Supported in part by

National Endowment For The Arts

2005 current year

(all styles, all years)

2005 Dance Styles:
West African: Mandeng and Wolof ( Mali and Senegal)

Argentine: Tango

Balinese: Drama Tari

Korean: Sogochum and Sam-go Mu (Drum Dances)

Polish: Zywiec Mountain Dance

Related Topics:
Shadow Puppetry



West African Dance

MALI and SENEGAL –Mandeng and Wolof  | GUINEA –Bissau  |
LIBERIA –Gio, Gola, Vai, and Mendi ]

Africa covers about one fifth of the world's land area and about an eighth of its people. It is a land of striking contrasts and great natural wonders, from the tropical rain forests of western and central Africa, to the world's largest desert, the Sahara, to vast grasslands, and the world's longest river, the Nile.

Africa is divided into 53 independent countries and protectorates. The African people belong to several population groups and have many cultural backgrounds of rich and varied ancestry. There are over 800 ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, each with its own language, religion, and way of life.

African dance embodies athleticism and a graceful beauty flowing with rhythm. In Africa, dance is a means of marking the experiences of life, encouraging abundant crops, and healing the sick soul and body. It is also done purely for enjoyment. All ceremonial African dances have a purpose. They tell stories and relate history. African music and dance in its essence communicates concepts of life on an elevated level; dance to the African is a universal, transcendent language. Traditionally, people throughout the continent of Africa achieve direct communication between themselves and their gods through ritual music and dance, including many with masks.

The importance of ceremonies in African society, as in other societies, is apparent at significant points in a person’s life cycle. Ceremonies often announce changes in one's social status and social relationships with those in the community, for instance the transition from childhood to adulthood, or marriage.

Many things about ceremonial dances change when they are brought to the stage from their original context in village life. For example, in Africa the dancers are not on a stage, but are interacting directly with the rest of the people, who also participate in the ritual, not by sitting in seats in an audience, but by singing, playing and having dialogue with the musicians and dancers. When these dances are done on the stage, they often include both traditional and innovative elements, illustrating how dance is not static, but changing and growing even as the performers meet new people and styles on their travels!

MALI and SENEGAL: Mandeng and Wolof

Performed by Djialy Kunda Kouyate in People Like Me 2005
(First performed in People Like Me 2001 as Ballet Jali Diabate)

A griot (GREEoh) or djialy (jali) is the traditional keeper of cultural traditions and history of the Mandeng people of West Africa. These traditions and stories are kept in the form of music and dance, containing elements of history or metaphorical statements that carry and pass on the culture of the Mandeng people through the generations. The music will usually follow a form, beginning slow with praise singing and lyrical movements accompanied by melodic instruments such as the kora, a 21-stringed harp/lute, and the balafon, a xylophone with gourd resonators, both characteristic of Mali and the Mandeng people.

Wolof drumming and dancing, originating in Senegal, features the Djembe and DounDoun drums, athletic jumps and spectacular up-tempo movements engaging the whole body. In Senegalese life, the Wolof play drums to heal the sick, communicate with the spirit world, and bring communities together, but most of all, they play drums to dance. Wolof drummers accompany dancers by playing strongly marked cross-rhythms that are laced with interjecting calls. Using precise control, the drummers weave intense patterns.

Ballet Jali Diabate Dancer In People Like Me 2005, Djialy Kunda Kouyate presents “Contante” (Happiness). This piece is based on the Mendeng legend of a young boy named "Soungalo” from a small village in Senegal, who lost both his parents to death. He was so sad that he would not eat, talk or leave the house to go out and play. The village King called upon the griots to bring him happiness. The griots, with their music and song, told the boy of his family history and how good his parents were, and reassured him that he need not worry because the people of the village would take good care of him in his growing years. To celebrate the lifting of the boys’ spirits, the King called for a big party with the griots there to sing and dance for everyone in the village.

"Hey Jali ah dah, Allah le ke Jali ala dah" is a song that means "Ah, the art of being a Jali, God created the art of being a Jali."

GUINEA: Bissau - Balante people

The Balante are a people from the low lying coastal frontier between the south of Senegal and the north of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. The Balante, one of five main ethnic groups in Guinea-Bissau, live by hunting in the forest and tend farms for raising beef. They organize big dance parties for occasions such as a celebration for a good rainy season, rites of passage, births, and marriages. In People Like Me 2002: Face to Face! the Sunugal Ballet will present a masked dance from this region, which celebrates the marriage of the prince.

The dance comes from the village of Mini-Ndame. In this village, when the prince comes of age to marry, the kingdom has a big party, to which every family brings their daughters. The young women compete with their beauty and their virtuosic dancing for the hand of the prince. The prince then chooses his bride, and a celebration ensues.

The masks that are used in this dance include a large spirit mask laden with cowry shells, an old woman mask, a young girl mask, and a young man mask. As symbols of family and spiritual connection, the masks play an important role when the community comes together to celebrate with music and dance.

LIBERIA: Gio, Gola, Vai, and Mendi

For People Like Me 2000 the Diamano Coura* West African Dance Company presented some spectacular masked dances from Liberia.

Liberia is a country of many ethnic groups, a land of predominantly indigenous people who occupied that land long before contact with the American Colonization Society which was a "back to Africa" movement that resettled freed slaves in present day Liberia between 1816-1912.

In the indigenous groups of Liberia, masks play an important part in connecting the living with the ancestral spirits and ancient deities. It is a means by which people strive to gain knowledge and insight into the future. The dancer "becomes" the mask, thus it is traditionally important that the human identity is not revealed to the public.

The masks worn in People Like Me are masks for the harvest. They are danced to the sound of the log drum which brings the sound of the forest to the stage, since masks are thought to come from the forest. (For more information on masks from African go to the Museum of Ancient & Modern Art (MAMA) online at

Dan MaskThe Dan Mask

The Gio People live in northern Liberia, and speak a language called Mande. They are primarily farmers and hunter/gatherers. Gio men also have their own secret society which marks their initiation into manhood and guides them throughout their lives. The Dan mask is a ceremonial mask which is worn during festival time, along with the Glegben, (Stilt Mask). The dance has very intricate hands and feet movements, with which the drummer and the masked dancer communicate. At times, the drummer follows the dancer, and at times the dancer follows the drummer, making it a true dialogue in movement and sound. See if you can tell when they switch! (The Dan Mask shown here courtesy of

The Vai Mask (Nafai or Frisky Devil)

Nafai belongs to the Gola, Vai, and Mendi Tribes from Grand Cope Mount county of Monrovia, Liberia. The Vai people make their living by farming the fertile lands of northwestern Liberia and southeastern Sierra Leone. The Nafai Mask belongs to the men. Usually this character is very frisky, goes anywhere and asks for whatsoever he wants. He is regarded as a playboy character.

The Yan Mask

The Yan Mask, or Gbetu, also belongs to the Gola, Vai, and the Mendi Tribes of Liberia. The Yan is for the Poro (men's) society, and the Sande (women's) society, or club. Within Vai culture there are both male and female secret societies which teach young boys and girls the social, survival, traditional, and personal lessons in becoming men and women. Performing the masked dance is the final blessing. The Yan mask performs during the graduation which is known as "The Breaking of the Poro Bush," where the boys and the Yan mask exhibit their talents. Watch for the times when the dancer with the mask asks the drummer to please follow him.

*Diamano Coura, in Wolof (a Senegalese language), means "those who bring the message." Diamano Coura West African dance brings its "message" through stories, theatricalized rituals, and traditional music to the international stage. Diamano Coura is found online at