meet Lacina Coulibaly,

dancer, professor


Hometown Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

favorite american music The blues. Jazz. It’s improvised, like African dance.

most flexible part of my body My upper body. My lower body grounds me, but then my upper body opens up, like a tree with the roots and the branches. My upper body is also where my heart is.

What I miss most about africa My family, my daughter. But dance isn’t about where I am or where I am not. It’s about what I have now.

favorite american food If I buy anything around here, I’ll always get an Au Bon Pain Caesar salad. It made me love salad. You can be full with salad!

Q When did you start dancing?

A It’s difficult to say when, because dance is part of our culture. Like when a new baby is born, the father will organize a party and musicians will come and play and when the people are dancing around, you can just watch and learn. I didn’t have a teacher. Even when you’re a baby on your mother’s back, you move with her, dance with her, and when she puts you down, your body remembers. And when you clap, the baby moves his body. [He ripples his body like a dancing baby.] Christian people go to church and pray to God. Muslim people go to mosque and pray to God. In Africa, we dance as a way to pray to God. Missionaries came to Africa and tried to make everyone Christian. It’s sad. The culture you are born into is your way of communicating with God.

Q Did people notice that you were an especially talented dancer?

A When you’re dancing well, people will gather around you and clap to give you more energy. People would always gather around me.

Q How did people react to your decision to pursue dance professionally?

A It was a little difficult because in Africa people don’t recognize dance as a job. In our culture, you learn to dance like you learn to speak. I tell people my job is dancing and they say: “Everybody knows how to dance. How can you dance as job?”

Q How would you describe your style of choreography?

A In the beginning I was just doing African dance. Then I did a workshop with a choreographer from Europe. I learned a lot about modern techniques and stretching, and then afterwards I thought about how to combine this and make my own style. I prefer to call it contemporary dance with African expression. Learning European technique changed my body a little bit. But my way to move wwill always be African. Like this interview, if it was in my African language it would flow, but now I hesitate. The same with European dance.

Q Is your dancing political?”

A No. When I’m dancing, I don’t think about the political. My first thought is to feel this peace. [He places his hand over his heart.] Like you and me: We have different skin colors, but you look at our hearts and there’s no way you could say what’s a European heart, an African heart. That’s why I dance. Dance is what happens inside you. This is fake. [He gestures to his skin.] Last year I assistant choreographed a piece, “Babemba.” It was talking about Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister in Congo, and Thomas Sankara, the former leader of Burkina Faso.

Q That sounds political.

A It was telling an African story. When I was in school I learned more about European stories than African stories. I know about the First World War, the Second World War, but we don’t say much about Africa. I’m African. I need to know about my continent first. When we presented “Babemba” in Senegal, everyone was able to get inside the story. It made them happy. They were proud of what their people did. It’s about the liberation of Africa. The future of Africa. Thomas Sankara, in a speech, said that African people don’t need to pay their debt to their West — they will, but they shouldn’t have to — because for World War I, African soldiers were sent to Europe, to the front lines. We’ve never asked European people to pay back their debt of blood.

Q Your dancing has been described in the Western media as “primitive” and “exotic.” How do you feel about the use of these words?

A Yeah. Yeah. It bothers me. Aaaaah … I don’t know how to say in English. [He pauses in thought, placing his hand over his mouth, stroking his chin, his eyes darting around the room. He takes a deep breath.] I have this discussion with choreographers in Africa, and most don’t like this way of describing our dance. Someone here asked me whether for African dance you just have to move your body and throw your arms wherever you want. [He demonstrates, flailing his limbs around in our coffee shop corner.] I said: “Well, no. We have freedom, but you can’t just get on stage and [he jerks his body randomly] do whatever you want. We have a certain way to move. The first people to start talking about African dance were missionaries from Europe who didn’t know the language in Africa. To speak about African culture, you need to know African language. The way we speak uses a lot of proverbs. Things can mean many things. The missionaries didn’t realize this. They translated word for word. They can enjoy the music, the dance, but they can’t understand it. For me, learning American culture and not speaking English — it would be confusing!

Q What were your greatest culture shocks coming to America?

A In Africa, most of the young people want to be in America to make money. I thought I could come here and make money, but now I realize being here is difficult because you have so much to pay. You get a lot of money, but you have to spend a lot of money. I think it’s more difficult than in Africa. In Africa, even if you’re poor you have a place — a house — to sleep. Here, if you’re poor, it’s hard to have a house. And here, people are always busy. [He moves his body twitchily.] In Africa, we have time to talk, communicate, laugh. We are always together. We always make some kind of group.

Q What are the differences between European and African dance?

A In European dance, like ballet, you fight with gravity. You try to be lighter. In African dance you have to play around with your weight, bend your knees. People think there’s no control in African dance, but if there’s no control you’ll fall down!

Q Is it hard to teach American students African dance?

A No. African dance is an extension of everyday life. Today in class, first we just walked: Your body naturally moves in opposites, and when you turn, your arm does this. [His right arm swings around violently, narrowly missing his cup of Jasmine tea.] Then we started to shape that into dance. But if you’ve done ballet and you’re in my class, well, you can tell. You have problems.

Q Is there a coherent movement of contemporary dance in West Africa?

A It’s about emotion, drama, sensibility itself — how you express your feeling. People have different ways to express, so people will have different ways to move themselves.

Q What were your audiences in West Africa like?

A When it’s African dance, you see all kinds of people. But when you do contemporary dance, you see wealthy people and Europeans. When African people see “contemporary dance” they think: “What you learned in Europe.” But contemporary dance isn’t European dance. It means “today” dance.