Dancer, choreographer, teacher
Papa Sy is a dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher from Senegal, and the principal member of 5 Dimension Company. After professional dance training in Senegal's National Dance Academy, Papa Sy joined Germain Acogny’s Écoles des Sables and Jant-Bi dance company. Working there opened Papa Sy’s artistic spirit, and he founded the Pasytef Ballet Theatre de Dalifort dance company in Dakar and the Pasy Dance School from a passion for sharing his knowledge with young dancers and contributing to their artistic education. He has created, produced, directed, and starred in over twenty shows. For the 2017-18, he was an I-ARE artist in residence at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He currently teaches various forms of West-African movement-infused classes throughout the Boston area.
Papa Sy was born in Diourbel, a town in western Senegal, about 90 miles, east of Dakar. He grew up in Rufisque, once an important port city in its own right but a suburb of Dakar now. He then moved to Dakar, where he worked for a few years, and he joined the National Conservatory of Dakar in 1993 when – to paraphrase Papa Sy’s words-, “he was already old” (but he was only in his 20s!) His 6 years of training in the conservatory allowed Papa Sy to excel in mastering Sabar and other traditional Senegalese and West African dances.
When I asked him how he would best describe Sabar dance, his immediate answer was “La danse sabar est aérienne” (Sabar is aerial). He then unraveled this for me: the characteristics of different Senegalese dances depend on le terrain (the ground, the terrain) of the region where the dance is practiced. Sabar, for instance, is the dance of the “habitants du sel” (inhabitants of the saltmines). Most of the northern part of Senegal has a semi-arid, dry terrain, with some thorny acacia trees and huge baobabs dotting the landscape. The tendency to jump and elevate is not surprising then, given the harsh conditions of the land. In contrast, Papy Sy explained, the dances of the southern region of Casamance are “en bas” (down). The landscape in this area is more hospitable, with forests, and green and abundant vegetation due to higher levels rainfall. The tendency then, is to remain low, close to the ground. “C’est l’espace qui conditionne le style” (It’s the physical space that conditions the style), he summarized.
The knowledge and mastery of traditional dances acquired after his years in the conservatory were not enough to satisfy Papa Sy’s passion for dance and his innovative spirit. He joined Germaine Acogny’s École des Sables, and was part of the very first class to graduate from the program. This fact made Papa Sy and his generation of dancers proud, of course, but they wanted to “marquer époque.” They wanted to leave a mark in a more profound and even radical way. The question that Papa Sy and a few of his fellow dancers had in their mind was: “What can we do to enrich our already precious traditional dance heritage?” “Métisse-danse” (hybrid-dance) was the answer to their question.
European and American dancers had been coming to Senegal to learn the traditional dances, styles and rhythms. Why they, Senegalese dancers, could not go out, discover and absorb the dances and styles of other cultures, and then bring them back home to enrich and infuse traditional dances with outside elements? There was nothing stopping them, so that is exactly what Papa Sy and some of his dancer friends did. As part of the process of learning dances and techniques from different parts of the world (India, Europe, modern and contemporary dance from the US), Papa Sy had the opportunity to collaborate with Susanne Linke, a renowned German dancer and choreographer (important in the development of Tanztheater and contemporary dance internationally). After a world tour presenting their collaborative work in 2001, Papa Sy went back to Senegal to further develop the idea of “métisse-danse”, share his knowledge and train a new generation of dancers. He created the Pasytef Ballet Théâtre de Dalifort, the first dance ‘company’ in Senegal – before that, all the dance groups were called troupes – and the Pasy Dance School, which offered free dance artistic education to children.
In trying to translate “métisse-danse” to a term accessible to a foreign audience, Papa Sy described it as “contemporary African dance.” This is the comparison he made: as Western modern and contemporary dance styles have developed out of ballet technique, métisse-dance has traditional Senegalese dance techniques as its base, which is empowered, enriched and fused with influences and inspirations from the styles he learned in other parts of the world. “La danse est universelle”, Paya Sy concluded. However, as universal as métisse-dance is, it remains, at the same time, deeply rooted in the land, rhythms, styles, dances, traditions, and sensibilities of his native Senegal.