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Navigating Trans-Atlantic Flows: New York's Senegalese Sabar Teachers

Eleni Bizas


This article examines a network of students and teachers who travel between New York City in the U.S. and Dakar, Senegal, in order to develop the practice of Sabar, a West African dance form. I explore the significance of this trans-Atlantic movement of people for the practice of Sabar in New York City and suggest that, while it is intended to create and maintain connections between the Sabar of Senegal and the Sabar of New York, it is contingent on certain aspects of Sabar remaining distinctly local to each setting. I draw attention to how this movement of Sabar teachers relates to Wolof discourses of 'caste' and gender and to the pedagogical techniques they employ. I illustrate how, in order for certain aspects of Sabar to move across the Atlantic successfully, others need to stay behind in Senegal.

     The article is based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, six in New York and nine in Dakar, that I conducted in 2006–7 and in 2008. I followed the movements of the many New York students of West African dance rhythms who are introduced to the dances in New York and later travel to West Africa to learn more about the practice of the forms. My research methods consisted primarily of apprenticeship; learning West African dance rhythms such as Sabar and Djembe as a dance student in different settings in both New York and Dakar. As Djembe and Sabar in the U.S. are practiced in the same spaces and employ similar networks, I also attended Djembe classes. While in Dakar, I also took drumming lessons along with the dancing, as Senegalese Sabar dancers also have an understanding of the drumming. I collected data through participant observation of classes and relevant dance-events, as well as semi-structured interviews with dancers, drummers, students, and other people involved with Sabar more generally. My position as a dance student allowed me to explore the pedagogical techniques employed by various teachers and through them the underlying paradigms of learning, local aesthetics, and cultural notions of 'being' that characterized each locale.1

Participants' Movement

Teachers, older participants, and advertisements introduce New York students of West African dancing to the idea of traveling to West Africa. Senegalese and Guinean teachers working in New York organize and invite their students on annual trips to their home countries. In addition, for students who wish to travel on their own, there are established networks in West Africa to meet this demand. The desire to travel is nurtured in the way the dances and dancing are taught in New York classes. As one student explained, her teacher "had made it clear" that "in Guinea people don't just dance for fun" (U.S. female Djembe student, NYC, 2006). Teachers emphasize the importance of knowing the "context" of the dance forms. The "context" may refer to the people and region the dances come from and when they are performed. As I discuss elsewhere (Bizas 2009), however, the meaning of the word "context," varies significantly in the discourses of the participants and is often used instrumentally toward different ends. Regardless, the importance of the "context" is well accepted by the students and is reflected in their discourses: "I needed to understand the authenticity, the genuine-ness of the dance right inside the culture" (U.S. female Djembe student, Dakar, 2007).

     Teachers often provide explanations of West African cultural settings in which the dances are usually performed, at times contradicting explanations given by other teachers. However, this is not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge. Since West African state boundaries cut across different ethnic groups and thus artificially separate indigenous dance forms, it is often impossible to assign a certain dance to a specific country. Nonetheless, countries are commonly used to refer to dances, thus blurring the fact that the dances may come from the same country but from different ethnic traditions. As one U.S. Djembe student confessed, "For all the dancing I've done I'm embarrassingly bad at dance names. I'd like to attribute this to different teachers using different names, definitions of what a dance is" (Dakar, 2007).

     Despite, or perhaps because of, the seemingly conflicting explanations, first-hand knowledge of the West African setting becomes all the more important to students, while the practice of the dances in New York is seen as "context-less" and incomplete, somehow "not the real thing." The practice in New York is often spoken about in terms of fun and as a physical activity that contrasts with a more serious approach to dancing. In contrast to this attitude, one student in Dakar described her involvement as follows: "I'm really interested in learning the depth of the dances, what they mean and how they're expressed in context . . . and not just physically how to do them" (U.S. female Djembe student, Dakar, 2007).

     Traveling to West Africa is time-consuming, a financial burden, and a significant physical commitment for the New York students. Not everyone can afford the time, the cost, and the required vaccinations involved. This inaccessibility renders the acquisition of knowledge about the West African "context" special and elevates those New York students who have experienced and acquired such first-hand knowledge. This fact relates to Appadurai's discussion of luxury goods as a "specific 'register' of consumption" (1986: 38) rather than a special thing in themselves. In this case, access to the West African context becomes a "specific 'register' of consumption" that differentiates those students who can afford it from those who cannot. This quality of being difficult to acquire comes to define the committed or "serious" students against the rest. In this way, direct experience of the West African cultural setting is used as a form of currency, to legitimize the self, both to oneself and to others in the practice of Sabar in New York. Elements of the "authentic context," such as the occasional use of greetings in Wolof or display of West African dress, are often invoked and appropriated in New York classes.

     For the Senegalese teachers, regular trips "back home" to West Africa are a way of reactivating their knowledge of Sabar as a form of cultural capital, which then increases their demand in New York. Through these visits, teachers are thought to be up-to-date with the latest moves (créations in French) that have become popular in the Dakar dancescape, seen as the center of Sabar innovation. Knowing the latest créations is important in the practice of Sabar and so this knowledge becomes a significant selling point that New York teachers advertise broadly: "Don't forget to join us this Saturday and EVERY Saturday, for fresh, new and funky Sabar moves . . . straight out of Senegal" (email advertisement, 2008).

     In contrast, a teacher's dancing can be criticized as "old" if he or she has not been able to maintain a connection and learn the new, hottest moves. This was the case for one Guinean teacher who, for almost a decade, had been unable to travel home due to her alien immigration status in the U.S. One U.S. student, who had been living in Guinea for many years, described this teacher and her students' dancing as "old." She explained that this was the problem with dancers who go to the U.S. "because things keep evolving in Guinea and they end up doing the same things."

     This trans-Atlantic movement of both students and teachers is thus seen to maintain links between the Sabar of New York and the Sabar of Dakar and to establish one's authority in the practice of Sabar in New York City. However, as I will show, a teacher's mobility is also contingent on his or her ability to maintain some aspects of Sabar as local, in each site. In what follows, I will discuss how Senegalese cultural concepts of gender and 'caste' as well as distinct pedagogical techniques and aesthetics of performance are left behind as Senegalese dancers negotiate their mobility to New York.

Gender in Dancing Sabar

Sabar is generally considered a female dance and certain Sabar events are private, female affairs taking place in private spaces. The more exclusively female events are called tours; they are organized by women's associations and often feature the most provocative dancing.2 However, they are not events exclusive to women, as the drummers are always male. Sabar events that take place in the streets of Dakar are semi-public events and, thus, may include men as both dancers and/or onlookers. These are organized for naming ceremonies, marriages, and political meetings and may also be held by anyone who can afford to organize them.3 However, even in these cases, it is mostly women who perform short, improvised solos in front of the male drummers. In contrast, men might dance under a comic pretence, often jokingly imitating women. Professional male dancers may also perform prechoreographed sequences and acrobatic movements, often in unison with other dancers.4 In the style of professional dancers, they break the general norms and often face the audience and not the drummers as lay dancers do.

     This gender distinction is important as, in Sabar, men and women are thought to dance differently. Participants gave various reasons to account for this, which points to something important about Senegalese notions of 'being.' I first became aware of the gender distinction in Sabar following some lessons I took in Dakar with a male dancer named Tony. Tony had taught me a short choreographic sequence. One day I arrived to class to find a female substitute teacher in Tony's place. She asked me to show her what I had learned, and after I did, she repeated the sequence by giving me alternative movements for some of the ones that Tony had taught me. She explained that those were male moves and that I should do the female ones. Her movements were less pronounced, and I was encouraged to imitate her. Her posture was more upright than Tony's, and her torso did not move in space as much. She went on to explain that Tony is a man, and "men are robust and do 'big' movements." It is interesting to note here that Tony, a thin man of small build, was smaller than both the teacher and me. Thus, it was not Tony's physique but something inherent in Tony's 'maleness' that guided my female teacher's instruction.

     According to one drummer, distinctions between men and women are a result of differences in "nature." Men, he said, are "physical, powerful" because of their "hormones," and this explains why men dance with acrobatic movements and use their legs more. Instead, the nature of women was said to be "playful, sensual, harmonic," which explains the gracious movement of their hips and their use of the arms. No matter the precise form of the explanation, however, these gender differences were generally deemed unbridgeable. For example, I was told by a male dancer and teacher in New York City that, even if a man can "catch" a movement and imitate it, he "cannot do [it] all the way like a woman." As he explained further,

Men and women are different. There are different moves women do in Sabar, we men we don't do. . . . We try to do and a lot of stuff we do, good stuff, but you can still tell, you know. . . . When the woman does it, you can tell the difference. (Senegalese male Sabar teacher, NYC, 2006)

The above statements suggest belief in a difference in "nature," but other dancers used the word "style" (in English) to describe such differences:

They're different, because men's style is different from women's. The men's dancing nowadays is heavier. Women dance like women, more like hand and stuff, [while] men dance more with their legs. (Bakary, NYC, 2008)

Here "style" seems to refer to movements that are characteristic of a male or a female repertoire. Although expressed in different terms, the above explanations point to assumed gender differences, and they outline general expectations of male and female dancing. Acrobatic, powerful movements, for example, are a male characteristic, while gracious movements of the hips and arms are a female characteristic. This does not mean that dancers refrain from using certain movements. In fact, men often try to trigger laughter from the audience by imitating women. Similarly, professional female dancers will often incorporate acrobatics and large movements in impressive solos. However, in those cases, they are seen to have appropriated the dancing of the opposite gender: "You see some men dance like women." One dancer justified this in terms of physical build:

The way the body is built up, too. You see some men, [how] they dance, [and] you will think, "Wow, they're women." You can tell from a lot of teachers, you've been around, you take lot of classes, you can tell who has kind of female movements or masculine (Bakary, NYC, 2008).

These distinctions between male and female dancing in Wolof discourses point to assumed essential gender differences that are deemed natural. My teachers in Dakar extended these understandings to foreigners. This unbridgeable gap between men and women becomes particularly relevant in New York where the teachers are primarily male and the students are female. However, because of this, the shared understanding that men cannot dance like women is silenced in New York.

'Caste,' Race, and Predisposition in West Africa

Traditionally, dancing, drumming, and praise singing has been the cultural capital of the 'caste' of the géwël. Although the term 'caste' is problematic for the West African context (Dilley 2000, Tamari 1991, Wright 1989), it is still used conventionally, both locally and in the scholarly literature, to refer to endogamous groups of artisans, musicians, and praise singers. By being born into a caste, one is assumed to have a natural predisposition to one's family occupation, even if one does not actually practice that occupation.

     There has been considerable scholarly debate as to how castes in West Africa are best conceptualized (Dilley 2000). Some writers have emphasized the hierarchy and social inequality of castes (Irvine 1974, Diop 1981, Tamari 1991), while others focus on local discourses of power and difference and advocate an understanding of how the different groups are interrelated (Wright 1989, Dilley 2000). Here, I choose to employ Wright's conclusion that distinctions among the different Wolof groups are "really best understood as a set of groups differentiated by innate capacity or power sources" (Wright 1989: 42).

     Adding to this, with reference to Tukulor weavers, Dilley continues: "[A]n indigenous discourse of . . . alterity or difference is symbolically elaborated in terms of bodies of knowledge and competing systems of power, as well as with reference to racial distinctions" (2000: 149). Dilley, thus, argues that, in addition to having access to a specific body of knowledge, 'caste' should be considered a synonym of 'race,' because "[t]he distinctiveness of each social category is expressed in the sense of a separate ancestry, breed or stock or race" (2000: 159). This ancestry is thought to provide the members of a caste with the predisposition to one's occupation. The most common expression of this ontology among Senegalese dancers is that dancing is "in their blood."

     As Dilley also points out, Appiah's (1992) distinction between 'racism' and 'racialism' is useful in understanding the importance of ancestry in Senegalese hereditary groups and the claims of difference that are based on lineage. Appiah views racism and racialism as two different doctrines of nineteenth-century thought. Racialism was the idea that people are different based on hereditary characteristics:

All members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race . . . [these] constitute . . . a sort of racial essence. (1992: 19)5

The persistent gendered differences to which dancers point, through seemingly different terminology, provides evidence that suggests local conceptions of essential alterities, close to Appiah's definition of 'racialism.' However, as mentioned above, such essentialized West African distinctions between male and female dancers are largely ignored in the New York context since most teachers are male and the students female.

     More specifically, during my fieldwork, there were three male Sabar teachers in New York, two of whom held weekly classes. Two female dancers were occasionally guest teachers at workshops, and promoting such visits was the only time gender was highlighted and, in fact, advertised. In the words of one student, a male teacher encouraged her to attend the workshops by stating, "You know there is only so much we can teach you as men" (U.S. female Sabar student, NYC, 2008). The question thus arises: if male dancers are not considered 'authorities' to teach Sabar to a class of primarily female students, why are most teachers in New York male?

Routes to the U.S.A.

A mass migration of Senegalese artists abroad took place in the 1980s. Since 1961, under Senghor's presidency, the state had provided generous support to Senegalese dancers and musicians, but new structural adjustments meant a retraction of state funding from the arts.6 This, combined with the growing international success of music and dance from Africa, encouraged the migration of Senegalese dancers and musicians abroad (Neveu Kringelbach 2005). The 1980s was also a time of mass migration of Wolof people to New York: a result of increasing rural poverty, declining opportunities to previously popular migration destinations such as France, and a new direct flight from Dakar to New York (Perry 1997).

     The two main routes through which West African dancers have come to New York have been 'artist visas' and as spouses or fiancés of U.S. citizens. Along the first route, U.S. immigration provides visas to artists and entertainers, individually or in groups, if they are visiting "to be part of a culturally unique program."7 This allows artists to present their work, and teach or take part in festivals, workshops, and conferences in their chosen field. For an artist visa, one also needs an invitation by a U.S. employer or a sponsor. In the case of Senegalese dance artists, U.S. students provide assistance in this process by organizing workshops, inviting artists to teach, and completing the sponsor's side of the paperwork.

     Following the second route to legal residence in the U.S., one can receive a 'green card' (residence permit) or a visa as a spouse or fiancé of a U.S. citizen. One Senegalese performer in Dakar discussed marriage as the typical route to establishing Sabar classes abroad. As he put it during our interview, Western obsessions for the "authentic," bring students to West Africa to learn "at the root." Once in Senegal, they fall in love with Senegalese men, marry them and "bring" them abroad to open dance centers. In the words of another dancer,

A lot of people get married. Some girls like you go there, they see somebody they like, you marry him, bring him here, make a family, everyone is happy! (Senegalese male teacher, NYC, 2008).

This may not, in fact, be the primary way of exporting Sabar internationally. Most of the teachers in New York, for example, arrived in the U.S. on artists' visas and not through marriage. However, it is a narrative that I came across repeatedly during my fieldwork.

     In both of the migration strategies described above, male dancers, as either visiting artists or husbands, have, to date, had an advantage over their female colleagues, and important cultural factors are involved in this asymmetry, as we shall see. Until recently, female dancers in Senegal were actively discouraged from dancing professionally by their family and broader social circle, especially once they were married. The common assumption was that women dancers were "loose," "a stereotype that cut across religious affiliation and ethnicity" (Neveu Kringelbach 2005: 63). This, Neveu Kringelbach explains, may be due to the fact that, in the 1960s, many female dancers in Dakar were unmarried labor migrants from rural areas. The fact that they had some financial autonomy and would share hotels with their male colleagues while traveling for performances could have been enough to consider them "loose" (2005: 67). In addition, negative connotations surrounding the caste of the géwël, to which dancers belong, would restrict dancers who were non-géwël from dancing professionally. As a male dancer explained,

Oh, people would say before "I'm not gonna let my kids get into art, then they'll become gay" . . . that kind of thing, or if it's a woman, "Oh, she's gonna be like a bad woman, she won't care" (Senegalese male teacher, NYC, 2006).

Stories about dancers frequently included tales of drug and alcohol use, loose morals for the women, and homosexuality for the men.8

     Similar negative perceptions surround women who enter into relationships with foreign men. Neveu Kringelbach sites an example of a Senegalese female dancer whose marriage to a French man functioned as evidence of her "looseness" to which the family responded by "cutting her off" (2005: 66). In my experience, these ideas are very common, and they extend beyond the dance community. Narratives circulated by locals and foreign residents in Dakar that connected foreign men and local women, revolved around sex and prostitution. This contrasted with stories about local men and foreign women that were primarily about love and marriage.

     These somewhat stereotypical conceptions of male and female dancers contribute to the greater migration of men to the U.S., so students in New York learn a male Sabar. However, it is not just these Senegalese concepts of gender and 'caste' that are compromised or altered significantly during the process of facilitating a dancer's mobility. Teachers' pedagogical techniques must also be adjusted to suit the U.S. context.

Pedagogical Techniques

In New York, at the beginning of each class the teacher announces the name of the dance of the day. He then shows, one by one, a number of different movements that are "broken down" into smaller segments. "Breaking down moves" is an important technique that students employ to evaluate their teachers. Such taught movements subsequently make up a longer choreography that students perform a few times at the end of each class. The drumming that accompanies the dancing is tailored to follow the choreography.

     Pedagogical techniques employed in New York classes are not dependent on a teacher's prior knowledge from being a dancer in Senegal. I found that older teachers instruct those who have just moved to New York on how to teach in the U.S. This is particularly the case with the practice of "breaking down movements." As one of the more recently arrived New York teachers explained,

[E]ven me. I came first time here to teach, I learn from Abdoulaye. Abdoulaye and others . . . back home, I dance! I was the best dancer! I dance very good, but when I come, I don't know how to teach! And I'm learning from them!

            EB: So what didn't you know?

            [Response]: Because back home, we teach, we teach! But we don't teach like here.

            EB: How is it there?

            [Response]: It was good! You see the drummers, and you show them the step and you go do it, you show them how to jump, but not like here [where] you give them the technique, the way they can get the step . . . all of that! . . . Yeah, people pick it up, you know? But here, you have to cut it one by one, one by one, to make sure everybody gets it! (Senegalese male teacher, NYC, 2006).

In contrast to this, dancers with no previous experience in teaching foreigners show students movements the way they would in Senegal and the way they themselves learned. Instead of "breaking down movements" into their constituent parts, they show possibilities for combining whole units of movement and substituting them with others. This provides the student with a repertoire of movements and knowledge of what movements are interchangeable with others in building larger movement phrases. They later employ this knowledge in the performance of short solos.

     In Sabar events in Senegal, the drummers play rhythmic phrases, familiar to the audience, called bàkks. From a percussionist's perspective, bàkks are overlaid in each rhythm of Sabar:

[B]àkk, [is] a Wolof term that géwël use nowadays to refer to what they translate as "musical phrase." The bàkks are the sites of géwël creativity. Some bàkks represent verbal text; some are dedicated to particular people or families; others are simply creative compositions or examples of virtuosity. Bàkks can be handed down from generation to generation, some unchanged, others modified over time; and every day, new bàkks are created, whether by an individual or a Sabar group as a whole. (Tang 2007: 97)

Bàkks are also sites of creativity for the dancers. Lay dancers will dance to recognizable bàkks that they can perform in different ways: "ça depend à toi." However, improvisation is guided, as the choice of movements depends on the drumming that characterizes the bàkk. To improvise, lay dancers employ their knowledge of what movements can be substituted with others and what can be performed to the specific drumming of each bàkk. In contrast, géwël and professional dancers may take more liberty, monopolizing the dance floor and often creating their own bàkks by guiding the drummers to follow their movements.

     In contrast to classes in Senegal, in New York classes Sabar rhythms fulfill a different role. As the choreographies to be taught are set by the teacher in advance, the drumming is catered to the set choreography. This means that students can anticipate the drumming accompaniment and only need to remember the sequence of the movements. When students are invited to perform individual solos at the end of each class, they tend to perform short sequences from the set choreographies they know. The drummers accordingly adjust the drumming to the students' dancing, which they recognize from previous classes.

     There is no consistent way of teaching Sabar rhythms in New York classes, so rhythms remain a persistent problem for students. Most teachers rely on repetition, expecting that students' understanding will increase with the constant exposure to the drumming. Some teachers encourage students to clap the rhythm they dance to, but this appears to have only short-term effects. Students will be able to dance while clapping but will not necessarily be able to identify the rhythm if the drumming stops and starts again. Other teachers use an established Sabar pedagogical/performing guide by employing specific vocal syllables to communicate the rhythms. This, however, requires special knowledge on the part of the students, so it is only used in advanced classes.

     Many students complain that teachers do not understand their problems. For example, Nicole (below) assigns her learning difficulties to her teachers' inability to translate what she thinks they "took for granted":

There're certain things I know the guys (drummers and dancers) take for granted, or the rhythm . . . they were hard for me to learn. Instead of people just saying to me, "Oh, can't you just hear it?!" . . . There're steps inside Baar Mbaye; if you ask me "do that step" I will get lost every time because I have trouble doing that rhythm, I have trouble to feel it, how the step goes. (2008, NYC).

The teachers' lack of emphasis on rhythm may be due to their inability to verbalize their skills (Bourdieu 1990: 166) or foresee what it is that will prove difficult for U.S. students. However, responsibility for the failure to communicate rhythm also lies with the standardized ways in which Sabar classes are taught in New York City. Sabar in New York is advertised and listed as a "dance," and the classes are primarily about movement. If one wants to learn the rhythms, one can opt to take a drumming class. This separation of the dancing from the drumming reflects a lay Euro-American understanding of 'dance' that characterizes the New York setting. It decontextualizes and isolates the body movement, treating it independently from drumming, which is not the case in Senegal.

     In addition, New York participants and Senegalese dancers hold different understandings of the learning/teaching relationship. In Senegal, most of my teachers were referred to me by virtue of being good dancers. The idea of a good teacher was not so prominent, nor was it distinct from one's ability to perform. Responsibility for learning is thought to lie with the one who learns. In the géwël household, for example, which is considered the authoritative setting for learning by géwël and non-géwël alike, one learns by being enveloped in music and dance:

[L]ike me, my family, everywhere you go at the house, you see someone drums, so you always pass by and play and go and play and go, you know [laughs], and they play music, your big brother, your big sister dancing, and you see them dance, then you start doing step by step, you grow up with the . . . (Senegalese male dancer, NYC, 2006).

In contrast to this, in New York, teachers are held directly responsible for their ability to communicate the movements at a level that is comfortable to the students. The preferred teachers were those who appropriated the role of the teacher according to the understanding of the U.S. students.

You just have to be a good teacher, and you have to be patient. Not just a good dancer. You can be a good dancer but not a good teacher. A good teacher is someone who can break it down very well, someone who can be very patient with having it broken down in counting, have it broken down in music, have it broken down in memory (Senegalese male teacher, NYC, 2008).

This required shift in pedagogical techniques is linked directly to the economic relationship the teachers have with their students, because the latter have the ability to choose between teachers depending on how satisfied they are with their classes. This has direct implications for those teachers for whom teaching constitutes their main source of income and whose ability to remain in New York is directly dependent on their ability to make a living. The teachers are, therefore, financially motivated to become sensitive to the standardized structure of Sabar classes in New York.9

     This situation resonates with Bourdieu's analysis of the relationship between broader socioeconomic contexts on the one hand and bodily techniques and the ability for self-reflection on the other (2004). In the context of a village in southwestern France, Bourdieu argued that women's motivation to emulate a 'city' appearance is stronger than the men's because they see in it the future benefit of a better marriage. At the same time, attending to their bodies has been encouraged throughout their lives by the whole cultural system, behavior that is, by contrast, discouraged in boys and men (Bourdieu 2004: 589–90). In the case of the Senegalese dancers, there is motivation in the sense of financial compensation for pleasing one's patron and audience that is part of the géwël cultural capital.10 The traditional relationship of interdependence between a géwël and a géer (freeborn/noble/uncasted) entailed that a géwël praises a géer's generosity and recites their family history in return for money. Panzacchi (1994) shows how the géwël's dependence on the géer for money has been broadened and adapted to accommodate contemporary opportunities. As such, géwël in Senegal today will apply similar methods to elicit money and so will praise anyone "who is, or wants to be, or whom they want to make believe is, their social superior" (Panzacchi 1994: 195), a practice that, in Senegal, has been extended to include toubaabs (Wolof term for anyone with a Western standard of living).

     Adapting this to the New York setting, Senegalese teachers are encouraged to shift their teaching techniques toward Euro-American pedagogical expectations. Sabar dance skills are likewise a bodily technique that is part of their géwël cultural capital of which the dancers become aware in a new, self-reflective way that was not present prior to their relocation to a new pedagogical and cultural context.

Aesthetic Shifts

The shifts in pedagogical techniques described above lead to shifts in aesthetics and essentially produce a different kind of Sabar. I employ the term 'aesthetic' here after Kaeppler (2003: 153) to denote the criteria by which one is evaluated. In this case, 'aesthetics' denotes the parameters used by those competent in the dance form to qualify someone as a 'good' dancer of Sabar. In the New York setting, because movements are taught in preset choreographies and students are expected to reproduce these in the exact same way at the end of each class, different ideas arise as to who and what is a competent Sabar dancer.

     A good Sabar dancer in a New York class is one who is able to learn the choreography and to perform it with a certain aesthetic quality that mirrors as precisely as possible the use of the body, space time, rhythm, and energy of the teacher's movements. This, however, is very different from the competence one needs to perform in Sabar events in Dakar, where a dancer is judged by the quality of his or her solo performance. There, a good dancer is one with the ability not to hesitate in creating new, exciting improvised solos to the drummers bàkks. For this, one needs a common repertoire of bàkks with the drummers and an understanding of how the rhythm relates to the dancing.


In this article, I have explored the significance of the trans-Atlantic movement of Sabar dance students and teachers between New York and Dakar. I have suggested that the movement of people legitimizes the practice of Sabar in New York because it is seen to maintain a connection with the Sabar of Dakar, its site of origin. The trans-Atlantic movement back and forth elevates the status of students and teachers who engage in these trips. Teachers 'reactivate' their knowledge of Sabar as cultural capital, and students are distinguished as 'serious' students of Sabar. However, we have also seen that a teacher's ability to negotiate his or her mobility (to travel to Dakar but also remain in the U.S.) is contingent on certain aspects of Sabar remaining distinctly local to each setting. In the case of Sabar, essentialized concepts of gender and 'caste,' along with pedagogical techniques do not travel across the Atlantic but are left behind as teachers adjust Sabar to the New York setting.

     This article has also provided an ethnographic account of the transnational movement of a cultural form and the effects of this movement on the practice of the form. People may have never been static, as much of the anthropological literature illustrates (Gupta and Ferguson 1992, Ghosh 1994, 1998), and the speed of movement and information exchange, it is argued, has recently undergone dramatic change (Appadurai 1990, 1991). However, as I have suggested, despite the frequent travels of participants between New York and Dakar, some cultural notions remain distinctly local.


1 I prefer the term 'being' to alternative concepts such as 'personhood' or 'human nature.' This avoids the emphasis on the individual that 'personhood' evokes and the 'sameness' of individuals that 'human nature' implies. These concepts do not seem adequate to describe the way essence and difference are discussed in relation to 'castes' in Senegal. I borrow the term 'being' from Dilley's analysis of the Tukulor weavers of northern Senegal and apply it to Wolof géwël, the "caste" of the musicians, dancers, and praise singers. In reference to Tukulor weavers, Dilley argues that there "is an indigenous conception of physical and moral constitution of members of the 'casted' occupational groups, which forms part of a cultural discourse about difference or alterity . . . founded upon a series of essentialist claims about who and what members of 'caste' groups are" (Dilley 1999: 46). Even when one does not practice the occupation of one's caste "there is an affinity between the specialism and the social person, between who one is and what one does." (Dilley 1999: 47). Practicing one's craft is essentially seen "as the outward manifestation of a way of being, not necessarily of a way of learning." (Dilley 1999: 47). Thus, one's 'being' defines one's belonging to a 'caste' and one's difference from others. The notion of 'caste' is discussed in more detail throughout the article.

2 As Hélène Neveu Kringelbach (2005) explains, tour is used to refer to a wide range of events but generally involves a specific group of people who take turns in arranging events Tours are organized for the purpose of entertainment and allow participants to maintain contact with friends and family. As the participants contribute financially to the event, the hostess is able raise a small amount of money for her private use (ibid.). Neveu Kringelbach (2005) also provides an insightful analysis of the economic structure of Senegalese women's associations and of gender relations in regard to Sabar.

3 Tang (2007) provides a detailed account of the organization of different Sabars and other events from the perspective of Sabar drummers.

4 By "professional dancers," I refer to those who have trained and performed in traditional and folkloric companies locally and internationally. These dance companies perform choreographed dances arranged for the stage, so the performers face the sitting audience. Such choreographies typically involve dancers performing the same movements in unison. A similar pattern of performing identical movements while facing the same direction characterizes the dancing in the video clips of the popular music form Mbalax. These videos are also the medium through which new movements, creations, are introduced and popularized and later danced in Sabar events. In both settings, professional dancers transcend local norms of spatial organization and the content found in lay performances. See Bizas (2009) for discussion of the different forms of Sabar dancing in Senegal.

5 Such racialism, Appiah continues, does not necessarily provide the grounds for discrimination "provided that positive moral qualities are distributed across the races, each can be respected, can have its 'separate but equal' place" (1992: 159). Racialism can provide the grounds for racist action, whereby a racialist ideology is employed to implement social inequality.

6 In 1961, the president of the independent state of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, created the state-funded traditional dance and music company, the Ballet National du Senegal. See Castaldi (2006) for more on the relationship between the political and intellectual agenda of Senghor and the arts in Senegal.

7 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,; accessed January 31, 2011.

8 Senegal is 94 percent Muslim, and, while one meets many Senegalese who drink alcohol—"the left wing Muslims," as a Wolof man jokingly explained to me—drinking alcohol is generally viewed unfavorably.

9 The fact that students have the power to influence the form that Sabar takes in New York relates to Hannerz's discussion of the asymmetric center-periphery relationships that characterize the world today where, because of the "superior political and economic power of the center . . ." (in this case, the U.S.) "what is removed [from the periphery/Senegal] is what the center defines as capital C culture of the periphery" (1989: 69). As such the students are the ones to define what is Sabar.

10 The géwël and the géer are interdependent: the géwël exercise their power to praise a certain géer's generosity and ancestors, by thus raising his status publicly. This forces the géer to prove his generosity publicly by giving the géwël gifts and money. As Wright explains, "[T]he size of the recompense is contingent upon the ability of the individual(s) to pay and upon the quality of the services rendered' (1989: 49). Failure to do so leads to the public insult and embarrassment of the géer (Tang 2007: 54). As Wright continues, "The géwël's tongue, after all, far more than the géer's, is thought to have the power to ruin a person's reputation, and consequently his life and posterity' (1989: 49).

References Cited:

Appadurai, Arjun
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     1992. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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     2009. Moving through Dance between New York and Dakar: Ways of Learning Senegalese Sabar and the Politics of Participation. PhD. diss. School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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     1992. Beyond Culture: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 6–23.

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