On March 7-17th, I traveled to Ghana as part of Shenandoah University’s Global Citizenship Project with a team of thirteen other faculty, staff, and students. We spent eight days traveling throughout the southern region of the country visiting the major cities of Accra and Kumasi, in addition to rural areas and national landmarks. Out of all the incredible experiences I had in the country, one sticks out the most. Before I begin my story, it is important to know that I have tried and failed many times to share that day and all the events and details that shaped it. There is no way to fully capture the impact it has had on my life, and I have struggled with the decision that has always faced history: what are the most important pieces?
Ghana was at one time the biggest export of slaves in the world, and there are castles up and down the coast that remind us of those dark times. Half way through the trip, our group visited one of those places: Elmina Castle. The castle was home to the governor and was the holding place for hundreds of slaves at a time. The governor’s bedchamber was connected to the female dungeons and across the courtyard and past the church were the male dungeons. After all these years I could still smell the stench left by thousands of close bodies living in a dark, one window cell. You could see the inhuman conditions left as stains on the walls, and sense the presences of the people who suffered within the walls of this castle. No exhibits were necessary in this museum. After we spent the afternoon in silence reflecting on the past, we were brought back to meet with Elmina Dance Ensemble who rehearses in the castle.
The atmosphere was drastically changed in a matter of seconds. They begun by dancing for us, and as a dance major I felt my heart breaking down, as these people began to share their heritage with us, celebrating life in a way we all knew that those who passed before them could not. After performing two very different pieces, the ensemble invited all of us to learn some basic vocabulary. We moved together in a circle, and I felt a sense of community and healing as they encouraged us to jump in and let loose in the movement. That exchange in itself would have been enough for me to see the castle differently, but it went one step farther. I was asked to dance.
They said, “no one has ever danced for us before.” As I sat on the cobblestone tying my pointe shoes, I tried not to panic as I became overwhelmed with different thoughts and emotions. I wanted to make amends for all the horrible things that had happened within those walls. I felt so inadequate, because I knew that was impossible, but at the same time I felt so blessed to be given this opportunity. It was the most unlikely place I ever thought I would dance. I began by teaching the basics of ballet to the eager dance ensemble who absorbed everything like a sponge, trying desperately to get this foreign technique to resonate in their bodies. After a few minutes, I couldn’t stall any longer, and they asked me to dance. As the drummers began to play on their djembes, all of my anxiety melted away, and I was filled with sheer joy as I saw the looks on the faces around me. I was so amazed that this group of people could find life in one of the darkest places in history. When I finished I saw that the audience of thirty had grown. There were children in their school uniforms sitting on the roof of the castle, and the doorways were flooded with people who had come in from the streets curious to see what was happening. I then took off my pointe shoes, and handed them to one of the ensemble members, who immediately put them on, and demanded I teach her how to tie them. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she took her first steps on pointe. The exchange was complete; I had given everything I had.
Dancing in a slave castle in Africa seemed the most unlikely place I would ever dance, yet it would provide the stage for the most satisfying and rewarding performance of my life. I left that day knowing that if I never danced again I would still consider my dancing career a success.