Nicolas Salazar Sutil outlines Dance For Life, a project led by the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (University of Leeds), in partnership with Ndamsena Association (Chad)
What is Pas en Avant? Arguably it is a pedagogy of life, for life.
Developed by Chadian social artist and choreographer Taigue Ahmed, Pas en Avant is the core pedagogical practice at the heart of Ahmed’s work as artistic director of Ndamsena Association.
Ndamsena is a social art organisation for dance-based social action based in N’Djamena and Munich. The aim of this association is to foster community integration and to build peace across Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond. Ahmed’s pedagogy is powered by more than thirteen years’ experience working in refugee camps in the Central African region.
Pas en Avant is not a model—it is viral. It cannot be repeated, reiterated, and methodologically modelled for repetition and performative behaviour.
Pas en Avant is a dance-based pedagogy that teaches deep ethics, in the form of mutual respect, trust, care, and hard work (physical and mental). Pas en Avant is also a joyful and festive practice. It is a pedagogy that, in the words of Ahmed, ‘brings a smile back to those who have lost the will to smile’.
I am reminded of the God Krishna, teaching Arjuna how to go to war with a smile on his face. Krishna also danced his way to struggle, to life. In a likeminded way, Ahmed shows the war-torn peoples of Central Africa how to dance in times of war, with a smile on the face and joyfully. Festivity is central to the power of this pedagogy to bring people together, and to build bridges where war and conflict has wreaked destruction.
When practising Ahmed’s pedagogy, there is no division to be made between professional life and actual life. Bienvenu Ndoubabe, a Central African Republic ‘refugee’ working closely with Ahmed, defined the pedagogy thus: ‘There is no difference. That is why it works’. There is no difference between who I am as a professional academic, and who I am as a human being. The pedagogy begins with the premise that there is no difference as far as the rhythm is concerned. Everyone dances as fellow human beings alive and pulsing to the same beat.
Pas en Avant is a distinctly non-Western pedagogy. Cameroonian philosopher Jean-Marc Ela has written about ‘concrete pedagogy’, which this thinker believes is a fundamental step to a decolonial way of generating new learning. A concrete pedagogy does not hinge on abstract intellectualism (data, information, concepts, methodologies). Instead, a concrete pedagogy is rooted to the bottom-up reality of life itself, to the concrete existence of bodies, sensations, feelings, situations, real-world places and real-world people.
Pas en Avant cannot be replicated, because even though the pedagogy is systemic and cohesive given its core and unshakeable principles, every time you enact the pedagogy, every time you conduct a workshop in a refugee camp, you are working in a different concrete way. You are generating different concrete moments, different experiences and memories in different situations, all of which will generate understanding differently.
What preserves the integrity of Pas en Avant is the rootedness to life, and the belief in dance to save lives. Why does Pas en Avant harbour this unshakeable belief? Why dance with refugees? It goes without saying that a person experiencing a life of turmoil, instability, or worse, of violence and persecution, suffers from stress. A refugee camp may not offer necessary conditions for a refugee to conduct work in, to learn or train, nor indeed to engage in basic activities that may help overcome the stress and sleepless nights. Physical and mental exercise, as performed in dance, are thus conducive to rest, which is the first step to overcoming the destructive hyperactivity of conflict.
Do not think for a moment that by dance we mean a leisurely activity. We are not ‘dancing around the issue’, as someone once said to me. We are neither ‘dancing’ in the narrow and pejorative sense, nor indeed are we addressing this as an ‘issue’. Dance is not a tool or a method, a mere instrument to resolve conflict or crisis. Dance can be festive and contagious. It is a human outburst of life, and its effects can be deeply conducive to rhythmic co-existence, to rest and to peace.
To dance, in the proposed sense, means to carry a rhythm with you, as part of a group. You pick up the beat, and you carry it through a series of movements and efforts, especially in the choreographic aspects of Ahmed’s work. You are engaging in the creation of dance structures collaboratively. The important thing is to carry the rhythm with you for the good of the collective. To dance, in the proposed sense, is to respect and to care for one of the most vital principles in life: rhythm. If you do not respect the common pulse— and this does not apply only to dance and music, but to social and environmental rhythms— then what consciousness or wisdom can you hold up to yourself?
To dance, again in the narrowly proposed sense, means to tune yourself to rhythm, with body, mind and more. To dance, as I experience it in the context of Ahmed’s work, is to understand the rhythm, and participate in a rhythmic ecology. To dance is to step on the earth, to make it heard, and thus, to reveal its life in sound and movement. In sum, dance can be a deep form of understanding, a rhythmic and sensory intelligence with the potential for spiritual craft. Everyone has a body and a mind—only some have spirit.
If forced into definitions, I would argue that spirit is an energy, a flow, a vitality that does not belong to me but is passing through. Spirit is a craft, not a religious dogma. To dance with the spirit is a practice embedded in the somatic body that can, based on the fluency of technique, training or habitual practice, connect this body of mine to ancestral forces, which are likewise rhythmically connected to my own future. The spiritual sense of African rhythm is threefold: beat connects the somatic body rhythm with community rhythms, which are in turn connected to cosmic beats.
To dance in the proposed sense is to spiritualise the self and the community, and to embed within the spirited body a deep ethical perspective. To understand life in such a way, is to belong to an ecology of rhythm which cannot accept the intellectual frame of knowledge that the academic researcher cherishes based on concepts cherry-picked. If you have not lived a rhythm, if you do not allow yourself to be a vessel for this collective and anonymous energy (this ancestral spirit), and if all you have is information based on an arrhythmic capacity to philosophise disgrace, then perhaps, as Dylan sings, you ought to take the rag away from your face.
Pas en Avant is a pedagogy that does not exclude anyone. It does, however, leave some people opting out. Some people prefer not to dance, and may prefer the comfort of viewing. There are those, however, who dismiss the dance altogether. ‘I am not going to dance around the issue’—that is what I have been often told. And so, this is not a question of shying away from dancing, but rather, it is a problem of ignorance on the part of the intellectualist, who is utterly oblivious of the way in which dance can garner the people’s power. The invitation is for you to expose yourself in dance, to fail, and in your weakness, to earn utmost trust. If you opt out, it is by personal choice, not by force.
Ahmed says that dance saves lives, and he has cited his own experience growing up in war torn Chad to prove the point. As a child, Ahmed had to dress up as a girl-dancer to avoid being recruited in the national army and local militias. Dancing through times of war, Pas en Avant is as much a manifestation of an autobiographical struggle, as it is an invitation to share Ahmed’s personal struggle with many others also experiencing war and conflict.
The pedagogy earns trust among those who practise it because it is not imposed by someone alien to the experience of forced migration. It is an understanding that comes from the very heart of the community. As such, Pas en Avant is a viral pedagogy, and it is intended to mutate and to be taken up by others in different concrete ways, always with the hope of combating violence in Africa with Africa’s own rhythms.
The pedagogy also promotes the cultural gesture, and by gesture we mean a motion that also carries a meaning— a signal for mutual communication. The cultural gesture bypasses the division and alienation language can induce, opening up non-verbal dialogue, particularly as found in friendly or joyful gestures in traditional African dance.
The process likewise involves integration of traditional African and contemporary dance, in order to create an understanding that is neither traditionalist nor indeed progressivist, but rhythmical.
Pas en Avant is not a step forward in the sense that it promotes progress or development in the narrow sense of the word. Pas en Avant means ‘step forward’ in French. Forward is meant here in a concrete sense—a step toward a life that is no longer marred by violence, but one that is held together by peace and social prosperity. A step. A physical action, performed in the dance.
Here is an understanding of how to integrate modernity and tradition through a rhythmical intelligence. The future is not economic development, but ecological harmony. If that is what we want to attain, we will only do so through social cohesion and common rhythmic living, drawing on ancestral beliefs rooted on sustainable livelihoods, and contemporary principles of freedom and respect. That is the deep ethos of Pas en Avant— in a nutshell, for the researcher seeking synthesis, as I partially understand it.
Dance For Life is a project led by the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (University of Leeds), in partnership with Ndamsena Association (Chad), with advisory support from Platforma Arts + Refugees (UK), also in collaboration with academic, government, arts and charity sector organisations in the UK, France, Germany, and across Sub-Saharan Africa.
The aim is to promote peace and community-building among refugee and host communities, through the Pas en Avant pedagogy, and through social artist development. See more in this short film (Facebook)
The project will run between November 2016 and November 2020, and it is designed in four phases.
Nicolas Salazar Sutil (University of Leeds); Sarah Whatley (Coventry University); Taigue Ahmed (Ndamsena, Chad); Tom Green (Platforma/Counterpoints Arts); Sroosh Kouhyar (Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre); Clara Lecadet (EHESS, France); Jonathan Skinner (University of Roehampton); Sarah Houston (University of Roehampton); Christian Cherene, J.J. Deveraux, and Norma Deseke (BeAnotherLab); Daanish Masood (UN); Ballet de Refugies de Maro (Central African Republic).