Master: Anssumane Silla
Apprentice: Lela Aisha Jones
Art Form: West African Dance
Through this Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts, Anssumane Silla taught Lela Aisha Jones both Fulani dances and ethnic Manjaco dances, ethnic dances from Guinea which use a large drum for their ceremonies. Fula dance is an expressive and rhythmic dance of Islam, interpreted both by young people and adults. These dances are performed during the ceremonies of marriage, baptism, and circumcisions. Manjaco is the dance for young people that symbolizes the joy of living, of love, and being young during the festivities that mark the transition of young people from adolescence into adulthood. The goal of this apprenticeship was to not only hone Jones’ dance skills and discipline, but to broaden her repertoire as an artist and keeper of West African traditions and culture.
Lela Aisha Jones’ exposure to African dance began in her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, as a young child and blossomed through her participation in the dance program at the University of Florida. She has traveled to Africa (Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria) to learn movement traditions: “I learn these dances because they’re important to me and to my history and I create art because I want to archive my experiences through movement.” In 2009 she founded FlyGround, a movement performance company that artistically archives and rethinks the intersecting lineages of the African/Afro/Black Diaspora through abstract, physical, and cultural narrative, and in 2010 she helped found The Requisite Movers, a service and presenting organization which promotes artistically provoking projects by female movement artists of African descent. Jones says of working with Silla in this apprenticeship, “When you really get one-on-one time, like I have with Anssumane, with the right teacher, you start to see some of the little, small things. Performance is usually big: everybody wants to dance big, you have to be seen, you’re on the stage, but all of the nuances of the dance aren’t necessarily big.”
Anssumane Silla began dancing when he was eleven years old with the Netos Kansala youth group in Guinea Bissau. There he gained both invaluable training and a strong sense of pride for his country and heritage. As a teenager he was recruited by the National Ballet of Guinea Bissau, performing throughout Africa. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Silla joined Kulu Mele, finding a community of people eager to learn about the culture, music, and dance styles of Guinea Bissau. This opportunity to work with Jones was especially crucial to Silla’s growth as a teacher, “It’s rare that someone has the opportunity to take a student and see how their form and training has developed from week one to week five. I’ve grown as a teacher and am more aware of how important it is that dance is taught as a sum of all parts. That’s the only way that culture can truly be absorbed and understood.” For Silla, the best part of this apprenticeship was being able to spread awareness of the beauty and versatility of traditional and contemporary dance from Guinea Bissau: “This is planting the seeds for ALL people to be exposed to a type of African dance that is deeply traditional and whole.”