Christa “Fatoumata” Sylla has been sharing the joy of cultural dance with the Jacksonville, Florida community for over 11 years. As the director of Culture Moves 101/Nan Nkama Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble, a local West African dance troupe, Fatou (as I prefer to call her) has received notoriety for her warm and passionate personality and exciting choreography.
Fatou began her West African dance experience in Atlanta, GA in 2000 shortly before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. Since then, she has studied under and performed with several companies including Lajo Theatre of African and Caribbean Dance and the Nia Dance Ensemble. In 2003, she founded Culture Moves 101 and began teaching community classes. During this time, Fatou continued her studies with master instructors of Mandeng style dance such as Mohamed Dacosta, Youssouf Koumbassa, Moumintou Camara, and others. One of Ms Sylla’s latest projects has been to study and implement more Afro-dance styles from the Diaspora. In summer 2014, she used her years of experience as a group fitness instructor to design and launch the Afroconic™ Booty Dance Workout, a dance fitness class based on traditional and contemporary “sensual” dances from Africa such as mapouka, leumbeul, and chakacha. She continues to give specialty workshops and classes in Jacksonville, Florida as well as other states as a guest instructor.
1) Please tell us about yourself in a few words.
First and foremost before anything else, I am a student, mostly of life. Every day is a learning experience. Other than that I think I am a humorous mix of contradictions: Sociable and introverted, feisty and sweet, free-spirited and shy, ambitious and laid back. I am happiest when having the chance to be a part of making others happy. I am a mother. Healthy eating and living is something I advocate and strongly believe in. I am nowhere near perfect. I have overcome a lot and still growing. Obviously, I am wordy. This is more than a “few” words.
2) How did the names Fatou Sylla come about?
The name Fatou is short for Fatoumata and was given to me when I visited Guinea, West Africa to study. Sometimes it is customary for a teacher to give their student a Guinean name. The name was given to me by the host I traveled with, master drummer, Fode Lavia Camara whom I affectionately refer to as my big brother.
3) What is behind your passion for dance and fitness? And How do you stay motivated?
My passion has come from different sources over the years. When I first began African dance it was specifically because of the drums and what the sound stirred in me. It was a place where I was completely uninhibited. It was a more preferable expression for me than verbal communication. At the time I was still very shy. Over time and with changes, it became something more, something deeper, a responsibility to the community to keep going.
My love for fitness actually was born out of my love for dance and for the body in general. I am a fan of movement to stay healthy. The motivation comes in waves. I think many artists can relate to having “dark periods” where motivation is hard to come by. I can honestly say during those times it is my students, from the children to the adults, and their enthusiasm and my responsibility to them that keeps me going. It is also the friends, family and associates who have believed in me and supported my vision over the years. Lastly but most importantly, it is the spiritual aspect, the sense of serving a greater purpose than my own, which brings me back to responsibility. Quitting is not an option. I have had setbacks, and I have certainly made some errors, but the intention has never wavered.
4) How do culture and dance relate to each other?
I see dance as the expression of culture. Dance tells our stories and could literally be anthropological study. I am fascinated by the stories that are told through movement which is why I am not so quick to dismiss any dance style without looking into it first to see what the message is or could be.
In indigenous cultures there were and are dances for war, for healing, to celebrate birth, to acknowledge death, as well as sacred dances for worship. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a workshop from Mamadou Dahoue two years ago, who taught a dance from the Gouro people of Ivory Coast called Zanloloba. This is a special dance performed by women. Whenever there was strife and discord in the village, the men would plead with the women to dance this dance. The dance is full of fortifying, percussive, earthy movements. You can almost see and feel the energy coming from the women’s feet into the earth and spreading around. There is the dance style Cumbia, most often related to Latin cultures but actually evolved from West African slaves who were in Latin countries. The movements mimicked the shuffling of the feet as they were shackled.
More contemporary dances include Coupe’ de Cale, again from people of Ivory Coast, born out of rebellion against oppressive regimes. In America, a close example of this would be “crumping” which expresses the angst and frustration of young African-Americans living in disenfranchised communities. The dances formed from rebellion provide an opportunity for identity creation as opposed to absorbing the status quo. Some of the dances I see performed by young people today remind me of some indigenous war and strength dances. These connections are powerful.
5) Here is a question I was asked and didn’t quite have an answer to. Do African Americans have a culture? If yes, what is this culture in your opinion?
Contrary to what many believe, African-Americans definitely do have a culture and that should be celebrated. I am not sure there is one way to define it though. I do believe it varies because not all of our family lines share the same history. There is a common thread to our experiences here but it is not homogenous. What we do have across the board, is the amalgamation of ancestral ties and subconscious memories operating as a sort of foundation with the adoption of often forced and foreign ways of life in a foreign land. We have had an almost magical way (if you will) of molding what was foreign into something so distinctly expressive of our African heritage: from how we have our own ways of speaking English, to the evolution of gospel songs, the way we worship, commune, express ourselves artistically, etc, etc.
When I began to truly study African culture, it was hard not to see the parallels between things my mother naturally did and the inherent demeanor of many African women. Despite countless efforts to remove this part from us, we have carried these ways with us, even under duress and that is quite inspiring to me. Even things we criticize and are often criticized for, things that may not be beneficial have a slight convoluted and perhaps displaced hint at our African roots. If anything, though we have a long way to go, the culture of the “American-African” speaks to triumph. Again, we do still have a long way to go.
6) As an African American who has traveled to the following areas, what commonalities did you notice between people in Guinea, Haiti & African Americans? (And what are some differences?)
Upon my arrival in Haiti, I felt like I was in Guinea again. It was amusing. The colors, the smells, the terrain. Granted, when I was in Haiti, I was traveling with someone who was very familiar with Haiti’s African history. Besides the folkloric dances, which are very different from the style of West African dance I am most accustomed to, I was very interested in indigenous ways of worship.
Well, the truth is, Haitian Vodou is actually a mix of different cultures itself, with the African aspect weighing the heaviest. I believe as a society, having these connections as an everyday occurrence provides a sense of pride and self-respect that many African-Americans have had to struggle for. It is not to say that no African-Americans have it, it is that we have had to fight hard to get to it.
Compare living somewhere where your history studies, honorary sculptures in the community, religious doctrine and even the money have people who look like you, to living somewhere where it is almost completely the opposite. We have a few of those things here, but it is not the norm. Both in Guinea and in Haiti, young black men were able to congregate, and move freely without fear of being feared or even questioned simply because of who they are. It is hard to put into words, the comfort, so to speak, that radiated from people in both countries. They KNEW they had a certain level of power. Many of us here do not know it.
Some of the similarities seem superficial but are an example of deep ties. Despite language differences, and differences in music, the way we sing and dance are very similar. I see distinct links when viewing the singing from all three places, particularly if comparing African-American gospel. If you were to look at a split screen of singers from these three countries, with no sound, the body language, hand movement, sway, and ecstatic facial expressions would virtually be the same.
No matter where I was, the warm, communal vibe was present. In both Guinea and Haiti, it is very important to have guests and to feed them. Hosting is very important to the people and feeding someone is an expression of love and community. I experience the same here when traveling to different cities. As a people, we love to nurture and adopt people as family; at least in my experience.
7) There have been many headlines centered around the black American community in recent days that have captured international attention. Tell us, what’s your take on Bill Cosby, Mike Brown and Eric Garner?
I believe this is a “growing pains” period for America and for humanity in general. The issues of police brutality with racist undertones without punishment have been long standing but covered up. Both of these men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as many others, should still be alive. What is consistent in this country is when our men die in this way, are moves to justify their deaths, though their crimes (if there were any) were nonviolent. We are expected to simply take the word of the shooter or surviving party as truth, no matter how questionable. There are obvious, systematic manipulations of the justice system to turn desired verdicts for certain people. This is a big problem. If we have prosecutors in these grand jury cases, actually acting as defense attorneys, then we have a complete and offensive contradiction to what the justice system is “supposed” to stand for. Here is where it becomes EVERYONE’S problem. There are people who have distanced themselves from both of these cases and countless others, because they do not look like the victims, or share certain commonalities with them. These people are in for a rude awakening because this problem will make its way to anyone’s doorstep. This habit of slanted presentations of evidence and justice is dangerous. Police officers, who are supposed to have adequate training to handle situations without taking a life, cannot be given free rein to kill as desired. There must also be the understanding that America has been bred to react this way to black and brown men in particular. This did not happen overnight. There is an undercurrent of devaluing of black life, particularly black and poor life and this happens all over the country.
As far as Bill Cosby, I have to be careful to balance my personal thoughts with the plight of African-Americans. Many of us are having a hard time juxtaposing the possibility of this man committing these many offenses against women with what we think we know Cosby to be. This is completely understandable when the community is so bruised from all of the senseless deaths of unarmed men over the past year. This is understandable when there is data to substantiate the disproportionate nature of these abuses. We have also witnessed black men figuratively slaughtered in media for so long we have come to expect it. We have experienced the justice system failing and trampling over us over and over again. There is no trust. There is suspicion of the media and it is completely understandable.
Bill Cosby is one of the most successful African-Americans of our time and because of this, most are very protective of his legacy. However, by Cosby’s own words, he has separated himself from a certain part of our community (his comments about naming kids Shaniqua and Mohamed), which ironically happens to be the part of the community being struck the hardest with police brutality. Reading some of his words, listening to speeches he has made within the past decade, would he have been sympathetic to Brown or Garner?
Now this seeming separation, in and of itself does not make him guilty, but we do have to ask ourselves if we are defending an innocent man or an image. There is something we have to reconcile with our automatic loyalty. We have to realize that he was a packaged product, given to us as an “acceptable” African-American, and a very lucrative product at that. This has nothing at all to do with who he is a person.
The bigger concern for me is how we are having these conversations regarding sexual assault and rape. Just like hegemony and racism are underlying forces that need to be dealt with that were uncovered yet again with recent police vs. unarmed citizen occurrences, the undercurrent of misogyny in our society has reared its ugly head in this case. The immediate fantastical accusations of these women of lying and being after money is revealing of the issues of reporting rape and sexual assault, and just how pernicious these crimes are. This culture of silence on this issue is prominent in our community. I have too many female friends and associates that I can name who have stories of sexual assault and rape, sometimes at the hands of family members who never reported them, and in some cases did not speak about what happened until more than 15 years after the occurrence. At this point we are at about 24 women, most of who are outside of the statute of limitations to file legal cases. This is a problem and needs to be paid attention to.
There is another irony that concerns me, Cosby accuser doubters sound eerily like Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo defenders: “Well Mike Brown was a thug who got what was coming to him.” “If (she) was so afraid of Cosby, why would she go back to see him?” “Eric Garner would not have died were he not obese.” “I do not believe these Cosby accusers because they are ugly.”
As we are moving to create a culture and environment where no man should fear losing his life from an encounter with the police, we also need to be creating a culture where women feel safe to discuss this sort of trauma and NOT be vilified. The percentage of rape accusations proven to be false is extremely low, approximately two to eight percent. The percentage of rape cases that actually make it to trial is not very high either; approximately 19-21 percent. Why wouldn’t anyone choose to silence themselves, particularly when up against someone of popularity and power?
8) — What’s in the future for Fatou? (And closing words)
There is so much! I recently launched a dance fitness format from traditional and contemporary styles of African movement with an emphasis on feminine movements of the hips and buttocks. So far it has gone over well and I plan to continue.
My Haiti-Africa project partner, jean-Sebastien Duvilaire and I have big plans for our work in Haiti for 2015, highlighted by participating in a dance intensive with other artists during the summer. In 2005, I wrote a production called Mande:The Evolution from Bare Feet to Blue Jeans, first performed in Spring 2006 and again in the fall and Spring of 2007. I am reworking the script so that 2015 will see another run of it.
As for me personally, I will continue to work hard to be better, to learn more and to serve. That is what this is about. Service. I think it is “sinful” for lack of a better word, not to use what you have been given. Our talents do not belong to us, they are for sharing and for inspiring others. Our reward is how we feel doing it. So, I do not have any plans on stopping or changing anytime soon.