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Dancing the Sacred Fantastic: Vodou Rites and Artistic Syncretism


Sarah Carlson


Author's Note

This paper provides a synthesis of eight months of research during a Fulbright grant I received for study and artistic collaboration in the Republic of Benin, during which I conducted interviews with colleagues, friends, or artist acquaintances in the field. I conceive of this paper as a form of oral-history research or first-hand documentation of attitudes surrounding the current state of the dance in Benin. I use the term 'traditional' throughout the paper to encompass all that has been established in Benin over time, including indigenous religious, royal, and folkloric customs. Vodou dances fall under this heading but should not be considered the sole representative of this category. The label 'Occidental contemporary dance' refers to the late nineteenth-century break from classical ballet that first appeared in the United States. Pioneering this radical change, Isadora Duncan later spread her ideas of 'natural' movement, unfettered by Western classical technique and attire, to artists in Europe and Russia. Throughout the twentieth century, artists in both America and Europe explored this lineage and the increased freedom of this approach, breaking the classical rules, and eventually questioning the very definition of 'dance' itself. While several Benin artists with whom I worked had some experience with Western contemporary dance techniques such as those of Martha Graham, José Limăn, or release, the majority of organized dancing in Benin remains highly traditional in nature. While elsewhere on the continent, choreographers utilize a much larger range of choices, Benin artists and audiences continue to stay close to their Vodou roots. What follows is the result of my investigation of this phenomenon.



The dance community in the Republic of Benin is actively searching for new avenues of expression. As exposure to Occidental contemporary dance aesthetics becomes increasingly available, Beninese choreographers are attempting to nourish a modern aesthetic that is distinctly African. In this vein, the importance of building upon traditional roots has been emphasized. Among the deepest and most influential of these roots is the Vodou faith, whose use of dance and rhythm remains endowed with sacred mystery. In its ritual context, Vodou dance blurs the boundary between the spiritual and the aesthetic. Sinuous spines give way to polyrhythmic pulsing of chest, shoulders, and pelvis, all with an intensity born of both belief and performance. By exploring the rich possibilities of their tradition, many Beninese artists hope to spawn a new wave of innovation to enliven and expand upon their extraordinary dance heritage. This leads us to a series of questions: What happens to Vodou rhythms and movements when removed from their ritual context? How do practicing Vodusi artists view their aesthetic explorations in light of their ritual practice? What steps are being taken to redefine expectations of so-called traditional African dance at home and abroad?

            Based on my numerous interviews with performing artists and grounded in established thinking regarding Vodou expression, in this essay I will document current trends in traditional and contemporary dancing in the Republic of Benin. A variety of perspectives from major players, including emerging choreographers and Vodou ritual participants, will provide a well-rounded commentary on the transformation in progress. I also address the manner in which this change is playing out in other postcolonial French West African nations, as well as concerns about what may be lost in the process.

            Africa has long been esteemed for its wealth and variety of artistic expression. Whether in dance, music, jewelry, or the plastic arts, indigenous custom and context have often endowed these art forms with functions beyond mere beauty or entertainment. Faith and tradition are responsible for refining distinct aesthetics that are recognized as belonging to specific regions or ethnic groups. These traditions run deep and, like the cicatrices or ritual scarring still worn by many, they serve to define a society, ethnic affiliation, and cultural identities. As times change, however, so do traditions. As populations merge, ethnicities mix, and cultures collide and influence one another. This process ebbs and flows, given situational impetus or constraint, but it remains an ineluctable force moving through time. Compared to other West African nations such as Senegal and Burkina Faso, Benin choreographers admit that the expansion of tradition in Benin concert dance has been particularly slow.

            The geographical region that comprises present-day Benin was once a part of the great Kingdom of Dahomey, a land fattened by the sale of its own enemies to the slave trade. In the eighteenth century, the Dutch, Portuguese, Danes, French, and British all had forts along the coast to administer the sale and collection of slaves that would help enrich their holdings in the New World. Colonized by the French in the late nineteenth century, Dahomey began a long process of expedient assimilation of the language, religion, and infrastructure of the French. Like many of their ancestor slaves in the Americas, the Dahomeans nevertheless managed to cling firmly to their cultural underpinnings. Today, over forty years after independence, native languages, faiths, and kings coexist with colonial transplants such as French (the official language), Christianity, and a democratically elected president and National Assembly.


Vodou Roots

This tenacity of tradition has ensured the survival of ancient customs and beliefs. Alongside a thriving Christian community, Vodou practice continues to prosper in villages and towns throughout southern Benin. Properly understood, Vodou is not simply a conception of the divine but a complex worldview whose precepts infiltrate most important aspects of life. Everything, from social justice, medicine, marital relations, and even the weather, is governed by the Vodou pantheon. As such, Vodou practice is not easily compartmentalized or set aside. Wade Davis, an established Vodou scholar, writes,


Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community. (1985: 72)


Vodou practitioners see each day, each event, and each individual choice as governed by the will of the spirits. Regular prayer, supplication, and sacrifice are deemed necessary to maintain the good will of the spirits and repair mistakes made along the way.

            The word vodou literally means 'spirit' in Fon, the predominant language and ethnic group of southern Benin. Vodou can refer to any of a pantheon of cosmic divinities, ancestor spirits, or the worship of such divinities (see Rosenthal 1998: 21). While Vodou does recognize one main creator God, Mawu, it is with the intermediary pantheon of subdivinities or vodous to whom worshipers relate on a daily basis. This pantheon of spirits represents the multiple expressions of God. Among them is Mami Wata, god of the sea; Gu, god of war and metallurgical elements; Hevioso, god of justice and storms; and Sakpata, god of smallpox and disease. In this extremely complex paradigm, Davis suggests that Voudou practitioners honor hundreds of vodous because they so sincerely recognize all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes to be sacred expressions of God (1985: 172).

            Dancing holds a special place within Vodou practice. Dancing combined with rhythm has the ability to call forth the spirits, to make them powerfully present in the form of trance or spirit possession. Each spirit has its own specific rhythms and dance steps. During a ceremony, these rhythms command the execution of specific dance steps, which, if performed in a manner that pleases the spirits, also beckons their arrival. As such, dancing is literally the vehicle through which a worshipper can receive a spirit into his/her body; it is an undulating bridge between the physical and the spiritual, a portal to profound transformation.

Figure 1
    Fig. 1. Group ceremonial dancing at la FÁte de Vodoun, 2007. Ouidah, Benin. Photo by author.


Organic Development

Dances for different deities reflect the qualities assigned to those gods. For example, Hevioso's dance tends to be very violent like the storms and the firm hand of justice he controls. The dance for Gu includes slicing motions across the body representing warlike motions with the metallic half-moon tipped spear he always carries. Dances for the snake-god, Dan, include a constant undulation in the torso and pelvis, a rippling of the back, and a lift and fall of the chest (see Daniel 2005: 77). Vodou adepts or 'vodousi' 1 who undergo the process of being dedicated or married to their protector spirit are sequestered for a period of time to learn the intricate rhythms and dances assigned to their deity. While the basic form of these dances remains unchanged over time, the improvisatory nature of their performance allows each new adept to add his or her own special flair. According to Medard Sossa, a professional dancer who is also an adept of Ajakpa, the crocodile spirit,


When a new adept is introduced to the community, he/she is expected to reveal something new in the dance. During the time of training, the spirit speaks to the individual and guides [him or her] to a place of expression that is slightly unique. The community thirsts for this new expression, this new communication from the spirit. (Sossa, personal communication, March 1, 2007)


Here again, we see that the dance serves as a form of connection, to both spirit world and local community, and in this way, the tradition can be seen to be alive, shifting ever so slightly with each new adept, in a slow but organic metamorphosis.

            During a ceremony, the drums and the dancers converse in an exchange that is spontaneous and unrehearsed. While specific rhythms and dance sequences are known, their timing and appearance are not set. All members of the community are free to get up and join in the dance, and often they go up in 'shifts,' taking turns in embodied service to the deities. Drummers too switch in and out of their chorus in order to maintain a constant percussive thread. The air is filled with drumming, conversation, singing, laughter, and a general sense of celebration. When the spirits arrive, however, the dance takes on an ecstatic quality that transcends the normal din. In her articulate account of Gorovodu practice in Togo, Judy Rosenthal writes of this transformation:


When the vodus come upon their hosts or wives, so that they turn into human forms, they also literally turn about, whirl, and suddenly change directions. Their dance does not begin with a stately, studied perfection of form, but rather a dashing and darting of abrupt starts and stops and unannounced reversals of direction, all of which bespeak the unstudied, state-of-grace perfection of animal and godly changeability. (1998: 62)


The arrival of a spirit is always captivating in its unpredictable calm or vehemence of expression, and this convergence of realms is, in fact, the ultimate goal and blessing of Vodou worship. Parfait Anago, an expert on traditional rhythms and a Vodou follower of Dan, describes the unknown dimension of the trance experience as another means of advancing the progression of the faith:


When I am filled with the spirit, the whole community is aware of what is happening, that the spirit is living inside me. It is a sacred moment that pushes me and my playing into new places. I am no longer in control. The trance experience expands the boundaries of known traditional rhythms. Through this means, the spirits guide the evolution of our faith. (Anago, personal communication March 31, 2007)


Through regular communion and revelation, the vodous are believed to breathe life into rhythms and dances that have survived the course of millennium.


Away from the Altar

However, while Vodou may contain its own internal impetus for evolution, this change is minimal compared to the experimentation happening in the domain of cultural performance groups. In the past twenty-five years, there has been an explosion of traditional dance troupes who include Vodou ritual dances in their performance repertoire. Before this time, the Vodou community was very protective of its dances because they are considered to house important secrets. Many groups existed for the purpose of specific ceremonial presentations, 2 and the first of these groups to offer Vodou dances publicly performed movements and rhythms identical to those found in Vodou ceremonies. This presented an obvious problem, as Parfait Anago affirms, "The Vodou chiefs would not allow Vodou rhythms and dances to be displayed on stage and 'sold out' to the public at large. It was a huge source of friction, and several groups were severely punished for their profanity" (Anago, personal communication, 2007).

            With the establishment of Benin's Le Ballet National in 1992, the situation softened.3 Organizers approached the Vodou chiefs and succeeded in convincing the leaders that sharing Beninese culture in this way was not a threat, but a proud means of displaying Benin's rich diversity of dance traditions, as well as a strong potential source of income. In a country that has historically been among the world's poorest, money can be an especially powerful incentive for change.4 In addition, and perhaps more importantly, concert-performance groups began to alter their style slightly in order to protect the sacred nature of the dances. Specific rhythms known to call forth spirits are avoided, costumes have been altered, masks removed. Vodou adepts who have been exposed to a higher level of sacred knowledge remain forbidden to dance outside of the ritual context; only simple initiates can perform onstage.

            Today, there are many Beninese dance troupes at varying stages of organization, from village-based pick-up groups to more established urban-based touring companies. No matter how reputable the company, however, most technical training for the artists involved comes from personal relations within the Vodou milieu. Extended families with ancestral Vodou affiliations have been passing on ritual knowledge for centuries in what is primarily an oral tradition. From a very young age, children are exposed to sacred rhythms and dances that inevitably become ingrained and perfected by those who are interested and apply themselves.

            In her book Dancing Wisdom, which examines Vodou dance in the diaspora, Yvonne Daniel also observed this trend: "It is within the family, small or large, that proper performance instruction takes place" (2005: 64). Germaine Acogny, a venerated dancer and teacher now based in Senegal, elaborates: "Young girls in Africa learn through mimetic means. It's not about training in the Occidental sense but rather a direct transmission" (Dupray 2001: 40). As Benin lacks a conservatory or dance-training center of any kind, the family or faith community becomes the only option for learning the basics. With professional dancers flowing directly out of Vodou communities and performing their sacred heritage onstage, the question emerges: how does their experience of these dances change onstage?

            The removal from the original Vodou ceremonial context produces a certain transformation of intent. In a presentational stage format, the purpose of these dances shifts from being primarily a form of connection with the divine to connection with an audience.5 With this shift of intention, from worship to entertainment, Vodou sacred-dance-turned-cultural-entertainment-event cannot help but seek to accommodate its new purpose and, in so doing, lessen its attachment to its original ritual underpinnings.

Figure 1
    Fig. 2. A member of Ori Ballet, a cultural dance troupe, performs at the French Cultural Center, Cotonou, Benin. Photo by author.


            Professional dancers necessarily focus more on projecting the dance movements and their gaze toward the audience rather than communing with the spirits. On the other hand, dancers who understand and cling to the sacred significance of these dances are not immune to their power. Richard Adossou, a professional well versed in both traditional and modern dance forms, states,


The context is different, but even still, sometimes dancers enter into trance during performance. The spirits are everywhere, and they can appear even if the context isn't normal. For example, one time in the middle of a performance, I was doing l'échasse6 and Médard and Clément [the drummers] started to play a special rhythm. I began to do things that are beyond my ability: I was on fire; I was doing crazy things! Clément stopped playing the rhythm before I hurt myself. I saw the video of the show, and I didn't recognize myself. I've never been able to perform the same tricks since. It was the spirit. (Adossou, personal communication, March 1, 2007)


Richard's experience references the lack of boundaries between sacred and secular in the Vodou worldview. Despite a decided shift of context and intent, these dances occasionally operate as originally intended. Serpollet Avogbe, an artist based in Ouidah, offers another perspective:


For me, my dance in the ceremonies is fueled by the spirit, whereas dance onstage is fueled by mastery of technique and choreography. I can achieve similar states of ecstasy in both settings, but the trajectory is different. From the moment a ceremony starts, the spirit is present in both the rhythms and the prayers. The rhythms and dance increase the intensity of this presence, and I become crazy with the spirit. Onstage, I must concentrate on the movement and on working as a team with the other dancers. I am much more focused mentally, and this type of focus too can lead to a sense of abandon. There was a moment during the last performance, for example, when my vision was altered; I could no longer sense the audience, and the other dancers were abstract forms, like moving pools of energy. During a brief moment when I was backstage, my senses returned to normal. (Avogbe, personal communication, March 31, 2007)


The performance to which Serpollet refers included a mix of both traditional and contemporary dance. For him, it is the greater intensity generated by the dance in performance, and not necessarily culturally prescribed movements, that can generate altered states. Eric Acakpo, an accomplished drummer and dancer, explains further:


When I perform onstage, I have felt an intense focus and sort of transcendence from the situation. It's like I am no longer in charge and in control. I can leave the stage and not know how it went because I was, in essence, somewhere else… . For me, performing onstage can be an even more intense communion with the spirit than when I dance during a ceremony. This is true whether the performance has sacred overtones or not. I dedicate myself and my performance to the spirits. (Acakpo, personal communication, March 24, 2007)


Regardless of the actual movement and musical content, the strength of Eric's personal beliefs is no doubt a factor in his sense of increased gravity in performance. However, the organization of a formal concert setting in contrast to that of a communal ritual could also play a role. The Vodou ceremonial setting is more fluid, the dance is open and participatory, and hence the focus of the event is more dispersed. Eric later agreed that the power of an attentive audience with a gaze directed to a proscenium stage could also be a vehicle for adding intensity to the moment.

            The Western proscenium performance format is not indigenous and has generated changes in the Vodou dances themselves. Francesca Pedulla, an Italian choreographer who has studied Benin dance for the past fifteen years, speaks of this change as an "Occidental artistic colonization":


When the first African national ballet was created, the preeminent choreographer Keita Fodeba, who was trained in Paris, brought his Western influenced conception of theater to Guinea. Before this time, there was no separation between audience and performers. The dance was performed in the round and was participatory. (Pedulla, personal communication, February 22, 2007)


The Guinean model, Les Ballets Africains established by Fodeba in 1954, was later adopted by neighboring countries and eventually across the continent. With the separation of dancer from spectator came the emergence of a class of professional dancers who dedicated themselves to exquisite mastery of their dances. Now, as Vodou dances are being performed for their own sake (rather than to promote connection with a spirit), artists have begun to take liberties with their tradition, adding or subtracting steps in pursuit of variation and personal style. In projecting Vodou dances as cultural displays, not only have the nature and structure of the performances been transformed but also the moves themselves.


Redefining 'African Dance'

Alongside these developments, aesthetic values attached to Occidental contemporary dance have begun to influence the work of Beninese choreographers, providing an expansive new terrain for exploration but also arousing concern for the future identity of the dance in Benin. Without a school or central training center for dance, how are these Occidental techniques being introduced? According to the dancers themselves, the process is sporadic at best. Marcel Gbeffa, a young Cotonou-based performer, expresses his frustration:


There is a lack of understanding [in Benin] of concepts, body orientation, and theory behind the Western modern aesthetic. Only a very few dancers grasp this--those who have had the opportunity to travel and learn abroad. (Gbeffa, personal communication, April 15, 2007)


As dancers gain success and fame through vehicles such as Le Ballet National, some are selected to join foreign companies and spend significant time outside of Benin. These dancers then come back and share their experiences, their new understanding of technique, and possibilities for movement invention. Kofi Koko, for example, is a Benin choreographer of international renown who has been based in Europe since the 1980s but who comes back periodically to train and choreograph for dancers in Benin. Occasionally, foreign dance companies such as Compagnie Salia nï Seydou from Burkina Faso are presented in Cotonou. Limited training occurs at workshops offered by Occidental or Western-influenced African artists at the French Cultural Center (FCC) in Cotonou. However, Stephanie Moutoussamy, in charge of programming at the FCC, states firmly that the center focuses on presenting artists, not training them:


The lack of training is a major problem here in Benin. The FCC offers three to five dance workshops a year in various styles. However, the FCC does not invite artists to conduct training workshops. When workshops happen, it is always the initiative of the artist, not the center. (Moutoussamy, personal communication, April 30, 2007)


Without many options, local dancers must be satisfied with the small trickle of proactive artists that come through town.

            More rigorous training takes place at schools that exist elsewhere in West Africa, such as Germaine Acogny's L'̃cole de Sables in Senegal or the recently inaugurated La Termitière in Burkina Faso. Both of these dance academies attract and support artists from Benin, providing them with exposure to external influences that are absent in their own country. The Montpellier Dance Festival in France has also played a role in this by inviting artists from across Africa to participate in their Atelier du Monde workshop. This offers the dancers training and support and encourages collaboration on the continent.7 Benin artists who succeed in gaining access to these opportunities are few, however, as travel or instruction fees are often prohibitively expensive.

            As Occidental modern-dance techniques start to influence dancing in Benin, choreographers are beginning to expand their explorations of movement quality and choreographic structure. Artists are starting to move away from an established call-and-response format and simple unison toward more variation and experimentation. Bound or muscular energy is beginning to be expanded upon, and opportunities for movement invention have been greatly amplified. Marcel Gbeffa speaks of such exploration in terms of music:


The steps have always been linked to rhythms; now that's beginning to change. The gong is the necessary backbone of the rhythm, but the other drumming around it can change… . We can't always be attached to the sound. If you change the rhythm, that automatically gives something else. (Gbeffa, personal communication, April 15, 2007)


More important, perhaps, than any specific change in format or structure is an increased sense of creative liberty felt by the artists. Richard Adossou says that before he was exposed to outside influence, he felt bound by the rules of tradition: "Now I can do what I want to do. I feel capable of making nothing into something" (personal communication, June 2007).


Fear of Loss

As the pace of change has picked up in the past twenty years, fears have been expressed about the potential loss of tradition. Adossou speaks of a point of no return:


The stylization of tradition marks the divergence point in my opinion between traditional and contemporary concert dance. Sometimes the deviation is so great that the traditional dance loses its essence, its logic; the manipulation is so great that the original dance no longer exists. There is a real danger that the original dances will become muddled, that dancers will learn what they think is the tradition, but it will really be altered because of the level of experimentation. (Adossou, personal communication, March 1, 2007)


In 1996, Bienvenu Akoha, a language professor concerned about the decline and disappearance of his traditional culture, founded the Conservatoire de Danses Cérémonielles et Royales d'Abomey. With the help of UNESCO, Akoha hoped to create a school of training and research to preserve Benin's traditional dance heritage. However, lack of consistent funding has resulted in the institute's remaining more of an intention and desire than becoming a reality. Nevertheless, many dancers have faith in the tenacity of tradition as it continues to live and inform the identity of both the Vodou and concert-dance milieu. Rachelle Agbossou, who danced with Le Ballet National from 2000 to 2004, asserts in response to the current situation that "there will always be a continuity with the world of Vodou without provoking the eventual disappearance of the sacred dances" (personal communication, 2007). Likewise, Parfait Anago believes the rhythms and dances are not only ingrained but fundamental to the Vodou identity and, therefore, not in any danger of being lost. Marcel Gbeffa does not fear change but nevertheless recognizes the need for conservation:


Everything changes. There is no need to worry about losing the past. But there should definitely be a conservatory to continue nurturing the older tradition. We cannot have an African modern-dance aesthetic without grounding ourselves in tradition if we want to retain our identity. That's what gives us a face to project to the world. (Gbeffa, personal communication, April 15, 2007)


At a discussion panel in Cotonou in November 2006, Germaine Acogny encouraged artists not to be afraid of change. "Dance is a living art form. The 'traditional' dances of today are not the exact same dances our ancestors performed." Acogny encouraged exploration without fear of losing the old: "Tradition and innovation go hand in hand" she said, noting that change, indeed, is the only constant and that dancing can be thought of as change incarnate, the body in motion, progressing from one state to the next.8 Life fully lived is not rigid or in stasis; thus, the art of the dance fully expressed is constantly evolving, recreating itself anew over and over. Acogny's own dance center in Senegal, L'Ecole des Sables, seeks to enrich African artists by exposing them to multiple traditions both African and Occidental, both classic and contemporary. Although devoted to her African roots, she is equally adamant about the need to "open up":


We must give the young generation the most complete base of learning possible in order to explore how our techniques complement one another. Choreographic creativity cannot blossom on the African continent without this indispensable opening up on both artistic and human levels. (cited in Mensah 2001: 37)


Delayed Willingness

Recent change notwithstanding, lack of accessible information and of exposure to what is happening in the dance beyond Benin's borders, along with the longtime reticence of Vodou's adherents to share its dances, has slowed down the progression of aesthetic and artistic change in Benin. Another potential reason for this lies in a general cultural disregard for the value of the arts. The very decision to pursue the performing arts as a career is regarded with disdain. "They mock us," says Emerson Aguidissou, a professional drummer based in Ouidah. "They say we do nothing but drum. They have no respect for what we do" (Aguidissou, personal communication, 2006). It seems that since music and dancing have been a part of daily life in Africa for millennia and continue to prosper, especially within Vodou communities such as Ouidah, there is an assumption, a trust, that they will continue to exist, with or without public support. Furthermore, the rhythms and steps are so intricately connected to Vodou worship that they are not always perceived as an 'art form' unto themselves. As a result, audiences willing to pay to see traditional arts are almost nonexistent outside of larger urban centers such as Cotonou.

            This lack of support is reflected in a dearth of public funding for the arts in Benin. For example, Le Ballet National is comprised of a senior company and a junior company with a total of about fifty dancers. According to the ballet's director, Florent Eustache Hessou, the company was created "to promote Benin's national image abroad and to increase public interest in dance by founding an official institution validated by the State" (Hessou, personal communication, June 2007). The current annual government subsidy for the ballet is forty million CFA or about eighty thousand dollars US. However, after signing contracts guaranteeing them a salary of $120 a month, the dancers were not paid for two years and considered a strike. Despite monetary limitations, the very fact that the ballet continued performing when it could not pay its dancers demonstrates internal administrative disregard toward the value of the dancers and their efforts. And so the very institution intended to validate dance in Benin has been a source of great disappointment and frustration for many of its dancers.

            This disregard for the arts, combined with a fifteen-year, postindependence political experiment with Communism, is no doubt linked to the relative lack of cultural exchange beyond Benin's borders, when compared to other nations in the region. From 1975 to 1990, President Mathieu Kérékou headed a Lenin-Marxist regime in Benin with little success in forging connections, commercial or otherwise, with the West. More than fifteen years of democracy since then have loosened the clamp somewhat, but effects of that era still linger.


Changing Expectations

As the dancing changes, not just in Benin but throughout Africa, the need for practitioners and scholars alike to expand the terminology that categorizes African dance forms and shapes external expectations becomes paramount. Shifting boundaries and the intermixing of dance techniques have fostered creative exploration on a terrain so vast that finding a single appropriate term to describe it is daunting, if not next to impossible. Francesa Pedulla explains:


For a long time, there has been an effort to find the right term to describe this new wave because the term 'African dance' doesn't really mean anything these days. Is it 'modern dance?' 'African expressive dance?' 'African inspired-dance?' 'Contemporary African dance?' The search continues. Kofi Koko says, "I am a contemporary African dancer." It's complicated because there is not yet a distinction between what is 'traditional' and what is not … not even in Europe, it's not clear. (Pedulla, personal communication, February 22, 2007)


Distinctions between 'traditional' and other forms of African dance will no doubt become ever more difficult to determine as dance artists continue to select from an amplified range of choices in a world that is increasingly interconnected. Benin's rapid change marks yet another chapter in the contemporary questioning of boundary and definition. Whether distinctions pertain to tradition/modernity, ethnicity/race, male/female, or technology/nature, previously unquestioned binaries are becoming increasingly unsettled.

            When asked if he felt bound by outside expectations of what African dance should be, Richard Adossou replied that every choreographer must negotiate the fine line of what the public wants and the integrity of his/her own artistic vision. He recounted an instance of a performance he gave in Niger, at the end of which a viewer announced he would have enjoyed more 'African' dance. Ironically, the performance had included long sections of traditional African dances that simply were not recognized as such by the viewer. "People can say what they will," Richard asserts, "and attitudes will change with time" (personal communication, June 2007).

Figure 1
    Fig. 3. Richard Adossou, Beninese dancer and choreographer. Photo by Francesca Pedulla, with permission.


            The future holds great possibilities for positive change in response to outside pressures, particularly in the realm of dance education. For example, Le Ballet National director Florent Hessou also directs the Association Oriculture through which he plans to offer classes in "traditional African dance techniques" starting in the summer of 2007. Hessou hopes that Oriculture will one day be able to provide more substantial and consistent training for his dancers and the community. Other artists, such as Etienne Cakpo and Marceline Lartigue, have expressed interest in starting dance academies of their own. While these centers remain aspirations at present, they indicate a strong desire to provide greater resources and have the potential to fuel internal artistic development, albeit along Occidental lines, in the decades to come. In the meantime, Benin's dancers will continue to be forged in raw, spiritually charged Vodou settings, which, to this investigator, seemed to nurture a level of conviction that can never be taught in formal setting.



            1 Si means 'wife' in Fon. Male or female, adepts are always the 'wife' of a spirit.

            2 Parfait mentioned that dances are traditionally performed on the night before a Vodou burial.

            3 Date confirmed by Florent Hessou, current director of Le Ballet National.

            4 The profit or selling of the sacred and its impact within Vodou communities are both important and complex but beyond the scope of this paper.

            5 This somewhat bumpy transition from sacred to secular has occurred in other sacred traditions as well, in particular, Bharatanatyam in India.

            6 L'échasse is a special Vodou dance in which solo dancers climb bamboo stilts and perform dynamic feats high in the air with no safety net. The dance appears to require almost superhuman strength and suggests divine intervention.

            7 For more information, see Mensah (2001b).

            8 This quotation from Acogny was taken from discussion panel proceedings held at Seul Sur Scène festival, Cotonou, Benin, 2006.


References Cited:

Daniel, Yvonne

2005. Dancing Wisdom. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Davis, Wade

1985. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster.


2001. An Interview with Germaine Acogny. Africultures 42: 40–42.

Mensah, Ayoko

2001a. Toubab Dialaw: Le Succes d'un Centre de Formation au Sénégal. Africultures 42: 36–39.

2001b. Monpellier Dance 2001. Africultures 42: 49–51.

Rosenthal, Judy

1998. Possession, Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.


Interviews with Author:

Acakpo, Eric

2007. March 24, Ouidah, Benin.

Adossou, Richard

2007. March 1 and June, Cotonou, Benin.

Agbossou, Rachelle

2007. Cotonou, Benin.

Aguidissou, Emerson

2006. Ouidah, Benin.

Anago, Parfait

2007. March 31, Ouidah, Benin.

Avogbe, Serpollet

2007. March 31, Ouidah, Benin.

Gbeffa, Marcel

2007. April 15, Cotonou, Benin.

Hessou, Florent Eustache

2007. Cotonou, Benin.

Moutoussamy, Stephanie

2007. April 30, Cotonou, Benin.

Pedulla, Francesca

2007. February 22, Cotonou, Benin.

Sossa, Medard

2007. March 1, Cotonou, Benin.










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