Volume 73, Number 48 | March 31 - April 6, 2004


A celebrated dancer with a gift for teaching

From Lincoln Center to Battery Park, Senegalese dancer inspires students

By Jaclyn Marinese

Photo by Robert Stolarik

Maguette Camara teaching class at the Community Center at Stuyvesant High School. It’s one of many classes being offered by the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy.

At the beginning of his West African dance classes at Stuyvesant High School, Maguette Camara always explains the relevance of the movements he is about to teach.

One recent Sunday afternoon, Camara stood barefoot talking to his students about a dance called “Sarakoraba.” It gives thanks to the Gods after a good year of harvest, explained Camara, a native of Senegal. For Camara, a man of peaceful stature with the chiseled limbs of a life-long dancer, music and dance have always been a way of life.

“What I like to do is show people our culture because there are a lot of people who have no idea about what we are doing,” said Camara. “There are people who think that all we do is kill each other. To me, dance and music is a positive way of showing our culture, by explaining how we live and why we do the music and the dances.”

Maguette Camara, 34, began dancing at age eight in his hometown, Dakar. He danced with “The Ballet Bougarabou Dance Company,” a group founded by the parents of a close childhood friend. It provided Camara with constant exposure to a world where music and dance were part of the everyday routine.

“Being around them made me just do this without even knowing that I was doing it,” said Camara.

In 1992, when the group went on tour, it came to New York City. Camara never left. Today, Maguette Camara is a celebrated choreographer, musician and teacher. He teaches at The Alvin Ailey School, Barnard College, the Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre on East 18th St., and the Battery Park City Parks Community Center at Stuyvesant. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, The Lincoln Center Outdoor Concert Series, The World Trade Center Jazz Festival in 2001, the African Museum in Soho, and in 1995 he opened the Rolling Stones World Tour at Giants Stadium. He was also featured on “Good Morning New York” as well as in a series of television commercials on MTV in celebration of Black Music Month in 2002.

Along the way he’s impressed many of his colleagues.

“He is excellent in every possible way,” said Denise Jefferson of the Alvin Ailey School. After watching him for the first time, Jefferson was impressed by his knowledge, musicality, and ability to communicate with students.

“He’s been dancing long enough to have an extensive library of steps and the ability to create his own choreography,” said Djoniba Mouflet, founder and executive director of Djoniba Dance and Drum Center, where Camara has been teaching for eight years.

“He’s also been very humble and open about learning, which has definitely helped him grow to where he is today,” said Mouflet.

At Barnard College, classes are made up of many students coming from different levels of ability from dance majors to people who are taking it as an elective class.

“He’s able to recognize what everybody needs,” said Sarah White, senior anthropology major at Barnard and one of Camara’s students.

“If you haven’t had a lot of training, he’ll explain the moves in different ways, slowing it down or demonstrating it several times without allowing those who are more advanced to get bored or frustrated. He’s good at striking that balance.”

Camara is also the founder of Mané Kadang, a group of West African dancers and musicians from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso.

“I started this group because it is a nice way to show my students the real form of dance, and how it is done,” said Camara. “We have a lot of countries represented in the group so we can show each tradition because we don’t all have the same way of living or doing the movements.”

Camara moves gracefully across the floor counting the steps out loud for his students. He takes large, outward steps, then steps in with his feet and hands together, seemingly looking into himself. After several demonstrations, he moves over to a large wooden hand drum that is set to the side of the room and seamlessly transforms from dancer to musician as his counts are turned into the sound of his hands hitting the drum.

“Sometimes the step is conducted by the drumming, and sometimes the drumming is conducted by the steps,” he said about this most basic element of his art form. “The live drumming is giving more energy to the dancers.”

Energy is one thing Camara has an abundance of. After commuting every day from his home in Mount Vernon, just north of the city, he teaches full days of extremely physical classes.

“The life of an artist is a struggle all the time, always,” said Camara. “And sometimes we do it without making that much money, but the love that you have by doing it is wonderful…If it was just the money I would have already left a long time ago.”

“If an educator shows passion for what they do, it can only draw students in,” said Katie Glasner, acting chair and senior associate at The Department of Dance at Barnard College.

“His absolute unbridled joy for what he does is simply infectious.” She refers to a quote by Haveoc Ellis that reads, ”Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself.”

“I know this is Maguette’s point,” she said. “It is who he is as a dancer and as a teacher.”

For information on this and other classes at the Community Center call 212-267-9700 or visit www.communitycenteratstuyvesanthighschool.org. Other classes offered are Adult Art, Fitness Training, Pilates, Tai Chi, Swimming Lessons and Yoga.

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