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Engagement Féminin: Women, Education and Contemporary Dance in West Africa

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Over 200 young women have been kidnapped and remain missing in northeast Nigeria, as part of a horrifying crusade against women's education that is difficult to comprehend. Their scared, haunted expressions captured in video images are reminders that we cannot forget them or give up trying to reunite them with devastated families. I am returning to West Africa because of a far different image that stays with me.

In Burkina Faso, dancer Salimata Wologem fills the room when she moves. Whatever the choreography, the forcefulness of her dancing depicts an individual conquering the limitations of space and society. Wologem's opportunity to acquire artistic expertise is hardly a given; in West Africa, unlike in the U.S., men dominate the contemporary dance profession. Her dancing is causing the gears of social transformation to turn.

Wologem is one of a growing group of female contemporary dance artists trained through the initiative Engagement Féminin, founded six years ago by Compagnie Auguste-Bienvenue in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to address the lack of women in the profession. I first met her and became aware of Engagement Féminin in 2010, when I visited Burkina Faso to work with one of my collaborators, Burkinabe artist Lacina Coulibaly. This summer, I will be returning to Ouagadougou to teach for Engagement Féminin as a guest artist sponsored, in part, by the Suitcase Fund of New York Live Arts as part of the Africa and Middle East Cultural Partnerships Program.

The premise of Engagement Féminin is simple. The initiative offers intensive training in contemporary dance techniques and choreography for women who apply from across West Africa. The founders, two Burkinabe male choreographers, Auguste Ouédraogo and Bienvenue Bazié, devised the curriculum. Each year, they struggle to support the project financially through relationships with funding organizations in France, West Africa, and the U.S. Any concern that the setup might simply perpetuate a male-dominated ideology is alleviated upon watching the two at work. Thoughtful and reserved, the choreographers convey a self-effacing intensity that plays out in rehearsals. Bazié's main strategy as a director is simply to sit and watch as the dancers explore their own structured improvisations.

Invited to observe the rehearsal for an all-female quartet, sponsored by Engagement Féminin, I watched Wologem creatively and subversively manipulate un pannier, the baskets ubiquitously carried by women in West Africa, in her dance. Placing a flat basket before her, she kicked it forward, pulled it back and stepped in and then out of it, submitting this symbol of women's domestic labor to her will.

The challenges facing women in Burkina Faso have been well documented, from the high number of unsafe abortions that result from the unmet need for contraception, according to a Guttmacher Institute report, to women's banishment because of accusations of witchcraft, as reported in The Guardian. To step into the dance studio, Wologem had to work through social and familial opposition to her choosing a path of her own making. Among her parents and fourteen siblings, only one, her youngest brother, has seen her dance.

Engagement Féminin works tirelessly to support women's advancement by envisioning the means of social transformation through contemporary dance. Wologem's dancing could even be seen as a kinesthetic counterpart to the formation of women's advocacy groups, political education, and other efforts to cultivate the rights of women within Burkina Faso and beyond.

Bazié and Ouédraogo are not the women's only teachers. Through the initiative, which has run for four weeks every summer since 2008, they have hosted many women dance artists from Africa, Europe, and the United Stated to lead master classes and develop new works. In addition to the studio time, this year's session, which they call an "edition," will include extra workshops on reproductive health, digital media and more. Graduates of the program have gone on to dance professionally in Africa and Europe. This July, I will work with a group of 23 of these women -- many of them new, and a handful returning, including Wologem. Through my own dance career, I have explored much of 20th-century American concert dance history, with New York City Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer. I am eager to share my knowledge, but even more eager to learn from the dancers themselves about the stories they want to tell through dance.

The economic and social benefits of education for young women has received a flurry of attention in recent weeks, in the face of forces that seek to cut off women's access to learning. Education-incited transformation comes in many forms, not only through books. Embodied knowledge, including the artistic expertise and aesthetic ideas conferred through contemporary dance, also contributes indelibly to social change.

In the last rehearsal I observed in 2010, Wologem worked on a basic structured improvisation assigned by the choreographer, Bazié. For 30 minutes, she reached her arms behind her and clutched at unseen forces in the space. She repeated these gestures over and over, exploring their sensation, qualities, and depth while Bazié emanated quiet support. As she worked, whatever threat her dance warfare battled appeared to diminish and retreat -- whimpering, really, as if she had transformed demons into butterflies.

She danced like a woman triumphant.