De Ama Battle has been a longtime force in the Boston dance scene. Like her mentors Chuck Davis and Pearl Primus, she teaches West African movement with an anthropologist’s eye. A native of Cambridge, MA, Battle regularly visits Senegal, Mali, and elsewhere in West Africa to research dance traditions. Having taught at colleges including Radcliffe and Wellesley, she continues to direct her 33-year-old company, the Art of Black Music & Dance. For 15 years, she has also taught African Dance Styles at the Boston Conservatory, where she recently spoke with French Clements.
When you visit Africa, what do you take back to the studio?
I try to capture on videotape a lot of things I’m exposed to—the way people wash clothes, go to market, celebrate weddings, and how they dress. I bring the tapes into class, to give a firsthand look at where I was, what I did, and what steps I’ve learned. Most people who teach these dances in this country say, “This is a celebration dance, a harvest dance,” but they don’t go into what the groom does before the wedding, or how the bride gets prepared. What kind of food is served? Who does the cooking? These lifestyle experiences help students get a handle on the dance itself and on the way people live.
What problems in training do students currently face in the United States?
The hardest is to be loose in the body—to be opposite from the European tradition. One is straight up, and the other has all the limbs bent. You’ll hear me say, “Stick your butt out!” In so many techniques, we’re taught to tuck under. But a lot of the cultural forms are opposite. It’s another type of centering, as opposed to ballet, where you’re pulling up through the hips and ribs and nose.
How do you redefine the relationship of a dancer to his or her body?
It goes back to the distinction between rigid European dance and fluid African dance. To address that, I get students to walk around in what I call “African first position.” All the joints are bent, the torso is at 45 degrees, the hips are flexed. The butt is not held strong—it’s out there. Eventually, they learn how to let their arms move in coordination with the legs. So many people forget how to walk in opposition!
What did you learn from Pearl Primus?
The most outstanding thing Dr. Primus always said was, “Know what and whom you’re talking about as you’re teaching. Represent it as faithfully as possible.”
What kinds of questions do your students ask you?
Some questions relate to synchronizing body movements. In my classes, when you raise your arm, the head is often moving in the opposite direction. Most students, when they raise an arm, take their head in the same direction. And they ask about the meaning of certain movements. The girls ask, “Why do we put our hands on our bellies?” That represents the sympathy you give to a woman bearing a child. Men put their hands across their chest and profess their willingness to help with a new life. Or, “Why do we curve our hands upward?” You’re dipping your hand in the river. The movement of using a hoe in the field is down low. We have no connection to that, as city folk.
Why is it hard for some people to adapt to West African dance?
I think it’s a rhythm thing. If you haven’t heard the music before, it’s awkward. If you can put the movement with the music and feel it internally, you can more easily execute the step. Until you learn the music, you’re out of sync. People say, “I have no rhythm,” or whatever. Well, there was no one more awkward than me! Everybody’s awkward until they have a sense of the music and of the parts of the body that are accentuated. Everybody starts out on the same foot, no pun intended.
Do you think studying African dance makes today’s dancers more versatile?
I think it’s essential to making a dancer well-rounded. You don’t go through life straight up and never bending in what you do. If you study ballet for years—without exposure to African, Brazilian, Mexican dancing—you never get to experience dancing on the downstroke. By experiencing different cultures, you learn all the ways your body can go.