When we think about what we know about dance, usually ballet, jazz, hip-hop and tap come to mind.
But how many people really know about West African dance and the whole culture behind it? Dancer, mentor, teacher and praised choreographer Nzingha Camara is an inspiration for anyone who has ever taken one of her classes on West African dance. Over the past 20 years, she has become one of the most recognized choreographers in the genre of West African dance. Her dance moves are not only challenging, but a way of bringing out the African culture.
Camara will be teaching two classes at UC Irvine beginning this quarter. These include Dance 110, (World Dance: African) and Dance 210 (Graduate Ethnic: African). She has spread the culture of countries such as Mali, Guinea and Senegal through her choreography and teachings, and has held several workshops in countries around the world, including China, Costa Rica and Germany.
From 1995 to 2001, Camara taught at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, where her classes were the most attended in the dance department. Her knowledge of the culture and technique of West African dance built a strong interest among her students and provided for successful dance classes throughout those years. For many, her teachings were life-changing. One of her current students, Sasha Brookner, first met Camara nine years ago at UCLA, where she took a West- African dance class that hooked her right away.
‘She’s phenomenal. A very charismatic and beautiful teacher. She teaches you the history behind every dance. With hip-hop and other kinds of dance, you just do the movements. But here she teaches you the culture. She’s very knowledgeable in West African dance and embraces everybody,’ Brookner said.
Camara has been internationally recognized for her teachings and influence on West African dance. Acclaimed by dance magazines all over the country, she has been nominated for several awards and received the Soka Gakkai International USA Liberty Award in 2003 for her teaching.
‘She teaches you the history behind every dance. West African [dance] has become my livelihood ever since I started taking her dance classes. She’s very reminiscent to me [and] I really respect the dance now. When I’ve been down, she’s been a great influence and lifted me up through dance. She’s been inspiring,’ Brookner said.
Camara has taken on Hollywood by appearing on and choreographing movies and television shows such as ‘Poetic Justice,’ ‘King Kong,’ ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Earth, Wind and Fire,’ just to name a few.
African dance has also become a great influence for several celebrities such as Jasmine Guy, Jada Pinkett and Debbie Allen. Renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson, who has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Michael Jackson, Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean, has created dance moves that have been heavily influenced by Camara’s teachings.
Most people are not familiar with the fact that West African dance is the root for jazz and hip-hop dancing. If you look at these forms of dance, you can see African moves.
‘A lot of people think it’s wild and jumping up and down, but it’s very complex. West African dance has been very difficult to learn [because of] the gracefulness of the movements. It’s not just aerobic. You dance to the drums, so you’re really absorbing the culture. You know you have it right when we say ‘you can hear the drum’ because it’s about dancing on the beat and on the rhythm,’ Brookner said.
Currently Camara is teaching at Dance Collective in Leimhert Park in Los Angeles, where Brookner is also taking one of her classes. Camara has taught at UCI for the past three spring quarters and is looking forward to another one to come.
‘The dance department [at UCI] is very disciplined. There’s some great people working here. My classes are a form of
healing because through the dance moves you also learn the
history and the culture,’ Camara said.
The main point to remember about Camara’s classes are that they are open to all ages and ethnicities. You do not need to be a dance major to take them, or have any kind of dance background. It’s for everyone. Although African dance is one of the most complex forms of dance, it will nonetheless leave you impacted and teach you a little history at the same time.
Throughout her 20 years of teaching everyone from professionals to those that are just starting out, Camara finds that it is a different experience teaching the younger crowd.
‘I enjoy working with the younger crowd because they’re always willing to learn and try new things,’ Camara said.
West African dance is more than just choreography. It’s an art form. If you’re looking for a new way to express yourself, take a class by Camara. You might find a new passion.
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