A few days before her African dance class presentation, University of Colorado Boulder student Jessie DePasquale’s dance partner said she wouldn’t be there. Her teacher, Nii Armah Sowah, had put DePasquale in a group with only one other person, while other groups had 10. He challenged the two girls because they had taken the class already, and they listened to Sowah when he said, “You can see [this pairing] as a stumbling block where you will fall and not manifest your radiance, or you can use it as a stepping stone and shine.”
DePasquale wanted to shine, but dancing alone terrified her.
“I was like, I don’t want to go by myself. You can’t make me go in the middle of everyone and dance. I was a little freaked out,” DePasquale says. “But he said, ‘You have to go, you can’t join another group.’ I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
DePasquale contemplated the vulnerability of a solo dance, walking barefoot across a wooden dance floor in the CU-Boulder University Theater Building. She talked to classmates dressed in colorful traditional African pants or skirts tied around their waists, and the Ghanaian drummers who pumped the class with visceral rhythms. Sowah told her to “find her power” and to not be afraid.
But on the day of her performance, as she moved and clapped in a ring of encouragement around each dancing group, she had to make her decision.
“She stepped out,” Sowah says. “She took all the centers of her being — the emotional, the mental, physical, spiritual — and connected all of them. She expressed herself and, within moments of her stepping out, there was light. People started screaming. People went on the floor and started beating the floor. She danced from her soul.”
Sowah requires students in his class to learn each other's names. | Photo by Susan France
Sowah doesn’t consider himself a dance teacher, or even a teacher in general. His life’s work is healing and inspiring people to be better humans. Viewing dance as “the mother of the arts,” he studied and taught the art form at the University of Ghana’s School of Performing Arts. But he followed his true passion for human development in the early ’90s when he came to Boston to get a master’s degree in expressive arts therapies at Lesley University.
Though Sowah taught a dance class and garnered a small following that embraced his approach, Boston was an inhospitable environment for the Ghanaian.
“The East Coast was cold and socially it was colder. I arrived in a blizzard in my sneakers, airport closed, lost all my luggage except my handbag for a whole month with only $80 in my pocket. [I would get] lost in the street and nobody wanted to talk to me because I’m black,” Sowah says. “All of those things happened and I felt like I needed to go to a place where people were open. I don’t believe in going door-to-door begging people to listen to me. I needed to find people who were open and ready to go to Ghana.”
After hearing about the sunny weather and open-mindedness of Boulder, he made the move. Sowah now also runs his 1,000 Voices projects, a community choir, and also officiates weddings, supports fundraisers and even counsels families with adopted African children. He even says other Africans, like the drummers for his class, only moved to Boulder after hearing of his work in the area.
But one of the truest measures of Sowah’s success is through his African dance students at CU, who say that Sowah is doing more than just teaching.
Student Hannah Limov called Sowah's class "life-changing." | Photo by Susan France
“He’s giving us really important life lessons and giving us a safe space to explore our passions and our limits and our potentials, not only as dancers,” says Rosie Dooley, a sophomore environmental studies major. “It’s unlike any class I’ve taken in my life.”
“It’s been a life-changing class,” says Hannah Limov, a senior environmental studies and anthropology double major. “There are courses that can teach you knowledge and ideas about the world. But he says you have the power to be an integral part of a community.”
Creating a safe space for a community to blossom in a classroom is central to Sowah’s philosophy for education. Knowledge of every name in class is required so students can see their peers not just as bodies, but as fellow human beings, and students are divided into families that work on routines and cook together outside of class. Sowah invites the group to his house for storytelling, and even devotes a day to a class-wide pillow fight. Though Sowah’s class is a far cry from most conventional university classes, students say that the value of their lessons can’t be measured in letter grades.
“A lot of the time in class you don’t get to know people sitting next to you,” says Helen Katich, a geography and community studies major. “But he encourages friendship and interaction. You don’t just learn the steps and leave sweaty, you take something bigger away with you.”
Not only does this community make dance easier, but it also teaches about differences between cultural norms. In African culture more than in Western culture, dance, music and daily life flow between one another. By taking dance out of the traditional concert hall and repurposing it as everyday expression, Sowah says he hopes to transform his students into open, global citizens.
“If I put a basket on the wall, it’s beautiful, or if I put a dance on the stage, it’s beautiful,” Sowah says. “But the real place of a basket is carrying oranges. The real place of dance is living and feeling, not showing. It’s interacting. When you take that idea out of your education and you’re visiting any village, you’re aware of cultural values like this. Otherwise you just go without any desire to embrace or appreciate a different aesthetic.”
But the ultimate goal of Sowah’s class is the self-empowerment that DePasquale experienced during her solo dance. After she finished, she was shaking for a long time. By dancing so freely with the support of the community behind her, she says, she felt like a part of her had been healed. Later she met with Sowah to talk about what had happened.
“He believed in me,” DePasquale says. “He pushes students and challenges them, and the students who meet the challenges are greatly rewarded not only in class, but in life. I overcame my fears and it felt really good. The more I do things like that, the more I can do it in my life.”
For Sowah, he hopes every student discovers what DePasquale discovered that day.
“That is what I am talking about, finding your power and shining it,” Sowah says. “That is when you are living fully.”