Ghanaian dance workshop takes over Mˆlée dance troupe

Jamie Gajewski

I went to my first ballet class when I was just two-and-a-half-years-old. At about age 5, I began to gravitate towards non-balletic movements while all the other little girls enjoyed trotting around in pink leotards to sappy music.
At 7-years-old, I was finally old enough to take my first jazz dance class. While the turned-in positions and body isolations baffled the budding prima ballerinas, I had finally discovered my niche.
Jazz dance is a purely American art form founded in traditional African dance movements. While ballet calls for straight posture and strict body positions, jazz dance is grounded, free, sharp and dynamic.
Although jazz dance has evolved greatly since the advent of both hip-hop and contemporary dance, it is still easy to connect classical jazz movements with those in traditional African dances.
Monday, Jan. 26, Nani Agbeli held a Ghanaian Dance Workshop attended by members of Mˆlée Dance Troupe as well as other Lawrence students and faculty. A dance and drumming instructor from West Africa, Agbeli has been connected with Lawrence University for several years through the Lawrence University Percussion Ensemble and has offered similar workshops in the past.
One of the hardest concepts in African dancing for Western dancers to grasp is the lowered body position. During the first 15 minutes of the two-hour class, Agbeli urged us to lower our bodies while executing taxing leg movements in tempo with a live percussion ensemble. As my dancing neighbors panted around me, I noticed a blood blister had already formed on the bottom of my foot.
The temperature quickly rose in the crowded multipurpose room, although it was nothing compared to the Ghanaian heat. Agbeli taught two variations that he made us repeat over and over until our heels, hips and hunched backs coincided perfectly with drumbeats, shakers and bells. According to Agbeli, if we made mistakes, our movements were not answering the drums’ calls correctly.
In the second variation, there was a section where one person is supposed to quickly dive beneath another dancer’s raised leg. While the workshop attendees’ faces flashed signs of confusion and horror, Lawrence students Greg Woodard and Harjinder Bedi flawlessly demonstrated the movement, and looked as if they had spent years, not weeks, at Agbeli’s school.
Last summer, Lawrence students Woodard, Bedi, Evan Jacobson, and Reed Flygt journeyed to Ghana to learn both drumming and dancing at the school.
Towards the end of the second hour, Agbeli, Bedi and Woodard performed the complete dance. Traditionally the dance was only danced by men and displayed their pride and prowess during wartime.
By comparing my own awkwardness of dancing foreign movements on a linoleum floor to the way these three dancers’ bodies absorbed the music, it was clear to me that I would have to experience Ghanaian culture firsthand in order to dance like that.
This summer, Agbeli is planning a second annual trip to Ghana and it is open to the public. While airline tickets to Ghana are expensive, Agbeli’s trip provides dance and drumming lessons as well as cultural excursions from a native’s perspective.
Agbeli will be returning to Lawrence University in May for another performance.Information about his trip can be found on his Web site: