Dancing between cultures


West African Dance residency kicks off at Center

  • Fara Tolno has traveled to the Gunnison Valley for years to teach drums and dancing inspired by West African culture. Courtesy
    Fara Tolno has traveled to the Gunnison Valley for years to teach drums and dancing inspired by West African culture. Courtesy

After months of stay-at-home orders and sitting on the couch, there’s no better time to get moving. And a good place to start is the upcoming Afromodern drumming and dance classes coming to the Center for the Arts in Crested Butte this month.

The classes are part of a firstof-its-kind collaboration with the Center for the Arts and the Kissidugu Foundation to create a West African cultural enrichment residency.

The three-week residency kicks off Black History Month with classes on traditional Guinean dance, drumming and a dun-dun dance class with adult classes and classes for kids.

Envisioned by cultural enrichment advocates Angie Carroll and Sasha Chudacoff, the programming is in collaboration with renowned artist and educator Fara Tolno. Together, the trio will weave music, dance and dialogue for a month of immersion into the arts.

“There hasn’t been an allencompassing residency like this before;’ said Center for the Arts Associate Director Melissa Mason. “It’s a huge opportunity for people to get outside and get out of the house.”

The residency at the Center is possible in part because of the new dance studio spaces completed late last year. Larger studios and a significantly larger theater allow for in-person programming this winter.

“One of the things our new Executive Director Scott Palmer is bringing to the table is doing more of this at the Center for the Arts and bringing residents not just to perform in our community but to have a whole experience Mason said.

Tolno has traveled to the Gunnison Valley before to offer similar classes over the years. He was the lead drummer for the Ballet Merveilles of Guinea and earned his MFA at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Bringing the multi-talented artist back for more was no question, said Mason.

“Fara has a pretty huge following, and when he does things people flock to it,” Mason said.

Carroll, who has been at the helm of planning and programming, met Tolno more than 20 years ago in Guinea, West Africa.

After visiting Senegal and Guinea, Carroll was determined to learn more about the cultures of other places.

“When I came back to the states, I found a flyer from Fara,” Carroll said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I literally found a flyer for exactly what I want to do.’”

Carroll soon made the move to Boulder to work alongside Tolno and form what is now the Kissidugu Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to civic dialogue, education, cultural preservation and the perpetuation of Guinean music and dance.

Originally from Guinea, Tolno has worked in cultural arts education and exchange programs with students of all ages for more than 20 years.

And, in addition to the range of community classes, for the first two weeks of February Tolno will work with second and third grade classes at the Crested Butte and Gunnison community schools to bring traditional Guinean drumming and dancing.

Mason, who has children in elementary school, said the opportunity is invaluable.

The most fun for her kids has been the live virtual collaboration with children at the Kissidugu School in Guinea.

Just last week, Crested Butte students shared a video of skiing in the snow, something totally foreign to students in Guinea, Mason said.

Tolno will also be a guest lecturer for Western Colorado University undergraduate students throughout his residency, participating in an honors course that is focused on connection, classroom community, team-building skills and wellness.

That course will offer a glimpse of history through the lens of the arts and will follow the cultural influences and disparities spawned by the Atlantic Slave Trade.

“We want people to feel good but we also want people to see other lenses and cultures that could help them in their life,” said Tolno. “They can learn something good for their body that they can continue to use.”

Carroll said the chance to build deeper connections both in the community as well as in other countries is invaluable.

“Music and dance — it really does connect you,” Carroll said.

(Kate Gienapp can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or kate@gunnisontimes.com.)