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The revelation with African dance, I think it was in the movements. In the fact to be barefoot, in the fact to tell you that you are free, it is a rather free dance. I said to myself: “well, let’s move the whole body”, it was obvious (E., Lyon, April 2017).

2 Students of “African dances” [1] frequently tend to describe their encounter with these practices in terms of “freedom”, speaking of revelation, evidence, and “natural” acquisition (Haschar Noé & Crosetto, 2006). The cultural market developed around these dances further extends this rhetoric by praising the potential for self “liberation” that dwells in the practice of other “traditions”. As so, it efficiently combines the contemporary imaginary of self-development (Houseman et al., 2016) and healthy body (Courtine et al., 2006) with a market of world music and dance that has been growing since the 1980s (Apprill et al., 2013). For example, an African dance course brochure from the University of Geneva states: “African traditional dances and rhythms allow you to develop body intelligence, to master your physical energy within a group. A source of self-confidence, this course invites you to find your place in space and understand how your movement can be expressed freely [2]”.

3 The pervasiveness of references to freedom is found in other dances and has long been the subject of reflection by choreographers and dance philosophers (Beauquel & Pouivet, 2010). However, the discourse around African dances has the peculiarity of considering that “liberation” would not only occur with respect to a previous era or genre, but primarily through the use of a third element: “Africa”, taken as a cultural resource in which European students would come to find well-being and might be able of “letting go.”

4 As discussed in numerous writings, narratives related to the category “African dance” convey a particular imaginary (Gore, 2001; Adewole, 2003; Lassibille, 2004): they have been informed by colonial literature describing free African movements and/or bodies (Coutelet, 2015; Décoret-Ahiha, 2004; Jacotot, 2008), clichés about traditional and spiritual Africa reinforced by Africanist ethnology (Mudimbe, 1988; Doquet, 1999; Jolly, 2014), and writings by African choreographers (Lassibille, 2016). According to postcolonial perspectives - such as the ones developed about other genres that have been globally commodified (Savigliano, 1995) − this liberation of the self through the practice of African dances would renew asymmetrical patterns of relationships to the “African” other, instrumentalized, exoticized, and consumed for the benefit of Western “freedom” (Swanson, 2019).

5 Without euphemizing the power of stereotypes that persist around the idea of “traditional” Africa – nor the effectiveness of its commodification as an exotic resource in dance markets – my article suggests that the adoption of a level of observation at the scale of interactions and contextualized social situations illuminates the coexistence of these images with other relationships to Africa and other pragmatic experiences of freedom, born in the wake of the transformations of the offer of “African dances” [3].

6 Since 2017 [4], I have been interested in the mobilities, encounters, and relationships developed around the transmission of sabar, a Senegalese music and dance performance that is subject to a certain success in Europe. Contrary to an idea of natural acquisition, sabar students describe these rhythms and repertoires as particularly complex. Their learning pathways resemble a demanding process of acquiring gestures, rhythmic understanding, and knowledge about Senegalese society. Their objective is to achieve “improvisation” and “solo”, the musical and choreographic game that some instructors consider to be the very essence of sabar. As an exercise of communication between the dancer and the musician [5], solos require gaining a certain number of conventions (Becker, 1988), which have as much to do with the artistic domain as with a cultural knowledge initially unfamiliar to these students, and which must be recomposed in Europe. The mastery (even rudimentary) of these conventions becomes sometimes the basis for successful improvisations, allowing the arising of fleeting moments of effervescence and pleasure, described by the students in terms of freedom.

7 But what kind of freedom are we talking about in the world of sabar, and on what relationships to the others are these practices of pleasure built? Are they still based on the same instrumental and exoticizing mechanism, and on the “misunderstandings” and illusions described in other researches on the encounter (Cauvin Verner, 2009; Chabloz, 2007, 2012; Doquet, 2002; Raout & Chabloz, 2009)? Are the actors in this cultural field still imprisoned by these racialized imaginaries about the other (Black or White) described by Joseph Tonda in terms of “dazzling”, which would “colonize” our unconscious, in Europe as well as in Africa (Tonda, 2015)? Beyond abstractions, what concrete relationships are finally forged between Senegalese artists and their students around the transmission of this “regulated exercise of freedom” that improvisation represents (Boissière & Kintzler, 2006)?

8 Foucault’s writings provide interesting avenues for thinking about these experiences of freedom through a pragmatic perspective, and for achieving the ethnographic project of understanding individual practices beyond abstract thought (Céfaï, 2010; Clouet, 2019). In connection with his work on the care of the self, Foucault began with a simple and inspiring assumption: “freedom is a practice” (Foucault, 1984). Using sexuality as an example, he argued that instead of calling for the “liberation” of sexuality (a rhetoric that connotes an idea of initial freedom that needs to be returned to), it was more interesting to interrogate the “ethical problem of defining the practices of freedom”, those practices “by which one might define what is sexual pleasure, and erotic, amorous, passionate relations with others” (ibid.: 102). By putting practices at the heart of the reflection, he underlined the inextricable correlation between freedom and the (ethical) relationships to the other.

9 In this paper, I wish to explore this correlation and question the nature of relationships to others that are produced and transformed through sabar dance encounters. While studies on African dances in Europe have frequently (and relevantly) questioned the gender or race relations that these art worlds reproduce, I am interested mainly in an inductive approach on the interactions and practices of freedom activated through sabar. This lens goes beyond, deepens, and complements the sole reading in terms of exoticism, and I believe it can evolve towards a post-exotic perspective.

10 In the first part of this paper, I will describe some of the conceptions of freedom observed in the field of “African traditional dances” in Europe and the way in which the practice of African dances as a “let off steam” is sometimes rejected in favor of a quest for “deeper meaning” and cultural research. In the second part, I will show how these criticisms and the generational changes with which they are associated have contributed to the development of specific teachings around the improvised dimensions of sabar, and to a consequent reform of pedagogies and views on the other. I will then borrow the tools of situational and interactionist analysis in order to shed light on how the transmission of sabar rules leads to an adjustment of pedagogies, and the activation of specific relationships between the protagonists of this “game”. In the final section, I will examine the emotions and relationships that underlie this sense of freedom and lay the groundwork for the post-exotic approach that this ethnography wishes to generate.

Dance as “let off steam” versus “deep” meaning: the assertion of a “cultural” practice of African dances

11 The students of African dances whom I met in my fieldwork are mostly women [6]. They started dancing in different periods (between the 1980s and the present) [7], they generally belong to the middle classes, and they possess a high level of education. Even though they come to African dances’ classes with various knowledges (or images) of these dances, many of them report that their discovery was a “revelation”, a feeling that the body responded with evidence to the movements shown, an impression of intensity and a powerful stimulation by the drums. In some cases, this encounter with African dances and a feeling of great bodily latitude are intertwined with images about the so-called “African” bodies, traditions, and ways of life. One student told me:


There’s something about Africans, I don’t know, their appearance attracted me in a way I can’t explain. I don’t know, but it’s the dancing, the music, that attracts me a lot. [...] And also the rituals they do with the masks that come out and then also, they are like big children. They are not adults. They are free like children, but they are adults. And they laugh quickly, they talk, there is no such a boundary (Interview with C., Switzerland, October 2019).

13 These experiences and journeys of students in African dances have already been thoroughly described, as well as the racist assumptions about freedom of movement and the clichés of traditional and authentic Africa with which they are intertwined (Haschard-Noé and Crosetto, 2006; Lassibille, 2016; Swanson, 2019). We also know how some African dance teachers have been quick to embrace these visions, building their classes on the idea that African dances would offer Western students the openness and “letting go” feeling they seek (Swanson, 2019).

14 Beyond this general picture, it should be noted that this milieu is heterogeneous and cut across by dynamics of distinction and critical tendencies, attacking both the initial impression of “freedom” and the pedagogies of letting go and festive animation that accompany them. A teacher of African dances explained to me:


First, when the European hears the tom-tom, he jumps. It’s true that... well, it’s like a therapy. For me, out of ten people, there are three or four who are here to learn this dance, but the others, for me, they are here to let off steam. There is the tom-tom and the rest, what the teacher says, he doesn’t care. He does his thing. He’s there in his thing. He’s letting off steam. He wants to sweat. If he sweats, he’s happy. And there are people who are serious, who are there to learn that this step is like that. And I prefer to work with people like that. (C., September 2017, African dance teacher in Switzerland).

16 These comments reflect the contradictory expectations that sometimes exist between teachers and their students, and they bear witness to the distinctions made between different modalities of attending African dance classes. These distinctions are recurrent in the discourse of students and teachers (of sabar and other African dances) and mark a boundary between some students who would use African dances as a “release” or a sport, and others who would engage it through rigorous learning. For some other people, this differentiation opposes approaches that would be respectful of cultural dimensions, and others who would consider these dances solely for the intense movement of the body they produce. This distinction between cultural and sportive approaches of African dances does not only targets the students, but also the teachers. A student who has been attending African dance classes for several years told me in an interview (conducted distantly) her regrets about the sabar classes observed in her area:


In my town, they NEVER correct anyone. The learners come to have fun, to let off steam, to imitate the teacher as best they can. There is an irresistible joy in dancing to the sound of sabar, but the fundamentals are never taught or internalized. Unfortunately, sabar lessons elsewhere than in Senegal are often stripped off of their deep meaning, their cultural context, and their spirituality. And this is what interests me the most. (F., Online interview, July 2017).

18 According to this student, some sabar teachers would limit themselves to “move” their students and offer them the release they expect, proposing folkloric and festive formats that correspond to their expectations but are opposed to the “deep meaning” of the dances. On the other hand, others would make the effort to teach their students the “authentic” dance and the contextual elements, the depth, and the spirituality that accompany it.

19 In some respects, these distinctions in the words of teachers and students of African dances are similar to the divides between “cultural tourism” and “mass tourism” (Cousin, 2003: 65; Cousin & Bertrand, 2010; Doquet & Le Menestrel, 2006). In the same way that views on tourism separate “cultured” tourists from “consumers” assimilated to the working classes (Urry & Larsen, 2011), there would be dancers who come to sabar and other African dance classes to let off steam, and cultured dancers who seek scholarly knowledge, immersing themselves in the learning of other ways of life and spiritualities. The assertion of a “deep” manner of understanding African dances is sometimes claimed by students who have a connection with the field of ethnology, or by others with extensive travel experience. In this way, the embrace of this scholarly practice of African dances stems partly from class distinction, and by claiming “cultivated” tastes.

20 In fact, the opposition between “fun” and “deep” dance, or between naïve consumption and cultural research, is not really the result of a division between different types of students, nor of a distinction between different African dances. It rather mirrors the different stages of a non-linear pathway: the same students describe their learning of African dances as a revision of their ignorance about “Africa,” as a gradual discovery of the “deeper meaning” of these dances and their diversity. Thus, it happens that, starting from a practice of dance as amusement, leisure, or sport, they engage in a practice turned towards the knowledge of “traditions”, “cultures”, and contexts. On an individual level, these phases in the relationship with African dances are sometimes overlapped with (amorous) ruptures and brutal disillusionments, when these passionate dancers become aware of the illusions or misunderstandings on which the “enchantment” of the intercultural encounter was based (Chabloz, 2007, 2012).

21 Finally, beyond individual trajectories, this line of boundaries resonates with generational transformations and paradigm shifts. For example, several students in their thirties often express their desire not to reproduce a cliché created by previous generations of African dances’ students, who “wear wax skirts, want to become African, find the encounter with Africa authentic, rave about the kindness of the people, the purity, the authenticity [8]”. Of course, the criticism of exoticism and consumption of African dances as entertainment has long existed in this milieu. However, the desire to create another way of attending African dances’ classes has grown stronger in recent decades, following gradual transformations within the market of African dances. Certain promoters of associations and teachers have thus intended for some years to transmit these practices in their “diversity” by organizing their teachings under more geographically circumscribed labels (Guinean dances, dances of Mali, dances of Burkina-Faso), around specific repertoires (gumboots, sabar, balafon dances, etc.), or by valorizing urban African dances (ndombolo, coupé-décalé, afrobeat) [9]. These generational changes have contributed to the development of critical perspectives against the ideal type of “African dance” in the singular [10], against teachings that reduce traditional African dances to sports or festive practices, and against pedagogies that fail to explain the cultural contexts, technicality and historical depth of these dances. If it didn’t annihilate traditionalist tendencies, culturalist approaches, or the quest for authenticity, these critical visions and generational distinctions added a new layer to the complex stripping of views and discourses that make up the field of African dances (Lassibille, 2016).

22 The kinds of sabar teaching that I have observed follow these paradigmatic shifts and are partly infused with these (sometimes) contradictory trends. Adopting a closer lens of observation on the transmission of improvised forms of sabar reveals how this process generates misunderstandings and disappointments in situ, but that it also leads to searches for alternative pedagogies, allowing for an agreement on common codes of interaction and a partial recreation of practices of freedom.

A carefully regulated freedom, or the difficult art of improvisation in sabar dance

23 Demanding, rigorous, intransigent, hermetic, exclusive, jealous: these are just some of the terms used by sabar teachers and students to describe the total commitment required to learn this dance. In contrast to a body that would respond freely, it is more often the feeling of unintelligibility and mystery that characterizes the encounter with this musical and choreographic performance. A student who has been organizing African dance workshops for several decades recounts how her discovery of sabar represented love at first sight for the “freedom” and interplay between the dancer and the musician:


I was away in Senegal, so I saw this dance, I said “Wow! This dance is my dance, I like this freedom, I like... They play....” At that time, I mostly saw the men dancing, because the women were dancing more traditional stuff than what they do now. So, when I saw the men dancing, the game, the trick, I liked everything; I mean, it was a crazy stuff. I started and then I stopped for ten years, because there were no musicians (in Europe), it was complicated. (M., Geneva, 2018).

25 When she started to learn this “game”, M. encountered various disappointments: on the one hand she noticed a scarcity of courses devoted to sabar at the time; on the other she was aware of the absence of pedagogy adapted to its improvised dimension. It was during a course she attended in Europe on solos that she most brutally confronted the feeling of having received superficial and very incomplete teachings. After 10 years of learning African dances and sabar movements and choreography, she suddenly discovered that she had never been “taught the keys to this dance” and that she was unable to “play” in accordance with the rules.

26 To explain the disappointments encountered by those who wish to learn the fascinating “freedom” of sabar, it is important to briefly describe the forms of this dance and the conventions surrounding its practice in Senegal. Sabar initially refers to a music instrument, a performance, and a dance circle organized by and for Wolof women at baptisms, weddings, and associative gatherings in the streets or courtyards of houses (Neveu Kringelbach, 2013; Seye, 2014; Tang, 2007). The dance itself involves participants standing up, one after another or as a group, to perform short pieces in the circle, facing the musicians (mostly men) who occupy a dedicated section of the gathering. The dance sequence generally consists of an entrance, a “dance” moment (fecc), and a “break” (or exit step). In theory, the dancer must respect the rhythm [11] played by the musicians at the time of her entrance, both in the selection of her movements and in the speed of her execution. However, it is the dancer who directs the interaction with the musicians: through her movements, she dictates to the soloist the phrases and strikes that he will execute to accompany her, and she can encourage him to speed up or slow down the pace, or even signal a change of rhythm. This type of free performance is based on the complicity between the musician and the dancer, the mastery of kinesthetic codes allowing communication, and an extreme attention to the other [12].

27 Since the 1970s, sabar is no longer only a women’s dance, and many other audiences attend these performance circles. With the creation of professional ballets and performances around popular music, professional dancers (both male and female) seized upon these movements for their performances (Tholon, 2009), and troupes emerged since the 2000s to promote sabar. These professional dancers greatly increased the complexity of the step repertoire by arranging longer choreographic phrases, asserting a more acrobatic or “masculine” dance style, and adding new dances (Seye, 2016). Sabar dance circles in Senegalese cities became venues of performance and competition for dancers who come to perform solos or group performances that are often prepared in advance.

28 For these professional dancers, as well as for ordinary dancers at sabar ceremonies (who remain predominantly female), “improvised” performances are the product of the familiarization with movements and rhythms (in a domestic setting or in ballet), and result from learning a series of specific conventions, inculcated more or less formally. As demonstrated by other works on dance (Bardier, 2016) or music (Bachir-Loopuyt et al., 2010; Bonnerave, 2009; Dahlhaus, 2010), the “improvisation” contained in part of these sabar performances is not synonymous with spontaneity, but with a combination of the activation of embodied skills and the interactional logics specific to the performance context. It is precisely this logic of “free” interaction between the musician, the dancer and the circle that gradually attracted students from abroad and that some sabar instructors in Europe are now teaching.

Teaching the art of waxtan in Europe: the misunderstandings at stake

29 The reference to improvisation has long been present in various African “traditional” dances transmitted in Europe. However, until recently, the pedagogical format that structured a majority of sabar classes was based on the execution of a series of repeated steps to a musical call and on choreography, following the model of dance troupes in which many dancers are trained [13]. The difficulty in teaching solos was due to the scarcity of specialized musicians in Europe, but also to the fact that the improvised dimension was perceived as “untransmissible” to foreigners, as it was based on a conversation (in Wolof waxtan) and codes that are incomprehensible to neophytes.

30 From the late 2000s onwards, the growth of Senegalese artists’ migration to Europe and the desire of some passionate students to reproduce the “free” performances observed during their travels in Senegal converged to give birth to a teaching initiative focused on “solos” and the practice of waxtan.

31 One of the central and pioneering figures of this pedagogical undertaking is an instructor named Yama Wade. She arrived in Paris at the beginning of the 1990s, and for several years she has been developing a method that is intended to disrupt the choreographic approach. Using the metaphor of language, she relies on the transmission of vocabulary elements, a grammar of the sabar and personalized “coaching” in order to teach her students to speak freely with the musician and to develop their own expression. While many teachers have, in her opinion, limited themselves for a long time to “getting European women to move” − deliberately keeping them at a rudimentary level [14] − Yama wants them to experience the freedom felt by dancers who improvise in the circle. The question of freedom is central to her discourse, and it is intertwined with the idea of self-affirmation freed from the choreographic straitjacket and recitation:


The thing is that each teacher comes and imposes his sabar on you. I stopped doing that, it’s over. Let’s face it: if there are 10 million people, there are 10 million sabars. It has always been like that, there is this freedom in sabar, and that is the goal. [...] Recitations, we don’t call that dancing, we [the Senegalese] dance freely, we don’t recite. (Yama Wade during a sabar workshop, Lyon, April 2017).

33 By defining freedom as the ability to manifest individuality, Yama Wade bridges an idea of individual expression that would be the essence of sabar in Senegal with a search for the self that would animate the “Western” world (Houseman et al., 2016). She also links this valorization of the solo and rejection of the choreographic approach to a “de-Westernized” pedagogy that would return to a communication purified from the transformations induced by choreographic ballets and the normative conventions they bear [15].

Workshop of sabar with Yama Wade, Geneva, April 2019

Figure 0

Workshop of sabar with Yama Wade, Geneva, April 2019

© A. Aterianus-Owanga

34 While still groundbreaking and exceptional in its degree of elaboration, this approach is not unique, and a growing number of sabar classes I observed between 2017 and 2020 were based on a similar project of teaching students the art of soloing and free conversation. In these practices it is not just about learning movements and choreography, but about reproducing performance contexts, teaching codes and, in other words, instilling the “conditions of felicity” that allow communication with the musician (Austin, 1991; Goffman, 1986). According to this logic observed in sabar (that looks at first sight paradoxical), access to freedom is conditioned by the mastery and scrupulous respect of codes.

35 For the few teachers who do so, the transmission of these conventions of communication frequently raises a series of misunderstandings, “failures” (Austin, 1991) and confusions before reaching a rudimentary understanding of the codes. One of the weekly classes I have observed intensively over the past three years in Lausanne, taught by the Senegalese dancer Mbaye Sall, provides an interesting site for observing these pedagogies:


That day, Mbaye Sall teaches a series of movements on the ndec rhythm, before we practice our “solos” in front of the musician. He insists by raising his voice several times on the fact that we must be firmer and more aggressive in our movements in order to respect the style of the dance ndec. When the time comes for the solos in front of the musician, the latter criticizes: “You dance, that’s good. But as a musician, I can’t do anything with that. You move, but it’s nonsense, I can’t do real things”. We try to understand the meaning of this criticism and neither Mbaye nor the musician can tell us what to change. We finally understand, after many unsuccessful attempts, that we need to mark the steps on the ground and not dance in an aerial way. Afterwards, Mbaye gets angry at a student who is not applying the steps correctly: “If you really want to learn sabar, you have to take responsibility. You have to put your feet down, mark the steps. If you eat a step, in sabar and in all dances, it doesn’t work. Dance, take your responsibilities!” (Field notes, September 2019).

37 This excerpt highlights how acquiring these skills requires uncompromising pedagogies, far away from the idea of dance as “letting go”. It also reveals the difficulties and misunderstandings raised by this initiative.

38 The first of these difficulties is the “musicality” and the absence of common musicological codes between teachers and students to accompany the explanation of the complex polyrhythmic structures of the sabar, the organization of time and the way in which the dancers position themselves on the beats. For a long time, the differences between rhythms were not explained to students, and the musician-dancer relationship was limited to an idea of “natural” understanding that the students had to acquire by imitation (by observing their teachers). When the music was not understood, solos were often “out of time” or inadequate to the rhythm played, confirming the stereotype of European women as offbeat. On the other hand, several teachers such as Yama Wade or Mbaye Sall have been giving a specific place in their classes to listening or musical practice in order to understand the musical phrases played by the different sabar instruments and the way the dancers position themselves on the time.

39 A second difficulty relates to pedagogy, a criterion that has become central in the evaluation of teachers. Indeed, sabar instructors who evolve in Europe are often solidly trained in performance, but they are more rarely trained in pedagogical techniques. Invested with the functions of teachers, they are confronted with the difficult task of breaking down techniques that have become largely implicit for them, a task that is further complicated by the frequent lack of knowledge of French language. For some, the training received in contemporary dance schools alleviates these difficulties [16]. For others, the learning of pedagogy often passes by the observation of the techniques of their elders, by the reproduction of teachings received in ballets, and by exchanges with their dance students, their partners (for those in couple with students [17]) or the organizers of workshops. It is in the wake of these dialogues between teachers and students that certain teaching techniques have been refined.

40 This issue of pedagogy unveils the difficulty of providing a uniform framework and explanation kit about a practice that is transmitted primarily orally, and that is subject to significant variations depending on the region, generation, or dancer’s profile. Thus, it is not uncommon to see students disconcerted by the discrepancies between the explanations provided by dancers of different generations, from different cities in Senegal, or holding contrary views concerning the tension between the ancient repertoire and the gestural innovation that runs through sabar.

41 Finally, this transmission of improvised solos sometimes leads to dismantle a whole representation of the relationships between teachers and students of African dances. Several sabar instructors that I met explained that they used to not correct their students in the past because they considered that their mission was above all to give them pleasure, to “make the Europeans dance” and not to offend or criticize them. The expression of criticism and correction happens to be even more difficult when the teacher/student relationship is intertwined with commercial relationship, couple relationship, or when there are important age differences between student and teacher (bringing into play the birthright). In this context, this issue is also a question of challenging the representations accepted by certain musicians and dancers of sabar, according to which the vast majority of European women would be incapable of acquiring this intrinsically Senegalese language.

42 Similarly, teachers who train their students to do solo often have to insist with their musicians not to “lie” and let their students dance off the beat. Rather than a role of animators, the musicians find themselves invested here with a pedagogical mission and they are forced to break the staging that ensures the festive enchantment of African dance classes. Musicians and dancers invest themselves in a “pedagogical communication” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1965) and face the difficulties raised by the fact of “working continuously and methodically to reduce to a minimum the misunderstanding of the code” (ibid: 15) − well beyond the specific case of African dances.

43 Learning waxtan and lessening these misunderstandings thus requires the deconstruction of norms that establish African dancers and musicians as facilitators and entertainers of Europeans in order to move towards another form of conversation and relationship of transmission. The fact of punctually achieving successful choreographic conversations does not eradicate the existence of moments of “lies”, in other words of keeping the illusion of the successful partition between the dancer and the musician that is required for the persistence of this market and the pleasure on which it rests [18]. The transmission/adaptation of this fluctuating repertoire also generates conflicts of legitimacy and tensions related to the asymmetries between Senegalese teachers and their European students (Aterianus-Owanga, 2019). This background of misunderstandings and North-South inequalities, combined with the awareness of the difficulties of learning these complex codes, leads many students to give up sabar classes when they realize that they will never be able to taste the authentic freedom and to play well at being free like the other.

44 However, the rudimentary understanding of the rules of the game sometimes leads to fleeting moments of successful interaction and communication in which the idea of freedom takes on new meanings. Far from the sole reference to the imaginary of freedom in African dances, the freedom experienced in this case is nestled in the understanding of the specific codes of this Senegalese dance and in the ability to improvise that it authorizes. A final level of observation and reflection on freedom in sabar, at the scale of the emotions and relationships activated in these moments of performance, sheds light on a last aspect of the relationship with the other that is played out within the circle, which represents the place where the encounter is momentarily re‑enchanted.

Free with the other? Emotions and relationships to the other in sabar solos in Europe

45 A beginner sabar student told me during an interview about the importance of the solo on a personal level and in the practice of African dances:


R.’s classes for me were really something else. It was the first time in my life that I did solos, although in the end it is the heart of the thing. And there is no dance teacher who brings you to do that, unless you have been doing it for 10 years, and the fact that she managed to make me do that, I find it crazy. [...] And so it really made me discover a new aspect. Before, it was the energy, I was letting off a lot of steam. But now I find that it goes further. I don’t know if I can really put it into words, but it’s really special. You forget the others’ look, you have the relationship with the musician. You know you’re touching something of what it’s supposed to be. (F., Lyon, 2017).

47 In interviews, when explaining the emotions related to sabar solos, the incommensurability between language and emotional register, and the inability to put the intensity of this experience into words often come up. Some students speak of a mixture of fear and excitement, others refer to the idea of freedom:


The freedom to have acquired certain things and to be able to transmit it as I want (M., Geneva).

49 But the reference to an idea of exceptionality, intensity, pleasure and emotions is systematic.

50 According to the students, the performance of a solo is therefore a moment of emotional climax which is based partly on the pleasure of having understood the codes and of putting them into action correctly, but also on a network of relationships with other participants, starting with the musicians. Indeed, it is in the gaze of the musician that the performance and the harmony between the student’s choreographic composition and its accompaniment are co-constructed. It is the musician who will partly validate the quality of the solo by formulating an interjection such as “waw waw” (literally “yes, yes”), “bakh na” (that’s good), or by using other qualifiers more specific to the relationship with the dancer. Some of the expressions used by the musicians are addressed to positively or negatively sanction the student’s performance. But it also happens that the musicians express other types of emotions during solos or successful performances of certain participants, by using interjections referring to tradition and “home” (keur gui), or by shouting “Ndeysaan!”. This polysemous interjection expresses a form of tenderness (Diouf, 2003), which can be cheerful or sad depending on the context. A sabar instructor explained it to me as follows:


It is a strong feeling that is expressed from the heart. “Ndeysaan!”, they [the musicians] say it in a strong feeling. When you dance well and you respect the rhythm, they can say it. In a context, it can be sad too, on certain songs. But for dancing, I would translate it as “WOW!”, or “quiver”[frissons, in French]. (Online discussion with K., April 2020).

52 These expressions of emotion by the musicians constitute a prominent part of the fleeting moments of fun and intensity that play out in dance circles. The comments also prove how for the musicians involved the recreation of sabar codes, even if partial and arranged, generates emotions, and induces feelings of nostalgia or memories.

53 The second relationship at stake in the success of this music-choreographic game is the one with the instructor, less visible at the time of the interaction, but no less crucial in its appreciation. Indeed, sabar is an individual dance which is partly based, for Senegalese dancers, on the recognition of a personal style. But for students, a successful solo is more the proof of an accomplished learning path than of an innate talent. It owes as much to the work of the teacher as to that of the student. This influence of the teacher on the student’s ability to “play” is noticeable in the style of the student, often impregnated with the phrases, tricks and personal techniques of the teachers with whom she trained. It is also evident in the interviews and conversations with the students, through expressions of gratitude and appreciation for the instructor. Finally, it manifests itself at the moment of the solo when the teacher validates the student by his look or invalidates him by his reproaches. Thus, and as noted by studies on transmission in contemporary dance, learning this conversational game involves a work of “constructive resonance” between teacher and student (Harbonnier-Topin & Barbier, 2014), which makes these solos a co-construction articulating the imitation of the master and the creation of an aesthetic of one’s own.

54 Students, musicians, and teachers do not have the same expectations or the same projects and, by dint of misunderstandings, failures, and fruitless communications, they are often well aware of the gaps that separate them. But these differences do not prevent dialogue around common codes that allow a new enchantment to be created around the artistic performance, and not anymore solely around the exotic encounter. These moments do not hinder the permanence of asymmetries and perhaps do not bring anything to the macro-analytical understanding of the power relationships at stake in this milieu. However, to ignore these situated emotions leads to deny the main reason why these individuals play together and feel free while dancing: pleasure [19]. It is perhaps precisely the awareness of these gaps and the attempt to dissipate misunderstandings thanks to common codes that makes communication work, that co-constructs a common practice of freedom and recreates enchantment.

Conclusion: for a post‑exotic approach of African dances

55 In a “post-orientalist” and post-Saïdian historical work, S. Subrahmanyam describes how the encounter of Europeans with India and the knowledge formed in its wake from the fifteenth century onwards can hardly be understood through a single reading in terms of subjugation of the other. According to the author, the application of a teleological vision presuming the improvement of knowledge or the reduction of the encounter to a series of misunderstandings and “cultural incommensurability” are also not valid (Subrahmanyam, 2018: 20). In contrast to these rigid models, Subrahmanyan shows that the understanding of nuances and evolutions of these relationships requires working from specific contexts, trajectories and relationships.

56 My article is nourished by the same intention to understand the field observed by going beyond the sole interpretation in terms of exoticization and subjugation. I examined the relationships to the other that are played out in a specific art world, and that are developed around the teaching of sabar between Senegal and Europe. By conducting an ethnographic description passing from the widest to the narrowest lens, the ethnography of sabar classes suggests that one facet of these encounters benefits from being analyzed by addressing the specific situations of interaction and by questioning the “freedom” mentioned by the adepts of these dances through a pragmatic lens.

57 I showed that at the scale of individual pathways or of the history of African dance classes, the idea of freedom and the presuppositions on which it is based are subject to criticism and questioning, in connection with distinctions of various kinds. The contextualized perspective on choreographic conversations and relationships developed around this dance highlighted how the teaching of improvised forms of sabar gives rise to processes of translation and adaptation of codes that constrain to reform pedagogies and views on the other. Far from being antinomic with the existence of misunderstandings, deception, or differentiated expectations, the pedagogies and interactions developed around sabar are nourished by them: they extend them, and sometimes overcome them to give rise to moments of successful communication. The freedom activated in these moments is the product of a work on codes and a co-constructed improvisation where differences are assumed and misunderstandings are consumed.

58 The roughness induced by the learning of sabar and the constraints that this exercise imposes discourage more than one learner. Moreover, the emergence of moments of alignment around common norms does not annihilate the effects of fascination, dazzlement and refracted vision of otherness, which continue to inhabit many representations and discourses on “Africa” and “Africans” (or “Europe” and “Europeans”) in this milieu (Tonda, 2015).

59 For this reason, the post-exotic [20] approach I suggest in this conclusion does not assert that African dances and sabar classes would be free of exoticizing and stereotypical relationships. Rather, it suggests that in the postcolonial situation, exoticism is renewed and intertwined with a variety of (sometimes contradictory) glances, layers, and discourses about the other. The analysis focused on performance situations highlights the importance of artistic conventions on these relational mechanisms, as it reveals relationships of co-construction or complicity that are imperceptible at a macro level. This article finally shows the importance of combining knowledge of these art worlds in the long term and on a global scale, with micro-ethnographic attention to situations and interactions configured around specific choreographic genres. In sabar, the momentary alignment of individual strategies and the adjustment around common codes thus sometimes contribute to transform the illusory desire to be free like the other, into a fragile and ephemeral practice of freedom with the other.

The author thanks Valeria Dani for the proofreading and English corrections made on a first version of this translated paper.
Cet article est disponible en ligne exclusivement. La version originale est parue dans le n° 164‑165 de JDA.


  • [1]
    In this article, I intentionally use the plural “African dances” to describe the myriad of repertoires and choreographic genres gathered under this label.
  • [2]
  • [3]
    I develop, in this sense, the reflections offered by M. Lassibille, who asserted that “African dance” represents the “product of a continuous and paradoxical construction where different gazes and various logics have been associated, between domination, standardization and revalorization”, including in anthropological writings (Lassibille, 2016).
  • [4]
    From 2017 to 2020, I conducted an ethnographic research in the world of sabar by combining an intensive study in some European cities (Lausanne, Geneva, Lyon) and a mobile following of several trajectories of students and instructors of sabar moving between Senegal and various European countries (Germany, France, Holland, United Kingdom, Switzerland).
  • [5]
    As sabar musicians are almost exclusively men, I do not feminize the terms used when referring to them in this text.
  • [6]
    For this reason, I feminize the terms used about them in this article.
  • [7]
    For a historical study about the formation of this field, see Lefevre Mercier (1987) and Lassibille (2016).
  • [8]
    Transcription of informal discussions with S., Dakar, January 2020.
  • [9]
    The attraction for “urban” dances echoes with the analysis that develops J.-L. Amselle about the contemporary art world’s attraction for the African city, as a place of search for otherness and authentic Africanity (Amselle, 2005).
  • [10]
    See Lefevre (2011).
  • [11]
    About the different rhythms of sabar, see Tang (2007); about the dances related to those rhythms, see Seye (2016), Penna Ndiaw (2005), Aterianus-Owanga (2020).
  • [12]
    Several studies analyze this dance as a place of construction of female identities (Penna-Diaw, 2005; Neveu Kringelbach, 2013) and initiation to sexuality (Dessertine, 2010).
  • [13]
    E. Djebbari (2019) traces the production of this choreographic model that has become central in “African dances” as taught in Europe.
  • [14]
    I analyze Yama Wade’s initiative in Aterianus-Owanga (2019).
  • [15]
    The liberation from convention also often involves a class format that goes beyond the usual length (up to four or five hours).
  • [16]
    They are often given a positive evaluation by the students because of their ability to deconstruct and refine certain sabar movements.
  • [17]
    As analyzed by A. Despres for the case of Afro-contemporary dancers (2015), the world of African traditional dance relies heavily on the existence of mixed couples and on European female partners who are involved in promoting the careers of their spouses.
  • [18]
    For example, it is not uncommon for musicians to simplify their musical accompaniment to help beginner students or to embellish their expressions of congratulations.
  • [19]
    The majority of sabar dancers and musicians in Europe do not earn a living from their artistic practice and have other professions on a side.
  • [20]
    My perspective is, in some respects, similar to that developed by M. Savigliano (2010) about tango when she reckons that the notion of “postexoticism alludes to the new subtleties of exoticism in globalization.” (Savigliano, 2010: 135)

This article focuses on the different conceptions and experiences of freedom emanating from the teaching of African dances in Europe, more specifically around the Senegalese dance called Sabar. While African dances are frequently promoted as a vector of self “liberation”, in connection with exotic stereotypes about Africa, the ethnography of Sabar teaching situations reveals that these visions are subject to criticism and that a reform of pedagogies and views of the other is also taking place in these classes, particularly around the teaching of the musico-choreographic “game” of Sabar. Through misunderstandings and disappointments, learning the codes of Sabar improvisation sometimes gives rise to fleeting moments of successful choreographic conversation between students and musicians, and to practices of freedom based on a fragile alignment of the codes and emotions of the participants.

  • freedom
  • african dances
  • sabar
  • improvisation
  • post-exoticism
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Alice Aterianus-Owanga
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow. University of Cape Town / University of Geneva.
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