‘Dance diplomats’ take to the stage in Ethiopia

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Addis Ababa – There’s a new way of doing diplomacy in Ethiopia’s capital, one that forsakes communiques and speeches in favour of music, sweat and bare feet.

A troupe of New York-based dancers arrived in the capital Addis Ababa earlier this month to boogie their way to closer ties between the United States and Ethiopia, a major East African economy and counterterrorism partner for Washington.

The nine dancers from Keigwin & Company are professionals used to working in one of the world’s most competitive showbiz markets, but that didn’t prepare them for the frenetic and traditional manner of Ethiopian movement.

“It’s like learning how to dance again,” said Keigwin dancer Kacie Boblitt after the Americans participated in an hours-long dance workshop with their Ethiopian counterparts.

Keigwin’s visit to Ethiopia was part of a three-country tour with stops in Ivory Coast and Tunisia organised by DanceMotion USA, a US Department of State programme that sends American dancers around the world to build cultural ties.

“They connect with their colleagues in dance and that brings the countries together in a way diplomats can’t,” said David Kennedy, counsellor for public affairs at the US embassy in Addis Ababa.

Dance is an integral part not just of nightlife in Ethiopia, but also traditional gatherings and religious festivals.

Ethiopians are known for their unique movement style called eskista, which involves gyrations and sharp upper-body movements to the beat of a drum.

“Culturally, here, they dance everywhere. They’re just not at all precious about it,” said Keigwin production manager Randi Rivera.

The Americans, by contrast, are used to spacious, well-demarcated practice spaces and meticulous choreography.

‘We speak the same language’

When four Keigwin dancers convened with a group of more than two dozen Ethiopian professionals for a workshop held in a warehouse-turned-dance studio, the participants had little more in common than their shared love of dance.

Addisu Demissie, a founder of Destino, the studio where the workshop was held, is himself a contemporary dancer and said the styles used by the Americans weren’t new or unfamiliar to him.

But watching the newcomers struggle to master Eskista was a learning experience, even for someone who knows it well, Addisu said.

“We always like to fuse contemporary dance with traditional,” he said. “For us, what’s nice is to see one type of movement like in (a) different way.”

Mastering the local dance style wasn’t all the visitors struggled with.

The capital’s altitude at 2 400 metres above sea level frequently left them out of breath, and English wasn’t widely known among the Amharic-speaking Ethiopians.

The two groups instead relied on a more simple form of communication.

“Even though we don’t speak the same language, we speak the same language,” said Keigwin cofounder Nicole Wolcott as she stood hand-in-hand with the dancers at the close of their workshop. “Dance.”

Read more on: ethiopia | east africa

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