Throughout our entire trip we have been striving to learn the local languages in order to better immerse ourselves in the culture. It has also been in hopes to have decent and sufficient conversations with the people in the community…or to at least score some brownie points for trying! While we’ve been doing a pretty good job, it seems as though we’ve found an easier method of communication. It is guaranteed to work in almost any setting, for any reason, with people young and old: It is dance.
I believe that dance is a form of language because it provides a powerful way to learn about and appreciate one another’s stories, talents and passions. While dance could be defined as a type of language anywhere in the world, I think that it is especially effective and prominent here in West Africa. I’ve seen dance in the work place, the market, in the taxis, in our compound (especially in the kitchen and in the bar), and anywhere in between. Accompanied by music or not, people are dancing. When one person starts, the rest follow. They can’t seem to help it. They dance for joy, they dance to be funny, they dance to entertain, they dance at weddings to celebrate, and at funerals to mourn. It can be traditional, it can be contemporary; with a partner, or with out. For any and all occasions, dance is present and has been a key element in forming relationships with the people here.
The first time dance played an important role in our on our trip was at the Arts Market in Accra. A few of us walked up to an open spot to greet a few kids, but once we heard the music coming from some speakers we casually started to dance. The kids and people around the market really appreciate and enjoy watching visitors feel comfortable enough to dance with or for them. Many get a serious kick out of Oburonis desperately trying to move the way they innately do, and trust me, so do we. Before we knew it, tons of children and their parents had either joined us, or were snapping pictures of us breakin' it down. If by some miracle you actually look okay or even look good while copying their moves, they will forever respect you. Once they caught on to the fact that I, a dancer myself, could actually pick up on the movements, they stepped up their game. It was the first time I had seen any of the popular contemporary dances (or heard any of the popular music) but they took it upon themselves to teach every single one of them to me. This has been more beneficial to me in the past 5 weeks in Winneba than I could have imagined.
I’m used to using dance as a form of entertainment, to express myself, and to communicate a feeling or a message, but that communication is often one way, from myself to the audience. Here, it is two way; it’s back and forth. It is a more rare experience that generally only happens with people I have known before and usually have danced with. But here, everyone is so confident and comfortable, that it doesn’t have to be practiced or rehearsed. It is only considered a typical day if I walk through town and stop at least once to dance it out with someone after barely greeting them verbally. The best part is that it is just so natural and fun. It is a blessing and gift to be able to use my body as an instrument for my art as well as to communicate with others, and I would not change that opportunity for anything. The dance community is just so different here. It encompasses many more people than the dance communities in America, which are typically only comprised of those who are technically trained. But in Ghana, I’m tempted to say that there is no exclusion at all. Everyone is capable and willing, making it much more prevalent in everyday life, and I find it to be just wonderful.
While in Winneba, we have been taking dance lessons two times a week, which has been quite the experience. It has without a doubt strengthened our bond as “sisters”, forced us to exercise, served as a satisfying outlet and break from schoolwork and our busy days, and provided us with some sweet moves for the dance floor.
Along with this, we have all made friends in Winneba, whether they be in the market, at the “bead lady’s shop”, or in the fabric and seamstresses shops. They are all full of children working and playing, who are as eager to meet us as we are to meet them. A few of us have taken a keen interest in the kids that hang around the bead lady’s shop. Their ages range from about 3 to 13 and they have performed multiple music videos for us, reviewed old steps and taught us new ones to add to our repertoire. It truly brings me so much happiness and makes me feel right at home.
Fellow GVSU student Stephany, as part of her senior project, has been working with Challenging Heights School’s culture club. After classes finish, the culture club students get together and have been learning an “American” dance to the Pharrell song ‘Happy’. Today, I joined them and got to see first hand the energetic, fun and talented students review and learn new choreography. We had a ball adding our own flair and style to the moves and after many laughs finished learning the entire dance. At the very end of the session the students performed it for us and were so proud of what they had learned. Even better than watching them dance, though I have to admit, was watching them break out in smiles and cheers and high fives when they ended the dance. Every time without fail they burst into celebration and every time it made my heart smile.
When Challenging Heights faculty and friends come around the compound, it is only natural that there will be dancing and drumming. Which brings me to another universal language. Dance is complimented beautifully by music. They go hand in hand and both serve as means of communication between people. The first week we spent in Ghana we learned a common praise song in Fante (similar to the song ‘Jesus loves me’ as it is simple and well-known) and it has proven to be very effective. We sing it to say thank you to people we have met that have helped us out, we sing it for fun, I’ve sang it to multiple babies while working in the hospital to soothe them, and with other kids I meet just as a reason for me to hear their beautiful voices. On top of that, we’ve had the opportunity to take drum lessons, which has been sometime tedious but always proves that we have the ability to have a great time and create something brilliant even with the language barrier.
Dancing, singing, and creating music alongside the wonderful people of this beautiful country allows us to communicate without speaking and prevents us from being just visiting Oburonis. It unifies us all as people enjoying in all of the blissful moments of life. While you’re dancing, don’t forget to smile…and laugh! These too count as universal languages and have definitely done us some good on this trip, and I hope that through them we will leave a positive impression. Whether or not we continue to use the specific universal languages I’ve mentioned, I know we’ll all continue to use the languages of love and compassion both in our last week here and throughout the rest of our lives.