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Originated in Beyla in the highlands of Guinea, but is also performed in Senegal and Ivory Coast

Historical Significance

Kuku (Kou Kou or Cou Cou) is a traditional dance that, in the old time, was performed by women returning from fishing. The dance was accompanied on the women’s fishing gear. They would take their tools and perform the dance in a circle. The djembe was not used as accompaniment. There were no drums.

The dance was introduced to the world through Les Ballets Africans, one of the first professional African dance companies from Guinea formed in the 1960s after the country’s independence from France. It was one of the first West African dance companies that broke down the cultural barriers that existed between ethnic groups in the country by performing dances that reflected the unique cultural identity of the Senegalese people. Kuku evolved from a dance performed by the women to a communal recreational dance which could be performed by men and women of all ages. The ability to vary the tempo from fast to slow made it a dance that could also be performed by elders who were not required to dance as energetically as the youth.

Pape Moussa Sonke, choreographer of the Dakar-based WAATO SiiTA, constructed a piece that included both men and women, as well as shared vocabulary from dances that had similar movement vocabularies. The rhythm becomes the driving element that fuels the dancer and the movements are locked into the call of the drum. One of the frequent chants that can be heard in an African dance class is “stay with the rhythm.” If the rhythm goes faster, you go faster. If the rhythm goes slower, you go slower. Anyone can dance as long as they “stay with the rhythm.”

These early ballets, and the musicians and dancers that emigrated to Europe and the United States, introduced KuKu to the world as a dance of celebration for various festival occasions, adding steps and movements from other dance vocabularies with a similar rhythm. The tempo of the dance depended upon the region of the drummers.

The dance is now accompanied by the djembe orchestra consisting of a minimum of two djembe drums (played with two hands), the kenkeni, dundun, and songba, a family of cylindrical double-headed drums played with a wooden club and covered with cow skin. They are oftentimes played with a bell (agogo) tied at one end and struck with a small metal rod. The musician plays the drum with the wooden stick and the bell with the metal rod, accenting the rhythm and keeping time for the dancers. This allows the djembe drummers to solo and create a polyrhythmic experience that drives the dancers to a feverish explosion of arms and legs.

Comparison of Traditional Senegalese Dance with Modern

Music and dance are intertwined in Senegalese culture. There is a marriage that takes place between the two so it’s almost impossible to talk about the one without the other. If there is music, people will dance. Senegalese are not afraid to answer the call of the drum. Along with our music, our dancing helps keep us in tune with ourselves and in harmony with one another

Traditional dance is just as much about the audience as it is about the performers. The areas of separation disappear once the drummers start to play and call the dancers out to the circle. Except for spiritual or initiation dances, there are no barriers between dancer and audience. The dancer (movement) and the drummer (rhythm) cannot be separated. The modern dances in Senegal still retain some of the communal characteristics of traditional dance, providing insight into the cultural aesthetic of the people. Dances such as mbalax are a fusion of popular Western music and dance including jazz, Latin, soul, and pop blended with the traditional sabar dance and rhythms.

Unlike modern dance, traditional dance requires you to understand the meaning or purpose for a dance in order to execute the steps correctly. The attitude and nuances of the dance are just as important as the steps. Whereas most social dances can be performed by both men and women, there are many traditional dances that are gender specific, and some dances require years of training in order to perform them correctly.

In Africa, dance is the first language. It is not separate from everyday life like dances in the West. Whether traditional or modern, dance is not detached from the lives of the people. It is the Africans’ way of translating the experiences of life into a form of expression that can be communicated to the group. Jola, Kuku, Linjin, Ekonkon, Lamba, Sabar, Balaata, Mandjani and Doundounbah are just a few of the many traditional dances that represent the different groups in Senegal. Although the languages may vary, the experience of the land is familiar to everyone. Since the dance is born out of the experiences of the village, Africans understand that a fisherman doesn’t dance like a hunter nor a farmer dance like a businessman. As we express the activities of our daily life, the rhythm and the dance will appear. The work itself can be seen as a dance. In Africa, when there is dancing, it’s not only the living who are present. The dancers and the drummers call down spirit so that even the ancestors are invited to dance.