song in a party, or when you make a sudden dance move in the kitchen, it could also be the dance that happen when you are walking next to your friend and you both suddenly start playing with the rhythms of your feet. To most people it might not look like a spectacular dance, but I think there is something magical happening when a person chooses to dance spontaneously.
Philosopher, dancer and writer Ph.D Kimerer LaMothe explains the value of a dancing body like this:
“To dance is to play with the movement that is making us. It is to cultivate a sensory awareness of how this movement is making us, and of how our own movements, as we shape and transmit the energy of life, are making us. To dance is to play with this movement in ways that allow us to discover and exercise our capacity to make our own movements (…) Dancing, we create ourselves. We become who we are.”
I imagine how “the movement that is making us“, that Kimere is mentioning, is consisting out of everyday movements like typing on the computer, handshakes, or doing dishes. Our personal movements are also a result of all the possible ideas, images, experiences and memories about our body and our selves that we have gathered through our life time and up until this day. All this factors that make up our movements can be related to our personal history, our physical body, our self image and our socio-political and cultural upbringing. When considering all these ingredients, a simple dance seems to be a very personal act. And even so, when two or more people meet in a dance, these very personal experiences are shared and new experiences are created, and so a communication is taking place beyond language and culture barriers.
I am fascinated by the different kinds of movements that a human body is interested in doing, I can get absorbed by a persons unique choices of body movements, rhythms, accents, spatial levels and musicality. It does not have to be a technically difficult or a virtuosic dance for me to be interested, but it should be a personal dance. A personal dance requires the unique skill in being you and moving like only you can. A personal dance is like a gift from the depth of the spirit of the self. When a dance comes spontaneously it is both present in the moment and “a present” (a gift) of that moment.
In Finland I do not get these kinds of gifts so often, here dance is unfortunately considered as something that should be reserved for professionals. And so, when first I arrived in Grand Popo in Benin I was overwhelmed. Even though I expected to see a lot of dance during my time in Villa Karo, I had never expected to be a part of and to see so many spontaneous dances. I realized that this is a culture where the spontaneous dance is something very normal, even a necessary part of every day life.
During my time at Villa Karo I made it my mission to as often as possible catch spontaneous dance appointments with different people from different ages, social classes and backgrounds. From hardly dancing with other people then my dance colleges in studios and theaters for the last years I now found myself dancing at the beach, in parties, in backyards, in dance schools, in playgrounds and on streets in the village. The dancers whom I met where of all ages: children, young men, young women, old women and old men, both visiting Finns and Beninese people.
Left from all these meetings I have the memories of peoples rhythms and articulations, his or her way of watching me and my dance and their physical responses to my movements. I remember the movements we shared, the tone of their bodies and the different mindsets that their bodies reflected. One dancer is proud, one humble, one surprised, one teasing, one competitive. Some memories are marked by their surprised (or chocked..?) look of seeing a white young woman shaking loose in a dance untroubled by her lack of understanding for the elaborated Beninese rhythms. Some memories are marked with surprised faces or laughters from the sharing of the dance, and many memories are marked with friendly smiles and encouraging and pedagogic slowed-down movement sequences (my local co-dancers spent many sincere attempts to initiate me into the Beninese dance traditions).
To dance always feels different from occasion to occasion and so also during my time in Benin. Sometimes I was in bliss while dancing, sometimes I did not enjoy, sometimes I stopped very soon, sometimes I found a personal connection with somebody, sometimes I continued for a long time, sometimes I felt good and sometimes I felt bad. But always in all these dances, no matter my personal feelings, was the shared movements and the personal movements created by our personal bodies. And there was also the exchange of looks and the exchange of presence.
To share a dance is a constant exercise it empathic presence. In dance you are allowed to watch others with your full attention, and you are also inviting other people to watch you. To dance with someone you will have to observe a persons body posture, his or her movements and their choices of rhythm and articulation. You have to look at a person with a big amount of attention in order to take in all this, this act of looking is also building empathy to another person. I think it is even impossible to dance with somebody, no matter the style, without building a feeling respect for him or her. And think about how special that is, to observe another person in a dance. When was the last time in your life that you were invited to silently watch a stranger with full attention for a duration of more then a few seconds?
All these short meetings, so full of interesting details and cross-cultural communication are happening all the time all around the world, but most of the time they go unnoticed because nobody speaks about them. To Grand Popo new Finnish artists arrive every month. Most of them will at some point curiously visit a festive dance occasion in the village. At first the new visitor will probably only take a few shy steps, but hopefully they will feel encouraged to keep on moving. The dancing people from the village will probably give you a friendly glance and keep on dancing while inviting the visitor to become a part of the moving crowd. Once inside the crowd of dancing people, the visitor is faced with hundreds of choices of what to do: to follow or to lead, what body part to move, who to look at, what feelings to act upon etc. It might be confronting to make all these choices there instantly in the middle of the dance floor, but that is how a spontaneous dance evolves.
If that Finnish artists has the courage and the will, he or she can fill the dance with his or her own personal spontaneous dance moves. Most probably somebody will want to try them out. And so, step by step the exchange will evolve between people of different languages and different backgrounds, between people that have never spoken to each other, and even, in between people that never will speak to each other. It is in fact a political event on root level that is happening on the dance floors, it is a cultural exchange, a diplomacy exercise and an international collaboration between women and men of different worlds.
That is meaningful to me, and I hope that people will continue to meet in dances through the activities of Grand Popo and Villa Karo for a long time still to come.
Sandrina Lindgren is a theatre maker, dancer and physical actor. She is originally from Sweden but is currently based in Turku, Finland. Sandrina is creating works that are using visual and physical theatre and dance in order to observe beauty in daily mundane life. She has studied dance, choreography and visual theatre in Amsterdam and Israel and holds a BA from the dance academy in Amsterdam since 2010. Based on a few of the dancing meetings made during her residency in Villa Karo in 2016 three short films will be produced during 2017 and 2018. The films focuses on three different dancing figures in the area: the taylor Florence, the Togolese dancer Estelle Foli and the local dance school Cherubin Coco.