Dancing with Refugees
Expressing Feelings and Experiences
Since 2005, choreographer and dancer Taigué Ahmed and his organization Ndam Se Na have been organizing dance workshops in refugee camps in southern Chad. Sarah Israel spoke to him about dance as a language that connects everything.
What was it that inspired you to go into the camps and to dance with refugees there?
What leads me to the camps is a moment in my own history. For me, dance has become a medium that helps me to communicate with people. Through dance, I can express experiences that I would not be able to verbalize in any other way. The possibility of using dance to say something about oneself, one’s own feelings and views is not to be found in traditional dance, which was what I learnt first. Rather, it is contemporary dance that makes that possible. But in the workshops I feel it is important to start with tradition in order to show the participants that dance has something to do with them. It is part of their culture and can also become a means through which they can express themselves.
Do you use a particular technique in the workshops?
I don’t think it’s a technique, but a form of “giving oneself”. I present myself to the participants, tell them about myself, and show them dances I know. So they see that my culture is different to theirs and that gives us a basis on which to start a conversation: I’m a stranger to them and they’re strangers to me, but we can do something together.
What is important is to experience how each individual is feeling and the energy a group has. If I understand where aggressions and fears come from, I can begin to open up so as to give the participants the opportunity to open up. In the end, I am always searching for a technique, a methodology that supports my work. Every refugee has his or her own story. The question is how we deal with all these differences in the workshops.
You say that dance is not only art, it is also life and it is a means of temporarily forgetting the turmoil an individual has experienced. How does this forgetting work?
It is not only dance that leads people to forget. It is the interplay of dance, percussion and song. When someone dances to the rhythm of the drums and sings, his body submits and his head forgets what he has gone through for a moment. Dance leads the individual back to a moment when things were going well for him, when he was happy. After dancing together, the body remains relaxed and it is tired from the movements. Everyone goes home and can sleep well. That’s important because a lot of people in the camps can’t sleep. They can’t relax, can’t suppress their traumatic experiences.
That means the expression “escaping into dance” makes sense if it is understood to mean that dance becomes something that helps me to feel good?
Yes, though “escaping“ is not the right word. Dance allows you to relax and let go. Through it, one can temporarily forget and process experiences of war, flight or violence.
Can dance heal the body and the mind?
Maybe. At first, the refugees are not happy. They are people who have lived through times that traumatised them. Dancing together brings them into the present, it creates a specific moment. That may be the starting point for actively shaping the future. Through reviving the culture the refugees feel they have lost, we lead them to a new way of dealing with it. It is as if we were opening up the possibility of a retrospective view, but one that focuses on what was beautiful and not on the suffering.
Could you hold your workshops in camps where the refugees have a dance culture that you have not learnt yourself?
I see no problems there. When I go to people, I bring them dances that derive from my culture. They can learn them with me and have a good time with me. Then I ask them to show me their dances. I ask them to teach me steps they remember. They switch from being learners to teachers, and that helps them realise that they know something that makes them special. In the workshops that I have held for refugees in Munich, for example, the focus was much more strongly on exchange and joint learning than in the camps.
Is dance, then, more a means of integration than a way of forgetting and overcoming suffering?
Overcoming memories that completely tear the individual out of the present is something that takes place through the moving body. It is not just a question of returning to one’s own culture. If we talk about dance, we are talking quite generally about the human body. We are talking among other things about aching joints, a stiff back. How can a body that is cramped by traumatic experiences be opened up? The work I do with the body is part of what I understand to be healing or recovery through dance. The question of returning to a cultural tradition that is no longer practised is a different aspect.