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Friday, May 27, 2016

Pape Moussa Sonko of WAATO SiiTA

Pape Moussa Sonko. Photo: Richard Termine.
by David Hsieh

It is often said that dancing is an act of defying gravity. But watching the Senegalese dancer Pape Moussa Sonko, you sense that gravity is more like a trampoline, or energy he can harness so that every time he lands it propels him higher, or allows him to kick more fiercely or tap his feet faster. This month, the BAM audience has had two chances to see this phenomenal dancer. He was the backup dancer in BAM’s Youssou NDOUR concerts last weekend; this weekend, he takes center stage in DanceAfrica 2016

Sonko is the choreographer and lead dancer of Les Ballets de la Renaissance Africaine “WAATO SiiTA,” one of the two African companies in the 2016 DanceAfrica, which focuses on Senegal. WAATO SiiTA contrasts with the other Dakar-based company, Compagnie Tenane, a modern dance troupe. While core members of Tenane—the four Gomis sisters—studied with this year’s special guest: Germaine Acogny, often called “the mother of contemporary African dance,” Sonko didn’t need to seek instruction outside his family. 

Sonko dancing at Youssou NDOUR
at BAM. Photo: Jack Vartoogian.
“I grew up in a dance family,” Sonko said through interpreter Tamsir Sylla. His father, Bouly Sonko, was the artistic director of L’Ensemble national de Ballet, La Linguere [the princess] in Senegal and his mother was one of its original dancers. He grew up not doubting he would be a dancer. “My six brothers and eight sisters are all dancers or musicians,” he said. 

He was already a wonderful dancer when, in 2005, the Senegalese superstar came calling, literally. “Youssou first saw me in a music video of the singer Fatou Guewel. Then we were in a same performance at the Theatre National. I flew out with L’Ensemble to Japan immediately after the show. When I landed, there was a voicemail in my cell by Youssou. He wanted me to be in his annual Paris show at the Bercy arena. So I took the next flight out to Paris.”

He has since toured all over the world with NDOUR. Then in 2010, his father retired. Together they formed Les Ballets de la Renaissance Africaine. He named the company “WAATO SiiTA” which means “It’s about time” in Wolof. Sonko said, “It’s about time I stand on my own.”

Although based in traditional Senegalese drumming and dance, WAATO SiiTA is not completely tradition bound. “We are young, so we have an urban, contemporary twist.” Senegal has many ethnic groups, each with its own language, music, and dance style. Sonko draws inspiration from them all and has created his own fusion style. For instance, one of the dances in the show, Ballante, is a “crowning” dance. The soloist (Sonko) changes his crown from a two-horned one to a six-horned version at the end, signifying his newly gained prowess. 

“Dance is still very much intertwined with the Senegalese lives,” Sonko explained. There are still many rituals and custom accompanied by dance, such as Ndeupp, a healing/exorcism dance; Bam Naan, a rain prayer dance; and Ndan Rabbin, a fishermen’s dance.

WAATO SiiTA at BAM. Photo: Richard Termine.
In the five years since he started the company, it has grown to 53 regular dancers with many more who perform in certain shows or participate by taking classes. But it is hard running a privately funded company, said Sonko. “The local sponsorship is not able to grow as we do. WAATO SiiTA is almost entirely self-funded. We perform a lot. And I do a lot of work on my own.” It is not easy, but he is determined. “I believe I have a gift. I have confidence in myself. I know I can make it and am focused on achieving it.” 

You believe him after seeing him perform. He is a bit of an introvert privately but transforms into a star onstage as if he carries his own spotlight. He is a dancing Don Juan, seducing viewers with a mischievous sparkle in his eye and then winning them over with charisma. “When I dance, I feel I’m on top of the world. That’s what keeps me going. It’s spiritual nourishment. That’s what I have, what I know, what I do best.”

WAATO SiiTA performs at DanceAfrica 2016 Fri, May 27—Mon, May 30.

David Hsieh is a Publicity Manager at BAM. 


  1. credit given where credit due. respect for sure for this brother is outstandingly talented and dedicated to keeping his culture and artistic practice strong. I was blessed to see him perform with Youssou Ndour at Womadelaide 2015.


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