Don't' expect to sit still in Zelma's class
Oct. 14, 2004
By Anita Martin
A drum pounds as I enter The Ridges Auditorium. Before I can take my seat, accompanist Agya Boakye-Boaten, waves me over.
"You here to play?" he asks me.
"No," I reply, "I'm here to write about Zelma."
He smiles. "Here," he says, holding out a handbell, "like this." With his left hand, he taps out a rhythm on his drum. It is reflex to him, like waking up. His drum he brought from Ghana.
Zelma Badu-Younge stands with her back to us on the auditorium floor before a dozen or so leotard-clad students of dance and African studies. She's wearing a pair of colorful print krugu pants, and her hair is pulled back. She begins to rotate her hips to the drumbeats. The students join in. Then she glances back to cue the accompanist, who in turn, glances at me. I strike my bell.
"All right," she says, "let's move!"
Badu-Younge joined Ohio University's School of Dance as an assistant professor a year ago. Assistant Professor of Dance Travis Gatling, who was Badu-Younge's predecessor at a performing arts school in Atlanta, looked her up when the School of Dance began searching for more faculty members. "We were trying to find opportunities to promote diversity in the dance curriculum, both stylistically and culturally," Gatling explains.
If it's diversity they want, Badu-Younge can deliver. A day before my debut as a handbell accompanist, I sat in her office and learned about her background. With a Ghanaian father, an Irish-Canadian stepfather, a grandfather from Jamaica and great-grandmother from India, she was brought up among a plurality of cultural perspectives. Even her early dance experience blended culture and movement. She received ballet training at the National Ballet School of Canada, L'Academie des Grands Ballet Canadiens, a school conducted purely in French. "Really understanding those French terms added another layer to the experience," she says.
When her family moved to New Jersey, her ballet instructor refused her a recommendation to a performing arts school, telling her to forget a future in dance because her feet were not flexible enough for pointe. She instead enrolled in a local school, where she joined the Modern Dance Club and began exploring different cultures and ways to move, including African dance. While she had considered becoming a doctor, she decided against medical school to continue her exploration of dance at Concordia University in Montreal. There she studied contemporary dance choreography while attending L'Academie de Ballet du Centre Ville on the side.
Badu-Younge describes this simultaneous study of the classical and the contemporary as "artistic schizophrenia." Where ballet commanded her to be rigid and precise, contemporary told her to let it all go. "Finally, I went up to the director and said, 'I don't know how to be here!' And she just said, 'Be yourself.' It was amazing! Someone was giving me permission to be who I am."
Concordia Director Elizabeth Langley continues to be a friend and mentor. "She taught me that I don't have to make the perfect product right from the start," Badu-Younge says. "She helped me to breathe."
Now, 18 years later, Badu-Younge is similarly respected by her own students.
"She is really supportive of growth in class," says Whitney Jacobs, a senior dance major. "There are many skill levels in class, and she understands that different people need different kinds of attention. You always feel welcome in class," she says.
"It's a challenge every single day," adds fellow dance major Mallory Butcher. "We have to move in new ways, with a lot of body isolation. She pushes us hard, but it's a challenge you can take to heart, because you can enjoy it. It's just about letting your body move and enjoying the fact that it's moving, even if it's never moved like that before."
Appropriate, coming from the student of a woman known for her artistic versatility. Badu-Younge dismisses classification almost playfully. "I seem to be able to mimic movement well," she says. "You can call it dance or you can call it movement. I love to find new ways to move."
Upon graduation from Concordia, Badu-Younge decided to give herself five years to "move" professionally. She performed with the Philadelphia Dance Company and New York City's Forces of Nature Dance Company. Exactly five years later, Badu-Younge returned to her studies. This time they took her halfway around the world. For both her master's and doctoral thesis research, she traveled to her father's village in Ghana.
"It's kind of a sad story," she says when I ask what inspired the trip. "I had lost touch with my father, and when we finally made contact again, he died right before we were supposed to meet."
For a trip sparked by loss, Badu-Younge gained a lot, especially in terms of family. Despite the cultural diversity of Ghana (dozens of languages are spoken, for instance), a sense of community prevails. Villagers honored her as a long-lost cousin.
"What you find there is people really communicating with one another, really connecting," she explains. "Once you are a part of the family, it doesn't matter where you are; you have a home."
Considering her background, it's no wonder Badu-Younge seeks a variety of cultural experiences. Dance ethnology is, in fact, a perfect union of her two life goals: dance and travel. "I always thought, 'I like to dance, but how can I see the world?' Every time I step out to go to another country, there are new inspirations and new ways to move," she says. "I can never get bored - there's always another culture to explore."
As much as Badu-Younge values dance and travel, a third mission - teaching - appears almost to have found her. "That seems to be the center of what I'm doing: to teach culture," Badu-Younge says. "I never expected it. I never set out to be a teacher. It just sort of happened."
In the Ridges Auditorium, Badu-Younge moves through the rows of dancers with a vibrant ease, adjusting body placement and demonstrating movement. She is teaching and dancing, and she moves as someone who has seen the real thing.
By now, the accompaniment is aided by song. "Bamaaya, bamaaya," sings Boakye-Boaten, MA '03, a doctoral student. The valley is wet, the valley is wet. The voices of the dancers respond in chorus, "Oyi ye-e o nyagboliya." Yes, our God, the valley is wet.
Badu-Younge and her students are rehearsing a dance from the Dagbamba ethnic group of Northern Ghana. The dancers have bells around their ankles and mokuro, or skirts of beads and cowrie shells, around their waists. Although driven by a pounding beat, the movement is oddly fluid. Their breathing is rhythmic and heavy, and they have fans in hand to cool themselves during pauses.
As I pound my handbell, I realize my foot is tapping and my body is swaying. At the end of class, everyone applauds: for their teacher, for themselves and for accompanist Boakye-Boaten (not to mention handbell assistants).
Badu-Younge shakes my hand and thanks me for participating in class. I realize that her class is consistent with her description of Ghana: "People really communicating with one another, really connecting." It is equally clear that Badu-Younge's life is a network of connections, among cultures and countries, people and art, all driven by an inexhaustible desire to move.
This story appeared in the fall 2004 edition of Ohio Today. Anita Martin, BSJ '05, is an exchange student in the University's Education Abroad program Europe in the World this academic year.