As Maguette Camara seamlessly shifts between the front of the studio and to play drums that are clustered on the side, it’s hard to tell where the musician leaves off and the dancer begins. He’s instructing an advanced-beginner-level West African class at The Ailey School in New York, and the intricate rhythms are proving challenging to the students—30 pre-professional men and women. As he claps, sings, scats, counts and beats out the rhythm with his drumsticks, it’s clear that the two roles, musician and dancer, are inseparable to him. “Listen to me, and we’ll always be on the beat,” he says.
Camara is introducing the celebratory dance kuku, belonging to the people of the Beyla region of Guinea, and characterized by swift stomping, a buoyant torso and expansive, reaching arms. He teaches this from the ground up: beginning with the pattern of the feet, clarifying the angles of the torso and eventually adding on the arm and head movements. But he always brings everything back to the rhythm.
The drums play an integral, communicative role in West African. “It is always a give and take between you and the drums,” says Camara. In his class, there are four drums, providing both an underlying pulse and counterpoint: the doundoun, kenkeni and the sangba, all played with sticks by one drummer; and the higher-pitched djembe, played with the hands by another drummer—often by Camara himself.
Camara demonstrates with a loose, relaxed quality in his limbs and a bounce in his legs and torso, making the kuku look effortless. “Look at my arms,” he says as he circles both arms up and around two times. “And one! And two!” Although West African is a dance style open to personal interpretation, Camara encourages his students to follow his lead and home in on the subtle specificity he infuses each movement with. “Your body has to get used to it, get into the habit of it, and then you can add your own feeling into whatever you do,” he says.
Though rhythm is the primary focus, Camara reinforces the joyful, celebratory nature of West African with his positive energy and words of encouragement. As his students end class with a rousing demonstration of another Guinean dance they’ve been working on, liberté—their heads thrown back in triumph and arms extended—it’s clear that they feel that joy from head to toe. DT
Maguette Camara is a New York City–based West African teacher, musician and choreographer raised in Dakar, Senegal. Starting at age 8, he studied West African dance and drumming with local troupe Ballet Bougarabou Dance Company and became a full-fledged company member in 1986. As a professional dancer, he traveled internationally to perform at festivals and lead workshops. He relocated to the United States in 1993. His performance accolades include the Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert series, Guggenheim Museum, the Rolling Stones World Tour, Disney World and World Trade Center jazz festival. He has been teaching West African dance for more than 20 years and is on faculty at The Ailey School, The Ailey Extension, Barnard College and Djoniba Dance Centre at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City.
Kyle Martin, 19, is a first-year student in The Ailey School Certificate Program.
Photography by Kyle Froman