In the Loop
Student Stories : Feb 15, 2018

Lessons in happiness and humility in West Africa

SOTD student spends summer in Guinea to study African dance

By Coral Dixon

Fourth-year Bachelor of Fine Arts dance major Denzel Williams traveled to Guinea in West Africa last summer to learn more about African dance.

He was encouraged by his mentor, Senior Lecturer in African Performing Arts Mohamed Dacosta, and Professor of Dance Dr. Joan Frosch to apply for a program that allows School of Theatre + Dance students to travel abroad for experiential learning.

Williams, who specializes in West African dance, lived with one of Dacosta’s family members in Conakry, Guinea. He took dance classes from morning until evening Monday through Thursday and was free to explore on the weekends.

“I was there for 21 days. I want to go back so bad,” Williams said.

His time in Guinea impacted not just his dance education but also his perspective on life.

“From this experience I learned a lot about humility,” Williams said. “The kids were so happy with the little they had.”

The children in the neighborhood could identify Williams as an American by the clothes he wore and were immediately welcoming and kind to him. Williams taught the children some English, including a few songs.

“The kids would be at our doorstep waiting for us to come home,” Williams said. “One day we gave them a soccer ball, and afterwards I went into the house and just started crying because it was insane how excited they were for a 60-cent ball.”

Williams reflected on his own life in the United States, thinking about how much he had and how wasteful he is in comparison to people living in Guinea.

“I’m very grateful for the experience because it taught me to be grateful for everything I have,” Williams said.

Williams traveled throughout the country during excursions on weekends and learned about West African culture through firsthand experience.

“In that culture, theatre and dance is vital. It’s ingrained in their school systems and their everyday practice,” Williams said. “Dance is a part of their lifestyle, whereas [in the U.S.], dance is almost seen as a novelty.”

Williams was one of three School of Theatre + Dance students who received funding provided by the Friends of Theatre + Dance to travel abroad last summer.

A volunteer non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Florida, the Friends of Theatre + Dance provide invaluable support in order to advance the school’s mission and goals.

Chris Morris, an alumna of the University of Florida and a Friend of Theatre + Dance, knows that the arts are vital to education.

“I believe that experiences in the arts are educationally essential for developing critical thinking, analytical abilities, creative outlooks and cultural understanding. I know that the opportunity to travel adds positive and life-changing depth to our students' educations,” Morris said.

Williams’s deeper understanding of the West African culture continues to enhance his education in dance.

“The experience changed my moving body. That’s what my teachers told me, that I move so differently because I went there,” Williams said.

Williams is currently auditioning for companies and hopes to continue working in an African form of dance.

The Friends of Theatre + Dance continue to provide opportunities for students to learn from other cultures in order to deepen their understanding of their art form. The organization funds scholarships, provides program support and fosters community patronage and participation for the School of Theatre + Dance.

“I joined the Friends because it was an opportunity to deepen the educational experiences for UF theatre and dance students,” Morris said. “[The students] grew to have a broader understanding of other peoples, other cultures and other living situations. Their own self confidence was strengthened as they realized that they could navigate new worlds. Their art forms were enhanced as they added new dimensions to their repertoires.”