The moment the Sarakasi dancers and acrobats appear on stage, one feels their pulsating, vibrant energy. The dancers bound onto the stage exuding graceful athleticism often associated with world-class acts like Cirque du Soleil, yet exhibiting a uniqueness that has come to be recognized as the Sarakasi (which means “circus or acrobatics” in Kiswahili) dance style.
In a relatively new city such as Nairobi, the urban culture is evolving in leaps and bounds. An interview with Marion van Dijck, co-founder of Sarakasi Trust, explains how Sarakasi got started and how it is influencing Nairobi’s urban culture.
Sheila Kamunyori: How did you get the idea to start Sarakasi Trust?
Marion van Dijck: One day at a birthday party for my kids I met an acrobatic group and I was really blown away by their enthusiasm. Then we did some research and realized there were many acrobat groups. We found that they were undercutting one another, with very few jobs and very many groups. They expressed the need to get organized and have somebody help them. So that’s really why we started Sarakasi. We got a small grant from the Ford Foundation and we founded the Trust.
SK: Aside from developing performing arts, what contribution do you think Sarakasi is making to Nairobi’s urban culture?
MvD: It looks like Nairobi is built along different economies and communities which might be along ethnic lines or economic lines or whatever you want to call it. That is something that I noticed really from the beginning and was something that intrigued me in a way, like why is that?
We want to make sure that everyone knows that they are welcome and everyone who walks in through this door is equal – that’s how we work here. Even during the post-election violence, we had all the tribes coming here, but when you are here, don’t even think about which tribe you are, you are an acrobat, a dancer or a musician, and that is what counts.
I think we have an impact. I think especially when you go to the middle to lower income areas and if you walk around and ask “do you know Sarakasi?”, I think everybody knows Sarakasi.
SK: Tell me more about the evolution of the Sarakasi dance style.
MvD: What we have been doing the last couple of years is fusing dance with acrobatics. Acrobats get dance classes; dancers get acrobatic classes. And we have a big cultural exchange program going on at the same time so we are sending out trainees, and receiving trainees, so there is a lot of cross-fertilization, people learning from each other.
We started off quite traditional 12 years ago, and now its very African contemporary. Our dancers are city kids like a city kid in Johannesburg, in Amsterdam, New York City or Rio. Yes, our dance still has roots in African tradition because of course we are Kenyan, but (the dancers) are also urbanized and (have) lots of influence from TV and music they listen to, which is mostly reggae and hip hop, and you see that reflected in how they dance. It’s an outlet for their creativity and the person they are. You cannot expect the dancers even to be motivated by very traditional dance anymore. We let that happen because it is their dance and their expression. You see the personalities coming out. And that’s come out as our brand.
I should call it Sarakasi African contemporary actually.
This article forms part of Urban Africa’s Urban Reporting Series.
Watch the Sarakasi performers at the TRIP en masse Kenya contemporary dance show 2013.
Headline image: Kevin Sabuni.
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