Germaine Acogny on Choosing to Be the Chosen One

In it, Ms. Acogny recites from “Discourse on Colonialism,” a caustic 1955 essay by the Martinican activist and intellectual Aimé Césaire. It’s a passage about how colonizers (like the French in Senegal), in thinking of the colonized as beasts, become beasts themselves.


Ms. Agocny’s school, École des Sables (School of the Sands), in a fishing village in Senegal.

Helmut Vogt

But, to choose among issues, doesn’t a French male choreographer imposing his vision on an African female performer risk replicating the colonial relationships that the Césaire text condemns?

Presented with that question in a recent phone interview, Ms. Acogny, speaking from Senegal, laughed but calmly rejected the premise. “It’s not colonization,” she said. “It’s my choice.”

Choosing How to Move

Being inside the “pagan story” of “Rite,” she explained, was a way of honoring her ancestors, particularly her father’s mother, a Yoruba priestess she never met. When a dove appeared at Ms. Acogny’s birth, her family saw it as a sign of this grandmother’s return.

Many of Ms. Acogny’s shows have addressed that African heritage. But it was in Paris, where she was studying to be a physical education teacher, that she discovered dance as a discipline. The year was 1962, and after three years of training in harmonic gymnastics (a now defunct French method), ballet and modern dance, she returned to her newly independent homeland and looked at African dance and its surrounding culture with new eyes, learning as much as she could.

Not everything appealed to her. When her husband took a second wife, she demanded a divorce. To support herself and her two children, she began teaching dance in her backyard. Soon, she created her first solo. “It was a way…

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