Shafeeha Monae: African Solo Dance Interview

Although I haven’t lived in the United States for quite a while now, there’s one American lady who is always popping up in my Facebook newsfeed in posts related to Afro House and kuduro: Shafeeha Monae. I reached out to her to discuss her personal dance journey and her thoughts on the role of African solo dancing in the kizomba community in the US.

As usual, what follows is my adaptation of Shafeeha’s words from our interview. Any mistakes are my own.

What solo dances do you do from the African tradition?

I dance Afro House, kuduro, ndombolo, coupé decalé (which I infuse in my Afro House though I’m trying to separate them).

I also do Afro Jazz, which is a testament to my former life. I come from a background of modern, jazz, and contemporary. Afro Jazz is one of the styles that I still enjoy dancing. It’s quite different from Afro House and its line dance format is more for performance.

When and where did you learn these dances?

I’ve been dancing since I was 3. I danced in several dance schools on the East Coast. When we started we had to take ballet. I also took tap.

Of course I connected more with the Afro Rhythms so I transitioned to Afro-Contemporary and Modern. And then after that I moved into Afro Jazz.

How did you transition to street dances?

I started to listen to other rhythms. My family is Caribbean so we always had music playing. I started exploring the Latin scene. I really love Afro-Caribbean music, like Cuban Son and Cuban salsa, and bachata (Dominican not sensual!)

Soon I stopped doing ballet and jazz and I started doing Latin. With that I also started training in Dance Hall. So I was doing salsa movement, different types of reggae and dance hall. I was dancing all these styles and not really realizing the influence of my afro contemporary movement.

I actually led a team back in college. It was all female, called the Chaotic Ladies. We did whacking, popping, locking, hip hop, and dance hall. We had some ladies that did contemporary, but it was fused. We were based out of NJ, but our ladies came from CT, Philly, and PA. It was a combination of Latina girls, Caucasian ladies, folk from the Caribbean, all different ethnic backgrounds, and we would perform throughout the Tri-State area and sometimes in Delaware. We performed at a lot of different universities for different events, and we also opened for Mr. Vega, who’s a reggae artist.

How did you discover the styles we usually see in the kizomba scene?

Once I hit the Latin scene I really was just engulfed in salsa and bachata. I didn’t completely leave dance hall but my focus was more on studying and performing those styles. I did that for a while. From there I started teaching Zumba. A while after I started teaching Zumba I started realizing my classes were heavily dance – it was supposed to be dance and fitness but I was really just teaching choreography.

So I figured I probably should go find a way just to teach dance, because I wasn’t really teaching aerobics.

That’s sort of what brought me to kizomba. I was teaching Latin and Zumba, but I felt like there had to be something else out there that was there for me. I loved Latin but it didn’t really speak to me the way I felt like I wanted…I just felt like there was something else out there.

I was out at a social and someone pulled me out for a kizomba. And then from kizomba I found semba, and from there I found Afro house and kuduro. For me I was like, this is it, I’m done!

Where did you learn Afro House/ kuduro? Who did you train with?

When I started training in Afro House and kuduro I realized I was infusing my Afro Jazz into those dances. I realized I needed to learning more about these specific styles, thinking: “I’m pretty sure these dances are rooted in something else that’s not my personal style.”

I was dancing to the music, but I wasn’t doing necessarily kuduro movement.

So once I realized that I really really enjoyed those particular dances, I started training with Jamba and I did some training with Manuel while I was in Canada. I also did some training with Manuel Kanza and with Benga. We did privates. I also took classes with Fabricio.

My training with Benga was really good because I learned not just Afro House but the difference between all these dances. Manuel Kanza was really good about breaking down the differences between Afro House and kuduro. Between Jamba and Benga I really started to understand the differences between some of the other dances like soukous, coupé decalé, and ndombolo.

What would you say are the differences between kuduro and Afro House?

Kuduro is from Angola and there are certain movements that you do in the dance. The energy is also different from kuduro to Afro House.

Kuduro has a very playful energy. The animations are lively and specific to some of the songs. The movement is detailed in that they tell a story. And that’s why I realized I wanted more training because it’s so tied into the culture. It’s really from Angola and it has specific movement and names and technique that are native.

Afro-House feels almost like R&B, where everyone can tell their own story. The music sometimes has more of a mashup with, literally, House music, and so it opens up a different door for other styles to come in. With Afro-House I think it’s easy to combine things like soukous and ndombolo because it is more flexible.

What do you love about these dances?

Afro dance, believe it or not, has changed my life a ton. I truly believe it can open people’s eyes to different things – change how we see people and how we connect to people and our own stories. When we start to exchange in a solo dance setting, now they’re part of what we’re doing. To me it makes a world of a difference

Socially leading Afro House [animation], I’m connected to the music but I’m also connected to the people behind me. We’re also moving to the music. I’m not just doing something awesome without them.

Afro dance creates a community. In order to be creative in that community you have to take part. Take a chance, learn something, and infuse it in your lifestyle. You can be touching the community in a positive way. Your movement is fun, expressive, but touches others as well

What do you draw from in your Afro House? What do you teach?

For me, if I’m leading Afro House at a festival, I like to make sure my movement is followable. I adapt to my audience, so that people can actually follow what I’m doing. Because I have this background that isn’t necessarily Angolan, it’s Afro Caribbean, I know that I can pull from my Caribbean background rather than always doing super detailed kuduro movement.

I try to pick out movement that is not overly complicated. It could be from Afro Caribbean or it could be from kuduro. There are certain movements that are just easier for people with less experience to do.
I’m armed with all of this in my arsenal but I try not to just whip it out. I try to keep everyone involved. I don’t want to throw out something that’s above their level.

For my classes, I like to actually prepare. I do not like going into a class and just winging it. I actually prepare them for the whole month. Basically my students will have a month’s worth of information. If this month we’re focusing on soukous, then we’ll work on something ever the course of a month. Every week we’ll build upon our knowledge from last week. That consists of foundations, body movement, and posture. We also dive a bit into the history of the dance that we’re working on, its origin, and how it relates to the outside realm.

At the end of the month I can now sort of quiz them. “This is what we talked about, what’s this…”
So when we dance the next time they have this arsenal they can whip out in the social scene versus being overwhelmed. I’ve found that helps because it’s more of a conversation. People can remember and bring it back up on their own and have their own expression.

Even though we’re working on technique and choreography, they don’t have to look like me. We all look different and we all move different. It’s just getting people more aware of the Afro Dance world and what styles are available to them. Certain people like certain styles more than others. Some people have more trouble with hip movement, or leg placement, or something simple like putting their knee inward. So now if we go to a festival they’re able to dance based on what they know and what works in their body.

I do also include Afro Contemporary movement, outside of just kuduro, soukous, and ndombolo, just so they’re exposed to more different movements and different rhythms.

What would you say Afro Contemporary draws from?

Most of the time Afro Contemporary is combining West African movement with more modern or American style movement. I rarely see an East African contemporary.

What is the goal you have for your students to reach by the end of a festival workshop?

I ask myself that question every time I’m hired to teach somewhere. Depending on the material I prepare, I like to make sure my students are walking away with something. I’m a little anal in that I have it set in terms of what information they’re getting and how I’m breaking it down.

I structure my classes: I offer a quick intro to who I am, what the class is about and what we’re going to do, walking them through what we’re going to work on. The result is that students leave with knowledge and actual ability. They’re able to take this material and apply it to the social dance floor. People just want to dance, so I want to give them information and material that is applicable so they can use it socially.

Sometimes I do challenge them with movement they may have never seen before. They may not get it right then and there. I also tell them: “We’ll make a video. Take it home, look at it, and it might click later on.”

They’re not walking away with nothing; they have knowledge and technique on how to do this dance or movement, as well as application – how to apply it socially so it doesn’t feel robotic or unnatural.
They’re responsible for their own movement and it may not look like me or the next person.

How do you teach in order to accomplish that?

Basically I make sure that I provide them with an intro to the specific style that we’re working on: the history of the music, of the dance, where it’s coming from, the origin.

Then we do a warm up. Sometimes I’ll include aerobics like stretching and breathing exercises in the warmup. I’ll do a breakdown of the movement in the warmup just to start to get my students using the movement that we’ll cover in the class.

Then we move into technique from the ground up: feet placement for balance and control, knees, hips, then torso and then arms. I’ve just found that works better than just: “Here, here’s this move, now do it!”

Everything for me is connection. Connection with the floor, connection to the music. I break down the technique of each of the styles so they have an awareness of their body movement and then we can differentiate by adding different arms or different direction.

It’s important that they understand how their body should move. Let’s say we’re doing soukous, I’ll have them come around and actually hold my hips and feel the movement. They get a better sense that way.

Then we move into choreography. I’ll prepare a choreography around the dance and that will pretty much cover direction, change in tempo, change in movement – not just in place but moving around – and then I’ll prepare a couple of extra bars in case they get through that well and cleanly or if they just want to be challenged.

Once we have all of that we do the routine or choreography in repetition so that it’s in muscle memory. Then they can listen to the music, hear it and feel it, and it becomes more natural

Finally we cool down again with stretching, breathing and just relaxing our muscles.

Why would you say people in the kizomba scene should dance or be interested in these solo African dances?

They are awesome! The music is great; it’s such a high of energy that for me is unlike any other solo dance.

If people take the time to look into these styles they will start to become more culturally aware of the culture that is semba and kizomba. For me they are related. So to not have one but just the other is kind of like you’re missing a piece of the whole, not telling a full story.
I don’t say this intending any offense to anyone who doesn’t want to dance solo Afro, but I think we should at least be aware that they exist and respect the part that they play in the culture.

People that are interested in kizomba/semba, I highly recommend that you take the time to learn these dances because the body movement is freeing. It helps because it gives you more awareness of your body movement. When you’re dancing kizomba or semba, you’re expressing yourself to the music.
Soukous and ndombolo are based around your waist and your lower body movement, so that will enhance your kizomba and semba.

What do you think it will take for the Kizomba community to start dancing Afro House or other solo dances as creative individuals, rather than just following along in party animation?

I was just talking to someone about this, actually!

I don’t want to offend anyone, but I think the US is a little delayed in some regards. Dance is not as much of a way of life here as it is in other places. And so it’s low priority. When something is low priority, you don’t get as much information as you possibly could and you don’t get a good understanding of what’s really out there as fast as you could.

The US has to dive deep. People have to actually step out of their comfort zone and give these dances a chance so they can become familiar with not just the culture but the rhythms and their own body movement. It’s meant for you to have fun and express yourself, not just to regurgitate just to say you did it and can look like someone else. You have to make it your own and practice your own body movement.

Not everyone may have the time to spend 20 hours a week practicing your body movement, but you take 30 minutes a day and work on simple soukous movement or find your favorite Afro House move so you can find variations of that move. You don’t have to learn an entire choreography. With just a couple of moves you can work from your feet up and find different ways of doing them. I do this in small increments.

I think people have to apply dance to their everyday lives. It becomes your language, a part of your life, a part of your culture. You listen to the music so your body starts to get the groove. You can start to have your own creativity if you have just a little bit of that awareness.

I think people have to start to look at Afro dance as truly a way of life. Respect the music, respect the culture, but come to it as your own. I feel really connected to that and passionate about it, but without yelling. I don’t want to sound like I’m shoving Afro House down someone’s throat.

Well, what message would you like to share?

It all comes back to creating an inclusive community, not exclusive.

I see people who are on the outside and don’t necessarily feel as connected or invited or welcome, so when I think about solo African dance, yeah it’s solo, but it’s also about the people, it’s communal.

The best artists or the best instructors are the people who welcome others in, bring people closer to what they’re doing so they have a vested interest in learning. Not “You have to learn this, you have to learn the culture,” and then leaving people wondering “Why?”

If you welcome them in, show them who you are as a dancer and how you connect to the culture, that opens them up to learning more. That way they can express themselves freely and not feel like: “That person is great but I can’t move like them.”

I think it’s really sad for some people to get lost in this whole realm of Afro Dance and not feel like they can do it. It’s important that the people who can affect change actually do it and welcome people in instead of watching people sit on the sidelines.

I don’t want you to move like me, I want you to move like you!

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