In her 1980 book, Danse Africaine, choreographer and dancer Germaine Acogny wrote her vision for the medium’s future. Rejecting the stereotype of African dance as devoid of technique, as natural and spontaneous, Acogny situated its complexity and richness within the wider landscape of modern dance. Contemporary African dance grew from an amalgam of different forms, she argued, deeply rooted in tradition and discipline but forward-looking above all—an evolving response to an Africa of skyscrapers and international contradictions.
The Afro-Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro was founded in 1997 by Rafael Palacios, who studied with Acogny in Africa and Europe and derives his choreography from the Afro-contemporary technique she developed at the Mudra Afrique school in Senegal. In Akan, a Ghanaian language, sankofa means, “to retrieve” or “return to the root”—a philosophy, more than a word, that centers the importance of knowing the past as a way into the future.
With its roots in traditional African dance, Sankofa Danzafro collages Palacios’s choreographic influences across Africa, Europe, and Latin America into a pan-African synthesis. The company’s highly celebrated 2010 work about social inequality and discrimination in Colombia, La ciudad de los otros (The City of Others), merged elements of Latinized hip-hop, capoeira, and Afro-Colombian dance to forge a map of the country’s multiculturalism. On February 15, Sankofa Danzafro returned to The Joyce Theater with Accommodating Lie, an hour-long work by Palacios similarly rooted in diasporic Afro dance and its myriad influences. Here, Palacios more overtly addresses Colombia’s legacy of slavery, using a series of vignettes to reject the exoticism and eroticism assigned to Black bodies.
In the opening sequence, electric hues of purple and blue greet the audience. William Camilo Perlaza Micolta and Sandra Vanessa Murillo Mosquera emerge from a curtain at the rear of the stage as if parting the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. They move slowly, methodically to the pulsing rhythm of a marimba before exploding into percussive action when drums and a native flute kick in. In contrast to the spare set of La ciudad de los otros, which referenced the ordinary spaces in which people live and work in cities, Álvaro Tobón’s scenic design for Accommodating Lie capitalizes on colonialist signifiers like the taparrabos, or loincloth. The curtain hung upstage is made out of the kind of straw found in the stereotypical skirts worn by enslaved Afro-Colombian people, and throughout the work functions as a barrier through which the dancers come in and out.
Told through a series of solos and duets that intimately entangle Colombian folk songs and rhythms with contemporary hip-hop and tinges of cumbia, Accommodating Lie bears upon restrictive understandings of music and dance. This blurring of genre asks us to imagine alternative cultural forms and, more broadly, ways of being. Caribbeanist scholar Sonjah Stanley Niaah uses the term “performance geographies” to refer to the “physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual activity that enacts a human existence, specifically in the Black Atlantic space between violation, ruptured roots, and self-reconstruction.”1 Her argument is a spatial one, using geography as a way to connect Black performance practices that range from the middle-passage slave-ship dance limbo to the ghettoes, where the blues, Kingston’s dancehall, and South Africa’s kwaito emerged. In spatially restricted, heavily policed, and marginal settings, performance geographies create spaces of community, celebration, and individual and collective healing. Sankofa Danzafro situates itself firmly within these practices, offering a corrective to the virtual absence of Latin America, specifically Colombia, from discussions on transatlantic Black performance.
At several points throughout Accommodating Lie, the dancers line up across the stage while a vocalist calls out prices in Spanish. It’s an auction for different loincloths: the taparrabos vulgar, taparrabos sensual, taparrabos psicológico, but the parade of Black dancers on display inextricably links the work to the violence of the slave trade and its implications for how Black people move through space. The dancers explode into movement individually, in pairs, and all together to the auctioneer’s vocal cues. If sankofa is about how the past continues to seep into the present through historical trauma, racism, and systems of oppression, then danzafro is a way of building discourse, methodologies, and support systems for the many African diaspora communities in Colombia.
In another vignette, Perlaza Micolta, clad in a beige blazer and straw loincloth, roars and convulses to the beat of the drums. He collapses on the floor, exhausted, almost as quickly as he began, while the vocalist croons, Dormíte, negro (Go to sleep, Negro). Luis Armando Viveros joins him on stage and picks him up in a cradle carry—a tender lull to the intensity—before setting him back down and erupting into a solo of his own. As if resurrected by Viveros’s dancing, Perlaza rises and, in one of the strongest moments of the work, the two set into a fleeting duet of churning arms and undulating torsos.
Another great moment is the solo interpreted by María Elena Murillo Palacios. In a series of self-reflective and almost painful movements, she tries to take off her skirt, tugging, writhing, and eventually gyrating her entire body. Laughs turn to screams and back to laughs, folding all of joy, hope, anger, and despair into that single action. She succeeds in freeing herself from the twine only partly, receding back into the curtain with the skirt clinging to her foot.
The loincloth auction picks back up at the work’s energetic conclusion, only this time all eight dancers are onstage and the prices are higher. Taparrabos show no es tradición, the vocalist calls out. No es tradición (“Not a tradition”), he repeats. As the cast stares down the audience in a last moment of stillness, Accommodating Lie carves out a space where sankofa might also mean being able to decide how the past moves into the future.
- Sonjah Stanley Niaah, “Mapping Black Atlantic Performance Geographies: From Slave Ship to Ghetto,” in Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, ed. Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods (Toronto: Between the Lines Books, 2007), 194.