Prince Rayanne Chidzvondo
The dancers enter the stage, head down, not looking into the audience. They gulp, swallowing hard to breathe in and breathe out. It’s almost show time. It’s, “Go hard, or go home”. There is no turning back. The lights come on, and that means it’s time to hit every move. Their body trails gracefully across the stage, everything making as much sense as one would relate to, yet, the realisation that dance is the hidden language of the soul. Every movement, turned into moment, is important, vital and worth living.
The motions of their bodies are an outward expression of something that is genuine, deep and resonates with the audience’s core.
From the audience, you hear the chants and cheers. The sounds drive forward, and they want more. All the applause show that this is what these dancers are destined for, telling stories with just their bodies. Dancing on a stage in the presence of an audience makes them go to a different level. They show you the world is clear again, minds are rested in the perfection of visual art presented by AfriKera dancers.
When the body sculpts space, the mind edges the moods of a lifetime as the soul soars in unison. This is how life is celebrated through dance. With Soukaina moulding her young students to imitate life in motion at every aspect of a performance, AfriKera Arts Trust, located in Harare at the Meikles building, is a rising force for young people to dare, dream and dance. To see is to believe: AfriKera in motion is a moving spectacle.
Now known as Soukaina, Marie-Laure EDOM is a dance instructor, artistic director, dance and amp; performing arts curator, producer and more. Born in Paris as Marie-Laure Charlise Emma Edom of French West Indies (French Caribbean) origins, the dance practitioner has been living in Zimbabwe since 1996 — or as she puts it, she has been amongst us through thick and thin.
Describing dance as motion and life, she began her dance training in Guadeloupe more than 40 years ago and continued her training with the “Académie Internationale de la Danse” (AID) in Paris, France. She later went on to further her dance education in New York City with the world renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Centre and Joffrey Ballet School.
Soukaina specialised in modern, tap, jazz, Afro-Caribbean and West African dance techniques. She is currently studying for a Master in Arts and Culture Management and is presently the Founder/ Programme Director of AfriKera Arts Trust, the HIFA Dance Curator and Essence of Women Dance Ensemble co-founder and Artistic Director.
Dance is an expressive style that allows the dancers to use the mind and body to showcase a range of emotions. Amongst other things, this is what AfriKera stands for — an institution at the heart of dance.
Youth in Zimbabwe form a vast reservoir of creative talent and energy. The majority of these youth have limited opportunities to develop that talent and it is one of the reasons why AfriKera comes outstanding.
Calling the beginning of AfriKera “A birth by fire”, Soukaina describes it as an all-in-one type of institution, in that it offers a wide range of complementary elements for the performing art of dance and encourages cross-fertilisation of the performing arts genres.
“AfriKera runs the only 3-year full-time Professional Dance Training in Zimbabwe. It is unique in the region as it targets and facilitates access to this vocation on a professional level to talented youth from low-income households.”
Dance is more than just a beautiful art form. It is a way to communicate with people, a value well to be honoured and respected. Soukaina herself, found her passion for dance in her early teens, and it has been her life ever since.
More than anything else, dance teaches discipline. Ballet and contemporary dance are styles that one cannot merely take up as a hobby, a quality character that Soukaina drills in her students. Dance requires countless hours of effort, working on the grace and perfection of technique.
Soukaina raises her dancers ‘with tough love because the world out there is tough.’
“They need to be prepared because they are sheltered in AfriKera only for a while. I raise them with tough love, even though instructors, the staff and I can be compassionate, understanding and open to listening, we avoid manipulation. At AfriKera, the syllabus is holistic so the graduates are versatile and actually in demand when they are on the market,” she said.
Some of the staff and instructors from AfriKera Arts Trust include Peter Lenso, acclaimed drummer and traditional dancer Mangoma, Tinashe Jeri, Tinashe Muza, Tinashe Chaukura, Sharon Gweshe and Mrs Faye.
Seeing AfriKera students in motion is evidence of how dance is an art which sets you free. You enter into a beautiful world of creativity. Dance gives you confidence and helps you find your hidden self.
Even if you watch the dancers perform a piece 100 times, every time you watch you notice the dancers approach it with a new outlook as they would have done a different piece. When they dance, they are alert and focused as they follow the music, beats, and remember their steps and at the same time enjoy the beautiful compositions. Their own personal feelings are rarely in question, it is a different kind of art, demanding too.
Soukaina’s students exhibit skills of consistency, discipline and commitment. Having graduated from the trust, Dexter Mushore and Vivian Tavaziva, are wallflowers that blossomed through their courses with AfriKera.
Vivian, now 23, was born and bred in Harare where her passion for dance was natured and nurtured. Coming from a family rooted in dance, she boasts of a supportive family in a community where performing arts are poorly looked down upon. Having been introduced to Soukaina by her brother Nassa Mhende (of Mhende Creative Artworks), she has never looked back since.
Confirming his story, 20-year-old Dexter Mushore believes he was born tapping feet, having grown an interest for dance at an early age also. He boasts of showcasing at family and school events until the day he walked into AfriKera. He fondly calls it his day of rebirth, and the day the hard work began. Most importantly, he does not fail to mention the role Soukaina and AfriKera played in moulding him into a disciplined and multi-abled dancer.
“The first time I went to AfriKera, they were doing HIFA rehearsals. Soukaina asked if I had brought my gear, action I was not at all prepared for. Soukaina would ask me to come and observe her classes, the first time I officially became part of the class, I almost dropped into tears, it was one intense class.”
“I struggled with traditional and ballet classes. At first I thought I wouldn’t survive, I would think about how and why men would do ballet — in tights. But Soukaina has learnt the art of pushing people to stick to their passion. I endured it, through the hard times, soldering on. She prepares us for the world out there as much as she teaches us how to polish our acts and move our bodies,” he said.
The common agreement is also that Soukaina, believes the skills and qualities necessary for one to be a successful dancer are inseparable, and they need to be developed. The skills include coordination, flexibility, fitness and musicality while the qualities include strong discipline, perseverance, very hard work, thick skin, resilience, the passion to learn, an appreciation of aesthetics, humility, and curiosity.
“Professionally dancing is a lifelong learning process. You need to dare, dream, observe, read, watch films, documentaries, biographies, have role models, research on new trends and methods of teaching, practice, perform, dance and stay relevant.”
Her dancers follow a path of young Zimbabweans who have chosen a career that they love. Their arms start from the back because they were once wings and at every point in turn, they fly away without regret of having not chosen otherwise.
Dexter and Vivian, are just two of many other graduates who now seek to soar the skies wearing the AfriKera flag high. Some dancers have come and left, unable to carry through, they have witnessed it all — after all – three years is a long time.
Vivian, young and vibrant, hopes to become one of the best dancers in Zimbabwe — not a “female” dancer — because she has learnt gender has nothing to do with it. In the world of dance, as she says, one makes it through hard work not by being female or male. Sometimes talent is not enough.
Dexter sees a future in creating a new dance genre born out of everything that AfriKera has taught him. He departed from AfriKera with more knowledge, technique and experience than he walked in there in.
The little boy Soukaina pushed to believe in himself can now safely go mark his stride on the earth. They do not believe in the sky being the limit because only then, they are limited.
Coming from a lifetime opportunity of being on the AfriKera scholarship programme and building support amongst each other in a world they are constantly rejected, they have mastered the art they had never thought they could possess.
The AfriKera Dance Theatre Hub is a home for artists as it provides a safe space to create and collaborate. Students and artists feel empowered to express. Guests (i.e. Director of cultural agencies, physiotherapists, and modelling agencies, the Red Cross, etc.) are welcome to impart useful knowledge to the students to complement their crafts once in a while. Graduates who work abroad come back and give back which makes AfriKera Arts Trust a vibrant outlet in the “Danscape” of Zimbabwe and the region.
For the future, Soukaina hopes to retire at a point where society’s understanding of professionally trained and qualified dancers stops being taken as a hobby.
“It is a must for the relevant authorities to recognise the value of dance training from early exposure in schools, to facilitate the accreditation of the AfriKera Certificate, to be acknowledged as a Dance/ Performing Arts institution, for the Ministry of Education to hire officially trained graduates for proper transmission of Dance and other performing Arts. The Ministry of Education employs real musicians for training school children which is not the case with Dance and Theatre.”
Dance can change lives. We have seen it happen. We have listened to the life stories of dancers. We have seen the eyes of young dance students lighting up and seen their smiles. We have met artists and social entrepreneurs whose purpose is to use dance as a catalyst to help others shape a brighter future or as a therapy to heal wounds.
Dance and arts education in general have an amazing ability to allow children to discover their strengths and bring people together. While the young people Soukaina works with may not have access to the best education or have a traditional family to support them, one thing they do have is dance — and what they learn will continue to lift them up.