Since its 1983 inception, four generations of dancers and drummers have graced stages in the U.S. and across the world on behalf of the KanKouran West African Dance Company, an educational institution designed to preserve the dance culture of the Senegal-Gambia region of Africa through performances and educational programs.
As Assane Konte, prolific Senegalese choreographer and KanKouran founder and artistic director, looks forward to the next 35 years, the goal of securing an African Cultural Center, a permanent location where nearly 100 members of the dance company can practice, often enters his mind.
Even so, he said he remains faithful in KanKouran’s success and durability in what’s considered a hub for Pan-African culture on the East Coast.
“It’s a blessing to survive for 35 years. I’m thankful to the ancestors for carrying us in Washington, D.C.,” Konte told The Washington Informer a week after members of the KanKouran West African Dance Company celebrated its 35-year milestone during an annual concert at The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Northwest.
Konte, formerly of a dance company based in the Ivory Coast, founded KanKouran five years after arriving in the United States as a choreographer at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park. That opportunity led to gigs teaching various age groups in California, New York and other parts of the country.
The nation’s capital, where local, national and international politics intersect, caught Konte’s eye and would eventually become his home, as he and KanKouran’s founding members laid the foundation for an arts program he said prepared young people pursuing higher education and entering various career fields.
Given its precarious position as an organically created community institution, Konte said that KanKouran alumni, many of whom are school administrators, lawyers and other highly educated professionals, have financially sustained the dance company, a departure from its counterparts that often receive corporate support.
“A lot [of the participants] are so well educated and that keeps us going through the years,” Konte said. “They know this company was founded inside the community. You’re presenting history, not just with professional dancers but the whole culture of what took place in Africa. It’s a lot of work because you got more than 100 people you have to work with, but it’s all good because it’s my calling.”
Celebrating 35 Years
Over the past three decades, KanKouran members have practiced at studios and auditoriums across the city, including a storefront along the H Street corridor in Northeast, the Southwest Waterfront, and near Howard University in Northwest.
KanKouran’s other offerings, including the community classes where novice dancers have learned complex, West African choreography for decades, have also taken place in those facilities.
During the latter part of August, in the week leading up to the showcase, themed “The Spirit Lives On,” at Lisner on Sept. 1, hundreds of African dance and drum enthusiasts walked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Northeast eager to learn from two dozen dance instructors teaching choreography that originated from Senegal, Mali, Congo, Guinea and Liberia over the course of three days.
The Sept. 1 concert kicked off African Heritage Month festivities in the District. Guests, including African Union Ambassador to the United States Arikana Chihombori-Quao, watched for two hours as the multigenerational dance troupe, in West Africa lappa dresses and suits of various colors and designs, moved to the beat of unique drum patterns of the djembe and sabar, against the backdrop of an African village.
For the annual concert, KanKouran received $10,000 from the International Association of Blacks in Dance, part of a multimillion-dollar purse to be doled out to Black dance organizations for the next five years.
“It’s a lot of hard work, especially for the company members, as Assane challenges members to achieve high levels of excellence,” said Eurica Huggins, KanKouran’s public relations officer of 30 years.
In preparation for the 35th-anniversary concert, performers practiced choreography at a home in Maryland that could accommodate the large group. Acts during the first half of the show highlighted dance patterns specific to Mali and Guinea, while the latter half exclusively focused on Senegal.
“Assane wants [the dances] done as perfectly as possible, so you have the community class,” Huggins said. “They’re part of the celebration and concert. In this village, you have artists, educators, engineers and other professionals. It’s a microcosm of who we were before our ancestors were kidnapped.”
A True Community Institution
Local activist Lydia Curtis, a KanKouran affiliate of more than 25 years, counted among community class participants who’ve secured an opportunity to perform on stage with the dance company, doing so five years ago when she took part in KanKouran’s 30th-anniversary concert.
What Curtis had intended to be a two-year stint has turned into an ongoing endeavor she said keeps her mind sharp and body nimble.
“I wanted more of a challenge than what I thought I was getting,” she said. “At that point, 21 years had gone by, and I was getting older, so I was going to try to up my game to learn things a lot faster and remember the choreography.”
During the winter of 1993, while enrolled in KanKouran’s community classes, Curtis and other pupils accompanied Konte to Senegal where they demonstrated their dance moves at presentations.
Curtis, who said she has Pan-African leanings, would later pass on the torch, launching Sadiki Educational Safari Inc., her effort to connect Black D.C. youth to African culture. Her organization collaborated with KanKouran to expose the young people to authentic West African dance. She would later take her youth on their first trip to West Africa, as Konte had done for her years prior.
“When I started in the 1990s, KanKouran was an active partner,” Curtis said. “I would bring children to class and not have to pay for them. If they acted up or misbehaved, the guys would step in and be uncles. The kids I targeted were at risk, so for them to come in [to a community class] and be exposed was very significant.”
On the night of the concert, in the lobby of Lisner Auditorium during intermission, Patricia Daley stood in amazement at the cacophony of Pan-African greetings, conversation, and discussions with vendors as the fragrances of incense, shea butter, and oils filled the air.
Daley, 53, who said she practices yoga at the Essence of Movement Studio in Clinton, Maryland, attended the annual KanKouran concert with her husband for the first time, immediately sensing a kinship with others who participated in the festivities.
“You feel the soulful connection,” Daley said. “The performances were powerful and almost spiritual in some way. I love how we come together in love, and not fight. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m in awe of the people and their outfits.”
Damian Bascom, a 36-year-old Southeast resident sporting an-all white West African suit, said he appreciated the cultural significance of the dance concert, adding that the young people demonstrated the power of transferring knowledge between generations.
“We need to see our heritage and the expression of our people through arts and music,” Bascom said. “My favorite aspect of this is the involvement of the young people and their following of our ancestors. We’re part of this development. The new generation is holding it together, and we’re seeing a full-circle experience.”
Percussionist and KanKouran staple Malari Moore spoke of the potent student-teacher relationships he fostered as a youth in the dance company. Moore watched as his mother, known to many as Mama Riche, taught community classes throughout the 1990s.
He would rise through the ranks of KanKouran, securing a lead drumming role during the 2005 concert.
Moore, now 37, stood alongside Konte on the stage at Lisner as the elder spoke about KanKouran’s position as an incubator of African culture and talent. He echoed those sentiments, crediting the institution for his development as a young man and the discipline he imparts on his youth as a drumming instructor.
“Living in D.C., every day we were going to the studio,” he said. “You get your homework done and when it’s time to drum, you’re right there. I learned the Senegalese culture and a way of living [that involved] respecting people and doing things right. Baba Assane taught me how to hustle. I watched him get gigs. I’ve done a lot of traveling with KanKouran when I was younger. I wouldn’t even understand what I’m doing now, if not for him to a certain extent.”