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By Sydnie L. Mosley
Djoniba Mouflet is a leading teacher of West African dance in New York City. He has directed the Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre, now located at Peridance Capezio Center, for almost 20 years. Originally from Martinique, he studied with masters in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal, and trained with Dance Theatre of Harlem. The author of Joneeba! The African Dance Workout, he has produced a DVD about his dance technique and Drums for Your Soul, a CD that complements his class warm-up. Mouflet is the founder and choreographer of Ballet D’Afrique Djoniba, a group that performs traditional West African dance and music. He brings his entrepreneurial can-do spirit to his students, opening the door of West African dance to anyone willing to try. Choreographer and Afro-modern teacher Sydnie L. Mosley observed his class and spoke with him after.
Many African dance classes don’t include such a healthy warm-up; you really prepare dancers for the vigorous movement they’re about to do. Tell me how you structure your class. The class consists of three elements—first, the warm-up, which is a thorough workout with stretching and strengthening of your abs and back. I have intensive training in ballet and modern, so I incorporate some of those movements, as well as yoga, to make sure that your whole body is fully warmed up before you start dancing. Then you have the teaching element, which is the breaking down of the steps so that everyone can get it. And the last section is the execution of the steps in choreography.
What can someone who is trained in ballet or modern learn from West African dance? African dance teaches you to become a musical instrument. You have to be on the beat. Every part of your body has to feel like rhythm. Your head, your shoulders, your arms, your hands, your knees, your chest, your hips. If I see an African dancer who really is doing it right, fully, without any music, then it makes me wanna move. It’s just like when you hear good music—you know naturally.
It also teaches you to let go of your body, instead of controlling it to the end. You can’t completely let go because it becomes sloppy. So you learn to let go, but with control.
What makes you unique as a teacher? My signature is teaching to beginner dancers, people who have never done African dance. I had teachers who taught me how to teach, so that I could break down the steps. That knowledge allowed me to really get a name as a teacher. My thing is: Show them the basics, and a year or two later they feel comfortable going to a more advanced class. Then they’ll do the same move but much faster and more intricate, and they can actually do it.
What movement coordinations do you develop in your dancers? Your knees are really high, your arms are fully open, not halfway.
Can you talk about the relationship of the limbs to the torso? It is always opposite—meaning when I step right, I go with my left arm. Rarely are you same and same, meaning right leg with right arm. Ninety percent of the time it’s opposite.
How does the head move in relation to the body? The head is always on a staccato rhythm just like a bell, like a metronome. It always moves on the tempo of 4/4 or 2/4.
There was a moment when you had the class sing the break. Do you feel like a music teacher as much as a dance teacher? Exactly, yes. In African dance the live music is so important. The lead drummer leads the dance, so you need to teach people how the music relates to the movement. The music and dance are totally intertwined—they are one.
What advice from your masters do you pass on to your students? In order to learn, you have to be there 100 percent. You have to be willing to learn, willing to get criticized. Also, they emphasized the need for new choreography. You can’t just do the same step over and over. One common misconception about African dance is that it’s static, that the step you’re learning is the same as it was one thousand years ago. But what you see mostly in the Western world is steps by choreographers in Africa—based, however, on very key principles and traditional rhythms from different tribes.
What do you think people love about West African dance? It’s the heartbeat. Everybody is sensitive to anything that has to do with the heartbeat, which is steady rhythm, and African dance is about steady rhythm. When you hear rhythm, whether you’re old or young, you start moving naturally.
Djoniba Mouflet leads a high-energy class. Photo by Peter Field Peck, Courtesy Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre