Image Source: arabesquedance.ca
African Artists: Meet Dancer/Choreographer Saba Alemayehu Asfaw
"In North America, most people have been exposed to various types of West African Dance, which are unique and beautiful. Nouvel Exposé's goal is to show that there is more to Africa than what people frequently see. We do this by performing and teaching such dances as Ethiopian, Congolese and Eritrean."
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First published: July 3, 2006
Every once in a while we are acquainted with a story of an immigrant who makes a difference in the Western world landscape. Ethiopian-born, Toronto, Canada resident Saba Alemayehu Asfaw is one of them. Not only is she blessed with the signature Ethiopian good looks, but she is also a very talented, hardworking, ambitious young woman. When I first met her in 2000, the group Nouvel Exposé, which she now manages, was just starting out. Yet six years later, it is one of the most recognized and highly sought out African, Toronto-based professional performing dance groups on the Canadian scene. Together with Ugandan-born Savahna Obol Ochola, the founder of Nouvel Exposé, they were able to transform the group from obscurity to notoriety with Congolese Soukous, West African, Hip Hop, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Egyptian, Ugandan, Belly Dances as well as Modern African Beat/Afro-Jazz, Latin, and Caribbean dances.
Saba Alemayehu Asfaw.
Image Source: dancersatwork.com
Saba Alemayehu Asfaw is also a teacher, dancer and choreographer for Nouvel Exposé Dance Troupe, shaping this young company's aspirations. Nouvel Exposé Dance Troupe aims to bring the less frequented dances of Africa to the fore-front. Its name, French for "New Exposure", signifies the troupe's goal to depict, preserve, and add to the rich dances of African cultures. Alemayehu Asfaw has choreographed and performed dances for the song Be Easy by Canadian musician Massari, Mick Jagger's (Rolling Stones) Birthday 2005, Papa Wemba Concert Opening at Festival Bana y'Africa 2004, Afrofest, Planet Africa TV Awards, Royal Ontario Museum Egypt Exhibition 2004, Madagascari musician Donne Robert CD Launch and the Miss AfriCanada Pageant.
To say that Alemayehu Asfaw is an excellent dancer is an understatement. Another interesting aspect about this brilliantly talented dancer is the fact that she is a web and graphics designer as well. She is definitely the brains, body and beauty package all wrapped up in one.
Sources used for some of the above: myurbanprofile.com
Jane: Who is Saba Alemayehu Asfaw? Where were you born? What is your heritage? Tell us a little about your childhood and how you were raised.
Saba: I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I grew up with exposure to the diversity of the world through many influences; my family who come from all walks of Ethiopian life, my elementary school – the Indian National School, my high school - International Community School, Franklin & Marshall College in the middle of Amish country, Pennsylvania, and the media. I come from a family that aspired for the go-education-get-safe-career life, but somehow all three of us kids ended up as artists... Only to later learn that my father Alemayehu Asfaw has been a secret poet for the longest time. Now I'm in Toronto – the model city for multiculturalism... In retrospect, it all seems to fit together, but I could never tell at the time. Who I am is the possibility of passion and freedom.
What is your philosophy in life?
Really, there are no answers, only questions; so there's no point judging and concluding. The meaning of life is what you make it. Give and then you can get.
How did you meet Ugandan-born Savahna Ochola the Founder of Nouvel Exposé?
I had just come to Canada and was still searching for a serious African dance group to work with when I saw Nouvel Exposé at the 2000 Music Africa Awards. The crew represented what I wanted to do and I was wondering how I could get in touch with them. Savahna was the founder. She brought together girls from the Miss AfriCanada Pageant to form this group. Soon after that show, I was in a meeting with a High Life band that was looking for dancers to join its team when Savahna walked in with another dancer, Joliba. Well, I've been with Nouvel Exposé since.
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000.
You are the teacher, dancer and choreographer for Nouvel Exposé Dance Troupe. To date, Nouvel Exposé has produced pieces featuring various Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese, Egyptian, West African and Hip Hop dances. Please tell us more about your involvement with Nouvel Exposé in your own words?
My involvement with Nouvel Exposé has grown to enable me to shape the vision and mission of the company. Since meeting Savahna, I started my work with learning the choreographies Nouvel Exposé was working on. I had been looking forward to developing some Ethiopian dance pieces, so I started teaching the dancers and adding new choreographies. Savahna and I shared management of the group for a while until her travels made it difficult for her to focus on it. Thus, I now manage the group with the help of Helena Alemayehu Asfaw and Tifishet Takele.
Helena Alemayehu Asfaw(L) and Tifishet Takele(R).
How long has dancing been a passion for you?
All my life!! As a kid, I grew up dancing in front of the television, imitating whatever dance I saw from the many African music and dance programs which Ethiopian TV broadcast. This way I was able to learn many of the Ethiopian dances and have an idea of what else is out there in the rest of Africa. I used to put on shows for my uncle Moges whenever he visited. Summer time was crazy with my siblings and cousins Rasselas, Helena, Rodas and Yacobi, when we would turn up the music and freestyle or attempt to choreograph dances. I laugh now because I never thought I would grow to do that professionally. I did some school shows in high school, but in the last 10 years since going to college and studying West African dance with Sonya Mann-MacFarlane, I saw how far I could go... so I'm going...
You manage to fuse African dancing with hip hop dancing and belly dancing. Where did you learn all of these various styles?
Saba Alemayehu Asfaw.
I started taking Hip Hop classes in Canada at National Dance of Canada and DLM. I studied from teachers like Luther Brown[a choreographer for Honey], Ron Bedeau[a dancer for Honey], Danny Davalos, Kwame & Tuch (of Do Dat Entertainment), Katarina Rajkovic (of Dance Kraze Productions). I studied Belly dance with Yasmina Ramzy and Denise Mireau at Arabesque and have done workshops with renown dancers like Aida Nour, Momo Kodus, Magdy El-Leisy and Aziza.
Luther Brown(L) and Danny Davalos(R)
Source: One Immigrant Productions
My African dance studies have been less structured as the styles I look for are not yet established here as schools and studios like the rest. While in college in the States, I studied West African dance with Sonya Mann-MacFarlane of Imani Edutainers. I did some workshops with MBemba Bangoura, Fode Bangoura and others. Savahna had influence on my Soukous dance and I continue to work with Congolese artists like Joseph (Pekoce) Nsukula, Moto, Patou Bokelo whenever I get a chance. I recently had a chance to do a studio practice with singers of Zaiko Langa Langa, which was fantastic. As always, music and dance videos continue to be important inspirations and references.
Was it hard for you to learn Ugandan dances?
I haven't had much experience in Ugandan dance actually so I can't really say. I have tried a few movements, which I found were similar to other styles I do, so those were not difficult.
Talking about training, your CV mentions that you received training at the National Ballet of Ivory Coast, PA, USA. Can you please tell us more about that?
It actually was not at the Ballet in Ivory Coast. At the time, I was attending Franklin & Marshall College and dancing with the school's African Dance Group led by Sonya Mann-McFarlane of Imani Edutainers. She had invited the director of the Ivory Coast Ballet including dancers and musicians to come do a series of workshops and shows in Lancaster. It was amazing for me because what they brought with them was traditional dance but with a more contemporary element to it. In addition, even if I had been studying West African dance for a while at the time, it still felt foreign to me. Through the Ivorians' explanation and movement, I could see relation between Ivorian and Ethiopian dances and drama. It's through these workshops that I started relating to West African genres more.
What has been your greatest achievement as a dancer?
Being able to open at least one person's eyes to something different, something new, something they did not think existed or was possible.
You are currently a Middle Eastern dance teacher and lead dancer with Arabesque Dance Academy & Company. How did you get that gig?
Saba Alemayehu Asfaw.
I'd say I was partly lucky and partly grew into it. In 2001, started studying Bellydance at Arabesque just out of curiosity; not thinking that I'd be serious about it someday. I used to watch Egyptian dance on Ethiopian TV as a kid and always had wanted to learn it. It was weird because the more I learned Bellydance the more it felt like something I already knew but had forgotten so that I had to refamiliarize myself with it. After a while of studying with Denise Mireau and Yasmina Ramzy, Arabesque was looking to add some apprentices to the performing company and Denise recommended me to be one of them. It's been on since! Teaching happened similarly where I started by subbing in when teachers had to be away. Then I had a couple regular classes and so on. Yasmina also has a teacher training for Arabesque so that helped with getting me started.
What difficulties have you met in pursuing your career?
My previous challenge was a dilemma: After school, I was working fulltime as a web designer while dancing and could not decide which way to go for a long time. I had fears of family disappointments, injuries and was not sure where the career would lead me. Now, I've realized that I cannot live without dance; I've given myself to it. So my current challenge is balancing everything so I can have it all. I'm now self-employed as a Web and Graphics designer so I can have more flexibility to continue dance.
What did your parents think when you initially started dancing professionally?
My parents thought it was just one of those phases I'd grow out of eventually when I get serious about life. Well they've now noticed I've grown into it instead so have come to accept it. They support what I do regardless; it's just that they worry, just like any parent, that I should have a lucrative career with no worries for the rest of my life.
There is no such a thing as a job which provides one with no worries for the rest of our lives..
Well, you know how parents tend to think. Following the arts is considered a luxury.
How is the Ethiopian Canadian community reacting to your rising fame and talent?
The Ethiopian Canadian community is proud of me and Nouvel Exposé. There was a bit of hesitation and skepticism regarding how to take us in the beginning - For all they knew we could have been another community group that would disappear after a couple of shows. But that hasn't happened; we've been around for about 6 years strong. People are happy to see our dancers of so many backgrounds performing Ethiopian dance, which is something a lot them thought impossible. We take Ethiopian dance to so many audiences and educate others away from the media stereotypes as well... so they are proud.
What was it like to perform at Mick Jagger's (Rolling Stones) birthday in 2005?
It was crazy. I was dancing with my Arabesque friends Mary and Voula as well as girls from two other groups. We had gotten a last minute call to go do a show with no info about what or who it was for till after we arrived. It was hard to believe until we actually were on dance floor interrupting the band's rehearsal and the whole Rolling Stones crew was all around us confused and smiling. It was a surprise for all of us. (Laughs)
So what's the Rolling Stones crew like?
Mick Jagger's crew - Well it's tough to get a real sense of what people are like when you're with them for such a rushed and short period of time. The security and business people around the band were, well, very much about business. As for the band, we were interrupting their rehearsal, during which they seemed very organized and focused on making the best of their music. At the same time, they seemed like a fun-loving bunch... after all they are the Rolling Stones!
What about Massari?
R and B Sensation Massari.
Massarii! Massari's got eyes!!!!
Massari with dancers: Saba on the extreme right.
So many women say. I guess then it should be illegal for him to wear sunglasses.
Who designs your costumes?
Who designs our costumes? Depends on which ones you ask about. We're grateful for the many heads, hands and pockets responsible for the Nouvel Exposé wardrobe. Tifishet designed the last couple we've gotten made. I designed some of the others. Usually we try to get everybody's input so we can get the best idea out of all. My friend from Arabesque, Mary Petsoulas, one of our previous dancers Chemagn Martin as well as Veronica Fashions have helped us with making some of our costumes. My mom, Tifishet's aunt and mom and other friends have also helped by bringing/sending us costumes and jewellery from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Saikou's African Drums & Art Crafts and Amira & Abdul of Ethiopian Spices are also responsible for some of our colors.
Are there any stereotypes about African dancing that you come across?
North America is used to traditional West African dance where it's performed over live drums. It's a style of dance Africans and African-Canadians/Americans have been developing here for a long time. People are not used to the different movements, dress and styles of music from other parts of the continent. There's also the idea of African dance being traditional; people forget that Africans, like the rest of the world, move forward with the times, new ideas prosper and dances change. For some it's a totally foreign idea to think of dance from Ethiopia for example, because all they hear about the country (or the continent for that matter) is far from anything to do with the arts.
I am glad you are pointing that out. How about the business end of your career? How do you handle and manage that?
Let's say I had to learn it on the job as I didn't have a real teacher for this part and neither did I take formal business classes. Savahna helped in the beginning and once Nouvel Exposé was getting set up as a company, I had to do a lot of research. There was a time when I could do most of it myself, but many heads are better than one so the Nouvel team takes on some of it as well. Thanks to the Internet, it's easier to work, research, market and keep in touch with our people as a result.
What advice would you give to aspiring black dancers who are trying to break into show business?
Train train train. It doesn't come on its own even if you may have natural talent. Whether it be with teachers, videos, practicing in your room... whatever works for you. Versatility is very important in this day for dancers. Dance is always changing and taking inspiration from many styles. To develop your own voice and style, you also need to see and learn as much as possible. The other key is get out there and get to know people. Just like any other business in this world, who you know and who knows you makes a big difference.
Which dance style are you most proud of?
Tough question – I can't pick. I have moods for different styles at any given time. They all have their own voice and stories; they've lived through all the highs and lows carried down by many spirits. I have to say I'm proud of dance and all the people who keep it alive through tearful eyes and war zones as well as through wild parties and joyful celebrations.
And what will be next for Saba Alemayehu? What is your next road? Where do you think Canadians will continue hearing your name?
What's next for me is to continue... continue to grow as an artist – both as a dancer and a designer. I continue to learn through traveling and collaborating with other artists and teachers. I continue to grow Nouvel Exposé towards more classes, new inspirations and great productions. We're going to continue what we started last year - African Dance Weekend events every November featuring various dance teachers. I want to be known as one who grows and provides opportunities for others to do the same…
Saba Alemayehu Asfaw.
For more information on Saba Alemayehu Asfaw, please go to www.sabasabina.com
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First published: July 3, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.