- Choreographies of African Identities: Négritude, dance, and the National Ballet of Senegal
African dance has become increasingly popular. African dance troupes tour the world and regularly perform at national theatres in Europe and North America. Many young Africans capitalize on this interest, which allows them to eke out an existence in a precarious economy and – if they are lucky – provides them with a ticket to Europe or North America. In her book on dance in Senegal, Castaldi shows that the market mediates this growing demand and generates a dance industry. Choreographies of African Identities documents various contexts of performance and examines how the body is presented to a variety of audiences. Starting with an analysis of the Senegalese National Ballet and its post-colonial performances, the book goes on to document the circulation and commodification of contemporary dances in the streets, discotheques and hotels of Dakar.
In all of these contexts the African body appears problematic. African corporalities have long been conceived of in racist terms and there is little evidence to suggest that this has changed. Traditionally Euro-American scholars have understood African dance as a 'primitive' form of art, embodied in concrete movement rather than abstract thought. Dwelling on the poet-politician's Négritude philosophy, Castaldi analyses Senghor's efforts to counter these European racist assumptions. Senghor challenged the objectification of the African body and conceived of the dancing subject as the knowing subject par excellence. Ironically, his ideology did not escape the essentialism of colonial anthropology. This can be seen in the choreographies of the National Ballet, the national dance company established under Senghor's presidency. Today, the National Ballet still encourages the audience to interpret its performance as a series of tribal dances.
The authenticity of African dance performances in the theatre still relies on alterity. But in the streets, courtyards and discotheques of Dakar there is no such concern with authenticity. Innovation is what matters. In the clubs of Dakar one becomes a hero through the appropriation of new dance fashions and playful improvisations. Agile male dancers become 'stars' and attract female 'fans'. Some of the best ethnography in this book is to be found in the chapters on the popular dances of Dakar. There we learn how the best dancers improvise on the bàkk rhythms of the sabar drums; how mbalax musicians create new steps; and how these new steps become fashionable through clips on national television. We learn how the mbalax scene revolves around the creative polyrhythms of the sabar complex and how this Wolof complex has effectively become the standard for urban popular culture. Thus, the legacy of one particular ethnic group has assumed the status of national culture.
If youth dances the night away in Dakar's nightclubs, women organize themselves in associations that regularly throw sabar dances. Such sabar dances enable women to manifest their dancing skills and to compete with each other in provocative poses, with the circle of bystanders hiding the excesses of the dance from the male gaze. The display of female eroticism – in dances such as the ventilateur – causes considerable moral anxiety in Senegal. But as Castaldi argues, these erotic displays by Muslim women also unsettle standard assumptions about Islamic religiosity and female sexuality. She demonstrates how in a predominantly Muslim society, women claim a female public sphere through dance. [End Page 318]
From self-assertion through dance we move on to a set of chapters that examine how dance is increasingly commodified in performances for tourists. While historically dancing and drumming were the prerogative of the caste of géwël (or the Manding jali), today unemployed youth of 'noble' descent are increasingly practising dance in spite of the resistance of conservative parents. In order to legitimize their new trade the dancers define themselves as 'artists'. The worldwide demand for African dance thus generates a process of professionalization that one of Castaldi's informants qualifies as...